Leadership and Innovation

By Jim Selman

Do you have to make change happen? This article, published in 2002 in The Innovation Journal, articulates 6 ways of relating to your circumstances and change that can form the foundation of your leadership and either open or close possibilities for innovation.


Innovation is one of those words that we all use, agree is a positive thing and, for the most part, want more of. The term “innovation”, like the word “leadership”, however, seems to defy generally accepted understanding. Most of us lack a shared interpretation of what we mean or what we are observing when we use the terms.

Moreover, we lack practices for deliberately and consistently producing whatever is meant or whatever it is that we are looking for from “leadership and innovation”. This is evident in the fact that, in spite of thousands of books on these subjects, reading and understanding the books doesn’t enable us to be leaders or to be innovative.

These terms are closely related. Leadership always has some focus on bringing about a desired future. We would not normally consider a spectator of the status quo to be a leader. The term innovation also suggests some break with the “norm” or the status quo.

I am suggesting that these terms are distinguishing different aspects of the same phenomenon and that an “innovator” and a “leader” are cut from the same cloth.

This paper is the first of a series of essays that are intended to open possibilities for developing leadership…to provide pathways for action for those who are dissatisfied with the status quo and are attempting to either improve on existing processes or perhaps accomplish breakthrough results.

To begin, we need to make a number of distinctions. There are obvious distinctions for example between: the innovator (who), an innovation (what), and the process of innovating (how). This paper’s intent is to illuminate and inquire into the phenomenon of innovation (and leadership) prior to action and before history judges an accomplishment as innovative or declares a person to be a leader.

The focus here will be on the innovator and the context or “way of being” of the innovator. My thesis is that a competency for innovation is a natural by-product of different ways of relating to the world…the context in which we relate to circumstances and change. We will also distinguish between innovation and art. Both involve creativity and these terms are often used interchangeably. Finally, we want to distinguish the kind of simple change that is a variation of what already exists from the kind of profound change that alters the scope of what is possible.

Distinguishing Innovation

The dictionary’s primary definition for innovation is simply “making change”. This view is incomplete, however, and becomes a distinction without a difference because change is happening all the time whether people do anything or not. We do not consider a random event, insight or an accident to be an innovation, although what one can observe and do in the context of a novel occurrence or insight might very well lead to innovation. For example, all of us have had “big ideas” from time to time and done nothing about them, only to learn later that someone has succeeded in bringing about exactly what we had imagined. This is what might distinguish a leader/innovator from a dreamer.

A potentially more powerful way to think of innovation is that it means intentionally bringing into existence” something new that can be sustained and repeated and which has some value or utility.

That is, innovation is always related to some practical “in-the-world” value. It is about making new tools, products or processes and bringing forth something “new” which allows human beings to accomplish something they were not able to accomplish previously. For example, art is always creative and may have value to its consumers, but requires no utility to be art. Art might be seen as the artist’s self-expression or experience of their world. Innovation, on the other hand, must allow for something else, some possibility or accomplishment or value beyond the innovation itself.

If someone comes up with a new hammer that does what our existing hammers do, then that is a design change and design is an “art”. When someone creates a new kind of hammer, however, such as a “nail gun” or a new method for hammering, then we can distinguish that as innovation. In this sense, we can also see that we can innovate within an art form. At one point, painting with acrylic allowed artists to create effects that were not possible with traditional oils.

When we create a new tool we are innovating. When we are not innovating, we are the tool or the “tool” is an extension of us. For example, the typewriter was an innovation in writing. At some moment, the typewriter becomes transparent (to both the typist and those concerned with what is being typed) and we simply have a typist typing. The tool appears again only when there is a breakdown or it no longer serves its purpose.

I am claiming that our relationship to the circumstances, especially when there are breakdowns, is the primary factor in determining whether we respond as leaders and innovate or simply resist or cope with what is happening.

Whether we are speaking about leadership or innovation, our concern is almost always about accomplishing some sustainable change whether large or small. Change can occur gradually and in small increments, such as making continuous improvement to an existing process or product. Change may also occur as a breakthrough, such as some unprecedented action or result that opens possibilities for new occurrence.

