Become a breakthrough leader

In an unpredictable world, organisations need flexible and fearless leaders who can adapt to change. Instead of relying on gradual, incremental improvements and outmoded leadership models, these individuals drive breakthrough innovation by embracing a new way to lead.

These daring, imaginative, agile organisations have daring, imaginative, agile leaders. The results speak for themselves, with 78 percent of Breakthrough Brigade respondents generating at least £10 billion in annual revenue.

Lead by example

Leadership decisions are critical to organisational success. When leaders stagnate, so does the business. Our research found that the priorities of leaders and the wider business were twice as likely to conflict in Incrementalist organisations than in the Breakthrough Brigade. Yet although all respondents recognised the need for breakthrough innovation, 73 percent continue to prioritise efficiency and cost reduction.

Breakthrough leaders are bold and brave. They build diverse teams where experiments are encouraged, and failure is accepted as part of the process. They actively dismantle tired hierarchies and are ready to do things differently, even if it means going against the grain.

By combining our breakthrough innovation research with the findings of our international leadership study, A New Way to Lead, we’ve identified five key attributes of breakthrough, reviver leaders:

1. Vision

Our leadership study identified two cohorts of decision-makers – survivors and revivers. Reviver leaders, representing 56 percent of respondents, are courageous, proactive, and optimistic. Survivor leaders are less flexible, exercising caution over courage. Survivor leadership styles can present a barrier to growth. Our breakthrough innovation research found that one third (32 percent) of respondents felt that leaders in their organisation lack the vision and passion to deliver breakthrough innovation. One fifth said leadership vision and commitment was a barrier to transformational change.

Stakeholders increasingly seek visionary leaders who dare to be different and invest resources – time, space, and spend – in novel methods and ideas. Instead of simply joining the dots, visionary leaders paint with a new colour palette and encourage others to do the same. They are willing to experiment, break norms, and push limits to change the game.

For example, our work with Ørsted, a Danish multinational power company, helped its leaders push through their comfort zone and transition from black to green energy. Ørsted is now the global leader in wind power, with a 30 percent market share.

2. Empowerment

Effective leaders nurture human optimism, empowering people to share and develop new ideas with confidence. These leaders understand the importance of psychological safety, creating inclusive and accepting environments where teams can suggest improvements, make mistakes, and challenge the status quo without negative consequences.

Just as leaders need to adopt new modes of working and approach challenges in new ways, so too do the individuals within their teams. By catalysing their internal disruptors – their ‘rebels’ – leaders encourage experimental thinking and drive breakthrough innovation. Breakthrough leaders recruit and retain diverse teams who rally to the cause.

3. Purpose

As awareness of sustainability and ethical concerns grows, a coherent and relevant organisational purpose has never been more important. Our research into leadership behaviours revealed that purpose is paramount. Four in five respondents (79 percent) stated that employees, customers, and investors look to them to demonstrate behaviours that drive wider social value, while 71 percent agree that purpose creates a unifying sense of optimism and creativity. A clear purpose also drives recruitment and retention, aligning with individuals’ commitments.

Purpose drives breakthrough innovation by focusing teams on a common and often critical goal. With a clear and meaningful purpose in mind, individuals can focus their energy, feel inspired, and know that what they do will have a big impact. For example, we collaborated with the Vaccine Taskforce to shape, lead and deliver a range of projects that enabled the UK to launch one of the first and fastest vaccine rollouts in the world.

4. Flexibility

When faced with disruptive forces, robust and resilient leaders see opportunity. As tried-and-tested models are cannibalised by new and entirely different ways of working, leaders need to shapeshift alongside changing environments. They need to embrace liminal spaces, getting comfortable with the ‘messy middle’ where breakthrough ideas often flow more freely. Rather than thinking across Horizon 1 (the short term), breakthrough leaders (and their rebels) consider Horizons 2 and 3 (the mid and long-term). They know that future possibilities can fast become reality, and they are able to capitalise on the new while being mindful of the old. The most flexible leaders actively seek inspiration, often in surprising places, and reimagine existing processes ahead of or mid-change.

To accelerate the digital journey of high street hospitality retailer Pret A Manger, we built a flexible delivery team with a diverse range of capabilities including deep digital and e-commerce expertise. The joint team oversaw a complete digital transformation including the design and launch of Pret’s new digital customer experience, which enabled the delivery of its award-winning Coffee Subscription service.

5. Authenticity

Effective leaders are authentic leaders. They prioritise trust and transparency, both within and beyond their organisation. COVID-19 pandemic-related alterations have increased the need for authentic, kind leaders who develop healthy teams and support individuals as human beings. Authentic leadership is crucial to culture, and culture is key – one fifth of breakthrough innovation respondents say company culture gets in the way of breakthrough innovation. Leaders who take an honest, human approach transform organisational culture, enhance interactions, and maximise the potential for breakthrough ideas to emerge.

By embracing a new way to lead, leaders can unlock breakthrough innovation through empowerment, purpose, vision, flexibility, and authenticity. To cultivate the most effective leadership approach, assess yourself and your fellow leaders against the dimensions of breakthrough leadership, and plan to close the gaps through development and selection. With the right leadership approach, every organisation has the potential to turn its bold and brave ideas into purposeful, long-term growth.

About the authors

Rachael Brassey
Rachael Brassey Global Head of People and Change

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