The business of leadership and innovation

Blog Post

The conceptualization, nourishment and propagation of new technologies as a key, active component in the accelerated growth of a technologically advanced society rely on the understanding and development of two individual but highly interconnected competencies: leadership and innovation.

Leadership and innovation are the two fundamental attributes that have encouraged the successful development of most major technologies in production today. They are also the sources for most of the highly successful commercial and industrial organizations currently operating globally. It is the state of health of these two linked competencies that often determines the longevity and profitability of these organizations and, to a large extent, the societies that spawn and house them.

It is through their successful integration that those same technologies are encouraged to evolve and to fuel the imaginations of the next set of great leaders and innovators, among which can be found the next generation of young entrepreneurs. It can thus be postulated that the stewardship of innovation and leadership determines the potential success and the rate of advancement of a modern society and, as a corollary, the lack thereof its decay, or at best its stagnation. This discussion is directed to the two characteristics of leadership and innovation, how they create value through integration, and how society can gain from this successful union.

The stewardship of innovation and leadership determines the rate of advancement of a society, the lack thereof its decay

Leaders vs. Managers

The more established and larger organizations are likely to have formalized, well developed and thoroughly defined organizational structures and management styles. If these same organizations are fortunate to have a timely balance of leaders and managers then, in most cases, success and growth through innovation are achievable goals. Leadership influences the overall business structure and the implementation of change, especially that which is caused by advanced technologies. Managers are normally focused on the day-to-day activities and the need to meet performance goals. It takes both to allow the synergy (magic) to happen.

Even within smaller or newly formed organizations there is early incentive to establish sound order and to follow a sturdy set of business rules that have been proven by common business practices. In this, there is the necessity for consideration of the overall needs of the society that houses them, along with the fair treatment of the participants, plus the overall environmental conditions affected by the activity. A well-balanced group of organizational leaders and managers understand these key necessities and can still recognize that substantial business benefits can be redeemed through their respective program applications and skill sets.

While a competent management team may be assigned the essential roles to maintain a well-run operation, this asset is often not enough. What we recognize in some cases, sometimes too late, is the need for an adequate measure of leadership in combination with said competent management core. It is here where our society is lacking in its education and production of an effective leadership program. Despite the fact that we currently provide significant resources for the development of effective managers, the same cannot be said for the development of similar competencies within our leadership. The truly effective organizations have recognized this need and many have attempted to provide the needed leadership program development. Unfortunately, our lack of wide spread use of leadership development programs and their availability has contributed to substantial setbacks in these efforts.

Leadership placement must also be addressed within the hierarchy of the organization. While those leaders and their skill sets need to be sprinkled throughout the organization, it is often key for the success of the organization that leadership capabilities be placed at the top of the organizational ladder. Not only this, the proper placement of leadership positions at the top of each tier of this chain-of-command is also of paramount importance. Failure to accurately allot representative leadership in senior positions can inadvertently result in the lower ranked individuals with leadership skills becoming frustrated - often resulting in their leaving to look elsewhere to satisfy their needs to contribute their vision.

This discussion is not intended to denigrate one capability over another. Instead the intent here is to point out that it takes a well-balanced set of competencies to create an effective and long-lasting organization. An organization that is responsive to the needs of its participants and to the society that it serves. Therefore, while management may help to drive the wheels of progress, leadership usually chooses the direction and, as part of this discussion, innovation populates the future landscape.

Management may drive the wheels of progress, but leadership chooses the direction where innovation populates the future landscape

The leadership and innovator need

There is a lot of rhetoric posited on the role of innovation related to the progress and success of a new opportunity. Whether it is a new technology, product, process, or service, one trend becomes apparent to the authors of such literature, novelty, uniqueness, or responsiveness to an identified need and its solution does not necessarily spell long-term success. What will prove a critical element to the mix will be the realization and implementation of strong, capable leadership foundation: leadership that understands and embraces innovation and the innovative spirit.

As important, and quite possibly even more important, will be the acceptance of the leadership role by the innovator. These innovators, along with their passions, need the driving forces that leaders provide them with to compete in an aggressive, and often unforgiving, marketplace. Both parties are essential, and their cooperative acceptance is crucial if change is to continue at a pace in keeping with the needs of society. They become even more decisive if growth is to be responsive to game-changing discoveries.