While leaders and innovators participate in both kinds of change, I distinguish leadership as always occurring in a context of some intention to create a breakthrough….to break with the status quo. A one-time unique event is not an innovation. For an occurrence to be a breakthrough it must alter, change, illuminate or modify the existing structure(s) within which the innovation is occurring. In other words, we might say that this kind of innovation is the kind of action or outcome that alters the context, paradigm, or frame of reference of the innovator and those who have a stake in the innovation. We conclude that innovation changes the innovator and the space of possibilities available for everyone.

Leadership is about creating what does not exist…bringing forth something which was previously “not real” or not available within an historical context. Leadership isn’t just about what happens within boundaries: it transforms our relationship with boundaries and circumstance.

As previously noted, change is happening all the time. To observe a change, we must be comparing our perception of how things appear now with how we remember them from before. Change is an assessment or an assertion that something is different than it was. The timeframe for comparison may vary. For example, technology has changed the way we do our work compared to ten or fifteen years ago, but it probably hasn’t changed much in how we work today as compared to yesterday. By the same token, the resources we have to work with have undoubtedly changed from yesterday. At a molecular and biological level, our bodies are changing with each breath we take. If we wish to develop a rigorous methodology for deliberate and intentional innovation and leadership, we need begin with the question, “How do we relate to our circumstances and change?”

Relationship to Circumstances & Change

I distinguish six different ways we can relate to our circumstances and the changes which are occurring all the time. I claim that the way we relate to our circumstances becomes the foundation for our being leaders and opens or closes possibilities and opportunities for innovating. If we consider that change is a constant and always occurring whether we know it or not, then we might also say these six ways of relating to the circumstances are also ways we relate to the world and become the contexts within which we deal with everyday life.

These should not be considered as progressive steps in a process. Rather, these are different “states of being” or contexts available to every human being, at every moment, to differing degrees depending upon our commitments, concerns, and competence in various domains of action.

RESISTANCE: Opposition to Circumstances

To resist means to stand apart from whatever one is resisting and judge it as “not being as it should be”.

Probably the most common way we relate to change is to resist it. We do this in many ways. We can resist by simply disagreeing with a new policy, by analyzing something over and over again, or by playing devil’s advocate with no ownership of the issue.

Resistance can be overt or covert. Sometimes we can resist by agreeing with someone and then gossiping when the person isn’t around. We can procrastinate, we can argue, we can rationalize or even sabotage a leadership initiative simply by ignoring it and waiting for the next change to come along. Whatever strategies or patterns for resistance we have, whether overt or covert, whether conscious or unconscious, whether active or passive, they have three things in common.

First, all forms of resistance are counter-innovative” and thwart human intentionality to create change. Any effort spent in opposing what is occurring moment to moment will blind us to possibility. Further, resistance gives power to the status quo or cultural inertia which, by its nature, will persist. This is reflected in the often quoted maxim, “The more things change, the more they say the same.”

Secondly, all resistance is rooted in the past and is grounded in a negative mood/attitude and assessment of the way it is”…a judgment that things should be different than they are. Our commitments and actions are organized by what we see as feasible and what we know how to do. At best, this will lead to finding effective ways to cope. At worst, this will lead to a state of chronic suffering and, eventually, resignation.

Thirdly, to resist implies that there is some “thing” there to resist. This essentially objectifies our world, including ourselves and other people, turning us into objects in an objective world. This reduces us to either being victims of whatever it is we are resisting and/or encourages a “spectator” relationship with the circumstances. This means we no longer participate in creating the future, and become trapped in a worldview that destroys possibility and power. In this state, innovation is a rarity and an ideal. When innovation does happen, it is usually attributed to some “special-ness” of the innovator or more often explained as an anomaly that leaves us unaffected, untouched, and not responsible for the change.

“Leadership” in this context will involve opposition to the circumstance and, for the most part, will prove ineffective to the point of becoming part of the problem. For example, in most organizational or cultural “change” initiatives, the prevailing rational is that the status quo is “broken” and needs to be fixed. The leadership is resisting the “way it is” and, in a well-meaning way, are attempting to “fix it”. The problem is that these initiatives are rarely effective because everything being done to change something is pushing against (resisting) what is already going on. This is how many issues persist, even when there is widespread agreement that something should change. Essentially, the proponents and opponents to a leadership initiative are operating in the same context.

