3 Types (Levels) of Innovation Leaders

Corporate Innovation Management
Knowledge Center


Jaap de Jonge
Editor, Netherlands

3 Types (Levels) of Innovation Leaders

🔥NEW Each phase in leading and structuring an innovative firm has its own challenges. From founding an entrepreneurial firm to leading a start-up to managing the firm through its various growth phases.

Organizing and leading innovation in a LARGE firm is at least equally challenging. It’s particularly important and hard to achieve a proper balance between the needs for creativity and for control:
- CREATIVITY to empower the scarce entrepreneurial forces and talent;
- CONTROL to establish the required internal controls and avoid chaos.

Professor Ancona et al. are doing research at MIT Sloan on organizational excellence in innovation in large firms. In a recent article, they mention that establishing multidisciplinary teams and a bottom-up spirit of experimentation are well-known ingredients, but they focus on what types of innovation leaders are needed in such agile enterprises. Ancona c.s. found that large, agile organizations typically seem to have 3 types of innovation leaders:

  1. ENTREPRENEURIAL LEADERS. These are located typically in lower levels of the organization. They create new products/services and collectively they move the company into new areas. They typically exhibit 3 qualities:
    - Self-confidence and a willingness to act
    - A strategic mindset
    - An ability to attract others
  2. ENABLING LEADERS. These are located typically in the middle of the organization. They facilitate the entrepreneurial leaders, ensuring they have the money, resources and information they need. They typically exhibit 3 key skills:
    - Coaching and development
    - Connecting
    - Communicating
  3. ARCHITECTING LEADERS. These are located typically near the top of the organization. They have the helicopter view (vision) of the external environment, all innovation areas and projects, and are involved in required changes in organizational culture, strategy and organization structure.
Combined with a culture that fosters innovation and resilience at the same time and a shared belief that decision-making should rest with the person who is best positioned to exercise it (decentralization), these 3 types of "nimble leaders" allow the organizations to balance freedom and control.

In my experience the types are indeed appropriate high-level profiles of typical innovation leaders/managers in large firms. Probably the Visionary Leader could be added as a possible fourth innovation leader type (think of a someone like Steve Jobs†).

⇨Do you agree with these innovation leader types? What other "variants" do you see around you?

Deborah Ancona, Elaine Backman and Kate Isaacs, "Nimble Leadership: Walking the Line Between Creativity and Chaos", HBR Jul-Aug 2019, pp. 74-83
Govindarajan, Trimble, "Ten Rules for Strategic Innovators - from Idea to Execution"


David Wilson
Manager, Canada

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@David Wilson: What exactly do you mean with power wielders and -yielders? @Victor Manuel Meneses T... Sign up

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@Jaap de Jonge: Visionary leaders are often charismatic and they can be seen to use formal and infor... Sign up

Peter Cristea
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@Peter Cristea: I agree and my experience is the same: Without strong, active and sustained top leve... Sign up

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