Should Leaders Be Innovators, Too?

Winston Churchill was not only a great leader but his inventions and ideas helped win World War II. Why don’t we know that side of him? Should other leaders be expected to be innovative too?

Once a week or oftener Mr. Churchill came to the office bringing with him some adventurous or impossible projects; but after half an hour’s discussion something was evolved which was still adventurous but not impossible, said one of his Home Office aides.

Few people think of Winston Churchill as a great innovator or inventor. But the reality is that he produced a constant stream of ideas for inventions, some impractical but many both useful and realistic — often unconventional but always imaginative. He foresaw the enormous destructive power of the atomic bomb, for example, nearly 20 years before it was invented.

On one occasion he delayed the beginning of an emergency War Cabinet meeting to present his model of an anti-aircraft homing rocket — an early version of the surface-to-air missile. Do you think this is the time for showing off toys? one minister complained to a colleague.

Like all innovators, Churchill repeatedly had to overcome the usual organizational resistance to change — the not-invented-here syndrome.

But innovation is most needed in times of rapidly-changing circumstances… Overcoming resistance to change and innovation requires a full measure of forcefulness by a leader.

A lesson in leadership from a great leader?

As I am busy reading mid-term papers from my MBA students on What Leaders Need Most, I haven’t encountered any yet which included innovation.

Keep in mind these students are smart, savvy and sometimes very experienced in business. Is it because we simply don’t expect much in the way of innovation from the top? Have we convinced ourselves that innovation is supposed to come only from those paid to innovate and be creative?

I wonder. Perhaps what made Churchill so effective and his legacy so lasting is that he was not only innovative, but he had the strength and conviction to fight for his ideas.

Perhaps too, we could do with more innovative leaders right now.

Carl Francis          Email me

Carl Francis         Email me