COPING: Positive Reaction to Circumstances

Coping might be viewed as a positive alternative to resistance in which we work within the circumstances effectively.

Coping is also rooted in a view that circumstances are objective and we must somehow adjust our commitments and actions to match what the circumstances allow. Energy that was previously expended in resisting is redirected to problem-solving and designing ways to overcome barriers to accomplishing one’s intention. In this sense, coping is also “counter-innovative” as a relationship to change; however, there is one big difference. Specifically, there are many innovations that are conceived as tools or strategies for more effective coping. In other words, in a circumstantially determined view of reality, coping can drive innovation, but only as a RE-ACTION to the circumstances, not as an intentional force in creating new circumstances.

For example, “organized labor” was invented as a reaction to perceived misuse and abuse of power by owners and managers in the early part of the twentieth century and has become an integral aspect of how work is accomplished. In other words, the political-economic “institution” of organized labor was a way for workers to cope with their circumstances. While we can observe that this “innovation” has produced a lot of value and benefit for workers over the years, it can also be argued that it has done little to build or address the underlying issues of trust and allocation of perceived power in organizational hierarchies. In effect, the mechanism for coping reinforced and even institutionalized the problem. Further, we can argue that successful coping solutions will often thwart and even undermine attempts at further innovations. In the above example, labor organizations have generally attempted to block various proposed innovations in management such as cross-functional training, incentive compensation packages, self-managing teams, and commitment-based management.

Leadership, in this context, is often facilitative and oriented toward reasonable expectations and interpretations of what is possible and not possible. In a coping context, leaders will typically be arguing for and justifying whatever limitations seem to exist and encouraging “work around” or “in spite of” strategies for getting things done. While this can be positive and produce results, the leader in this case become a well meaning and unwitting “co-conspirator” for individual and organizational limitations.

RESPONDING: Owning the Circumstances

To respond means to, given the circumstances, freely choose action.

To respond requires a different relationship to the circumstance in which one considers that the circumstances are subordinate to the actions of the individual. In other words, to respond requires that one view him/herself as responsible, as owning, as being
senior to whatever circumstance is occurring. The word responsibility can actually be seen as “the ability to respond” (that is, “response-ability”).

In responding, we see a human being as having insights and making choices in relationship to objective circumstances, but not being limited or defined by them. When we are responding, we are beginning to innovate to the extent that we: a) have some intention or commitment, b) are owning and not “re-acting” to circumstances, and c) are bringing something new into existence which, whether small or large, has value/utility and can be sustained/replicated in the future.

For example, one of the most basic organizational issues is the common “us versus them” conversation. In this structure, we complain is that “they” are a problem. The “they” might be upper management, the quality control group, the salespeople or the government. The underlying structure of the conversation is that someone “outside” is causing a problem for me/us.

To respond requires that we first acknowledge that whoever “they” are is occurring within our interpretation of the world. What limits us is part of our interpretation. Our choices and actions are never limited or determined by ‘them” or the circumstances unless we believe that we have no power or choice in the matter. We are never, in fact, victims of our circumstances, although in many instances it can seem so and our suffering when this is the case can be very “real”.

Secondly, to respond, we must grant “them” the freedom to choose. We must give them autonomy as individuals and grant them the legitimacy of their view, even if we disagree. Otherwise, we will be reacting to what we perceive they are doing and will, therefore, have limited action and become part of a larger pattern of resistance that reinforces “their” behavior. In a posture of resistance, at best we may “win” in a dispute by dominating, rather than innovating. At worst, we become resigned and simply “put up with” the status quo.

To determine whether we are responding or reacting we can ask, “For the sake of what are we responding?” If there is no intention or commitment behind our actions, then our actions are essentially automatic and thoughtless. If we are responsible for our circumstances and are intentional in our responses, when we become dissatisfied, innovating comes naturally.

Leaders who are responsive, rather than reactive, are not blind to problems or to people’s concerns, but are organizing their actions based on something else.

