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June 6, 2022 | 4 Mins Read

Leading Change Vs. Leading Innovation

June 6, 2022 | 4 Mins Read

Leading Change Vs. Leading Innovation


By Sarah Nicastro, Creator, Future of Field Service

I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Linda Hill, researcher, professor of business administration, and chair of the Leadership Initiative at Harvard Business School, speak in late 2019 at the IFS World Conference in Boston. I found not only her insights but her passion for her work very compelling and have been following her on social media ever since. 

Not long ago, Dr. Hill was a guest on Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead podcast – and I will pause here to tell you that reading my write-up on one of the points they discussed is no substitute for going immediately to listen to the full episode. The discussion was around “Leading with Purpose in the Digital Age,” and throughout Dr. Hill shares a wealth of perspectives she gleaned while conducting research and writing her book Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation (named one of the 20 best business books by Business Insider). 

Being a fan of both women’s content and work, it was super interesting for me to hear them become more aware of the ways in which what they each do intersect (Dr. Hill being focused on business leadership and innovation; Brené being well known for her work on vulnerability, courage, and creativity – both as individuals and as leaders). In a nutshell, they arrive early on in the conversation that success – or failure – with digital transformation and innovation has little to do with technology and a whole lot to do with people (and human interaction, communication, company culture, etc.). I was suppressing screams of “YESSSS!” while listening, because of course I hear this exact point play out on a very regular basis. 

Again, in the episode, they dig in to so many topics that are valuable to go and hear firsthand – digital literacy, power dynamics, creating a culture of change, how to fuel innovation, how to lead well in relation to all of these things, and much more. But in addition to sharing a resource that I think is an excellent listen for you all, the one point I wanted to touch on here briefly is the wisdom Dr. Hill shares on the differences between leading change and leading innovation. 

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Historically, we’ve looked at leadership as a whole. Is the leader a good leader? Are they empathetic, do they have high emotional intelligence? But in today’s business landscape, the reality is that digital transformation and immense disruption have created the need for us to better define how to lead based on what it is we’re trying to accomplish. In the episode, many of the emotional struggles Brené picks up on Dr. Hill speaking about are created by ambiguity. This ambiguity can be cleared by better defining what type of leaders we need in which areas and phases of the business, and what skills make for success based on our goals.

Dr. Hill says, “Leading innovation and leading change are different. When you lead change, you have a vision, and you are trying to inspire people to follow you to the future. When you’re trying to innovate, you don’t actually have a vision. You can’t inspire people to get there because you don’t know where you’re going. What you have is a purpose, and a purpose is why you’re going and what you’re trying to do versus where.”

Just based on this clarification, you can begin to see why there’s no universal fit for leadership. What makes a leader very strong at driving change and another successful at spawning innovation are very different, and it is highly unlikely that a leader would be skilled in both ways. 

Dr. Hill adds, “Innovation is about how you get people to co-create the future with you, not follow you to the future. It’s a very different process. So, what’s co-creation about, versus vision and followership? We need to build the capacity to collaborate, which his about diversity and difference. The other piece is can we experiment and learn together? Can we adapt and pivot when we need to? This is about culture and capabilities – being able to flex those muscles.” Dr. Hill shares that she’s working on a new book, Scaling Genius, that digs further into this topic. 

Perhaps your focus is on digital transformation, and if so, knowing how to lead change well and inspire your employees to embrace your vision is important. Or maybe you’re looking to encourage larger innovation, and if so, you need not only different leadership skills but likely different organizational structures, accounting measures, and working processes to succeed. Many companies are working simultaneously on both, and then it becomes increasingly important to know what type of leadership works best where. We know that people and culture are the crux of what makes us successful, so gaining clarity on what types of strong leaders are best suited to spearhead your goals is very important.