They are not attempting to “fix” people or simply solve problems, but they are keeping their eye on the intended outcomes or purposes for which they are working. For example, in the movie Apollo 13, there is a moment when a technical crisis threatens the lives of the astronauts. All technical options have been exhausted and there is no possibility they will survive. The “leader” in the film throws down a pile of all the “stuff” in the space capsule and makes an unreasonable demand for the engineers to “create” a solution where none exists. This response could not have happened if the leader had believed that the circumstances were fixed.

CHOOSING: Accepting the Circumstances

To choose implies having a choice about the circumstances to which you are responding.

To choose is a step beyond owning and responding freely to circumstances. The idea of choice is synonymous with the idea of acceptance, where we acknowledge not only that things are the way they are, but that they should be the way they are…even when the circumstances are not what we would wish and may be assessed as very negative. This is a very different state of relating than either succumbing or rationalizing that one can’t
help the way things are. This state is to embrace the change and the circumstances.

This notion is very basic to many spiritual disciplines in both the East and the West where we can experience enormous freedom when we acknowledge that, regardless of our point of view or understanding, “reality” is happening. In fact, one can even at some point notice that by the time our brains can “think” about what is happening in the moment, the moment is already past. Eckhart Tolle in his book The Power of Now shows that to choose is to learn to live in the present and to be present to whatever is happening. This experience is familiar to almost anyone who has participated in sports and been in “the zone”, or to people in the performing arts who have transcended thinking about or controlling a performance and simply expressed himself or herself fully.

In this state of choosing or “being present”, a person can observe all sorts of possibilities and choices that otherwise would remain buried in the circumstances. One literally becomes a different observer. This is a state in which innovation is natural and effortless, even obvious. It is important to note, however, that this is also a state in which the circumstances are still “out there” and the observer is still relating to the world as something separate and distinct from the observer.

This is the state where leadership begins to become an increasingly creative process. This is also where we can observe a paradox between fully accepting the way things are without any resistance whatsoever and simultaneously creating a commitment to a larger possibility. In this context, it is obvious that possibilities are by definition created and leadership is about creating vision and possibility in relationship with other human beings.

BRINGING FORTH: Creating the Circumstances

This way of relating to the world and to circumstances is the state that we normally associate with truly “creative” people.

What I wish to distinguish here is that the ability to create something is not a “gift” that a few especially endowed people have inherited. While it is true that some people come by this capacity “naturally”, it is a learnable way of relating to the world and the creative expressions which it makes available begin to approach what we earlier distinguished as breakthroughs. To “bring forth” means to not only to choose a circumstance that is already occurring, but to also begin to relate to the world “as if” we are creating the circumstances themselves.

This is not necessarily a strange or metaphysical notion. We have known in the field of quantum mechanics for some time that everything we perceive is constantly being changed in the process of being perceived. The noted physicist John Wheeler in an interview with Discovery Magazine (June 2002) has even suggested that even the fact of the existence of an objective universe itself might be viewed as a product of our capacity to consciously observe and distinguish a world that only appears separate from us.

In an organizational context, for example, most of us have experienced or witnessed moments of sudden and often profound insight into the nature of a situation or circumstance and have formulated what seem to be (and often are) genuinely original ideas or solutions. In retrospect these innovations or inventions can be seen as: a) unpredictable, b) require challenging or changing some underlying belief or assumption about what is and is not possible, and c) generally appear obvious after the fact. A classic example is the story from the 3M Corporation about the invention of the Post-it that was created when a project looking for stronger glue failed. The inventor “brought forth” a new interpretation of what was wanted and needed (removable notes) and which bad glue could provide.

The point is that this insight required a different order of creative thinking outside conventional and reasonable frames of reference….what is usually meant by “outside the box” thinking. The question here is can anyone learn to be creative simply by beginning to change how he or she relates to the circumstances? I believe that this is possible and, in fact, is how most people develop what might be described as creative talent. To do so, however, requires that we let go of our notion that we are objects in an objective world and adopt a worldview in which we are individually and collectively creating the circumstances that we are observing.

Leaders who “bring forth” are those we normally consider to be visionary and charismatic and who are often seen as gifted in their capacity to keep moving forward and creating openings for action regardless of the circumstances. In Shakespeare’s Henry V, the King gives an impassioned speech to his soldiers in the face of insurmountable odds. In doing so, he not only creates a possibility where none exists, but inspires his army to victory. For the leader who relates to the world in this way, a vision is not a big goal or picture of the future, but a powerful ground of being from which to create reality.

MASTERY: Creating the Context for Change

“To create” here means to distinguish the rare ability that a few people have demonstrated to invent entirely new fields of inquiry.

These people are creating new domains, new openings, and new possibilities for others to explore and innovate. This is working at a different level and is a very distinct way of relating to circumstances in which the “creator” is the author of the context in which the creator is relating. To create a context means to be responsible not only for what is being perceived, not only for one’s responses, not only for a generative relationship to the circumstances, but to also be responsible for creating the background or space within which the circumstances appear.

“Mastery” of anything from art to penmanship is ultimately mastery of oneself and “who one is being” in a situation and in relationship to the world. Hence, to become a master of innovation, a person must own both what is happening, as well as what isn’t happening. They must be present to both “what is”, as well as to the cognitive and transparent boundaries that define our perceivable reality.

In 1980, Fernando Flores wrote a Ph.D. thesis titled “Management and Communication in the Office of the Future” (UC Berkley). In his thesis, he asked the simple question, “What is action for a manager?”. His thesis opened an entirely new view of management as a phenomenon that happens in conversations and that action occurs as “speaking and listening”. His work has transformed much contemporary thinking about how coordination occurs in organizations and has impacted thinking and practices in the fields of information technology, artificial intelligence, healthcare, international relations and the development of leaders, among others. Where this will go remains to be seen, but his work illustrates the creation of a new “meta-paradigm” for observing, not simply making different observations in the same paradigm. When we are the creator of the paradigm or context, then we can begin to consider that we are in fact creating and mastering our circumstances.

Finally, leadership in a context of mastery is often very modest and may seem effortless or so natural as to seem inconsequential at the time. Mahatma Gandhi, for example, was a gentle man who used no force, and yet showed us how not resisting can be a powerful force for change. His mastery did not even seem to be leadership for most of his career. And yet, from the beginning, he was pursuing the creation of a new reality. In addition, leaders who live and work in this context are constantly inventing or creating their experience. In this sense, they are always beginners, learning and creating in each moment.

Innovation happens at different levels—from modest improvements on an existing product or process to dramatic and even historically significant breakthroughs in how we relate to the world. In all cases, the capacity to innovate will be a function of our commitments and concerns, what we want to accomplish, and our relationship with the circumstances we perceive we are in.

If we are resisting or coping, we see no innovation and whatever change we generate will be as a reaction to the circumstances and part of the process by which those circumstances persist. When we are responding or choosing we are in a position to innovate and will do so naturally and consistently as a function of what we observe to be possible or what we observe is missing in our perspective of the world. Change based on this view is likely to be an improvement on what already exists. When we are bringing forth or creating, we are in a position to innovate and are predisposed to do so. Further, in these ways of relating to circumstances, we have few, if any, limitations on what we can imagine and generate. We are likely to be generating breakthroughs or even creating entirely new spheres of possibility.

I consider leaders and innovators as those who are concerned with and competent at bringing “new realities” into existence. I consider innovating to be a primary element in the process of leading and I see innovations as examples of leadership results or outcomes.

The following table summarizes the six ways of relating to change associated with different leadership models, intentions, and views of circumstances. 

Ways of Relating Leadership Model Intention View of Circumstances
Resisting Military Survive Fixed /
Coping Facilitative Thrive Fixed /
Not deterministic
Responding Paternalistic / Instructional Be responsible Fixed /
Choice of how to relate
Choosing Coaching Be serene Not fixed  /
Commitment to accept
Bringing Forth Charismatic / Inspirational Create circumstances Not fixed /
Commitment to create circumstances
Mastery Gifted /


Create possibilities Not fixed /
Commitment to create context


Fernando Flores. “Management and Communication in the Office of the Future”,  Ph.D. thesis, University of Berkley (1980).