One of the postulates of this discussion is that our current society and its needs are evolving at an ever-increasing rate. A rate that is relational with, if not driven by, technological advancements. For example, what used to be generational problems - those recognized in time for the youth to be educated about and to then spend their careers into retirement solving - are now problems that need to be fixed by sometime next week, just in time for the next crisis.

We no longer have the luxury of waiting for either the leaders or innovators, or both, to arrive to save the day. We now need to seek out these futurists in order to provide these pioneering leaders and innovators with the tools, plus the rewards, to encourage their growth and productivity. All the while we will need to stay out of their way, remaining ready to catch their next revolutionary idea, and then to help drive it into the marketplace.

It is through the application of appropriate leadership skills that allows for the accelerated creation of innovations. This in turn translates into advanced technological developments followed then by the associated advances in societal growth.

For the needs of modern society most of the solutions, and the resulting products and services, will come from the technical arena created and nurtured by the people who generate them. It is with the creatively inclined that a significant number of the technological successes become manifest, most likely due to a strong leadership involvement.

It is due to leadership’s relentless devotion towards the implementation of innovation that these innovative leaders become the rare and much sought after symbols of growth within a business and, when viewed in the larger picture, society itself. It is due to these individuals, their skills, motivation, and attributes that most long-term technological successes can now be attributed. It is with this belief that our society must recognize this relationship between innovation and leadership. For without leadership, innovation remains stagnant as merely another inventive idea.


This article is, therefore, dedicated to anything, or anyone, that might lead us to innovation, in all of its forms, along with the leadership that is often the springboard, or tipping point, in making it all happen. It is through the innovative process where we all get the chance to generate creative thought. It should therefore become our common goal to encourage others to pursue their own personal view, or quest, for the future.

Change, while often uncomfortable, and habitually avoided or ignored, is the nature of any progressive system. Staying ahead of the problems created by change while jumping even farther ahead is a prerequisite to success and continued growth. The result of this constant requirement to advance the elements of a modern society, while scary, also forces the participants to live at the edge of their comfort zones. An innovative change, in any form, will bring you to that edge. It is clear that innovators, and their dedicated leadership, will continue to add to the excitement in all of our lives, whether we are ready for it or not.

Leadership enabled innovation:

  • Leadership without innovation provides for refinements of the status quo, a short term improvement in an investment, and a false sense of security for future progress; a slow spiral into mediocrity.
  • Innovation without leadership creates initial optimism, the miss-use of core resources and most often a disillusion and loss of confidence in the stakeholders.
  • Only with both do you build for the future, balance the short term with the long, and guarantee the growth and prosperity of the organization and society.


James E. Smith received his Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in Aerospace Engineering and Doctor of Philosophy degree in Mechanical Engineering from West Virginia University (WVU), Morgantown, West Virginia, USA in 1972, 1974, and 1984, respectively. He is currently the Director of the Center for Industrial Research Applications (CIRA) at West Virginia University, where he is also the Innovation Coordinator and Professor in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) Department. He has taught at the University since 1976, before which he was a Research Engineer for the Department of Energy (DOE). He was the 2009 SAE International President and Chairman of the Board of Directors, which afforded the opportunity to travel to the mobility and innovation centers of the world.

During his 40-plus-year engineering career, he has been the principal and/or co-principal investigator for various projects funded by federal agencies (Tank-Automotive Armaments Command (TACOM), Department of Defense (DOD), HEW, Department of Transportation (DOT), US Navy, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and Department of Energy (DOE)), international corporations, and numerous US corporations. The work in these projects has resulted in the publication of over 250 referred journal and transaction papers. This work has resulted in the granting of 34 United States Patents and numerous foreign patents on mechanical, medical, and energy-related technologies.

Dr. Smith, in his role as an Innovation Coordinator, Professor and Center Director, has been actively involved in providing and/or enhancing technology solutions for the industrial marketplace. Several of these solutions have resulted in proprietary technologies that have been instrumental to the continued success of these business efforts while others have resulted in the creation of 12 new business entities.

In his current role as a professor he has focused his attention on Design related courses and a newly created program to encourage STEM focused students towards the creation of new career directions, in contrast to just looking for a job. In that role he has been instrumental in assisting these students in the formation of five new companies in support of the new technologies and intellectual property they helped create in this program.

Dr. Smith is a member of American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), Society of Automotive Engineers (FSAE) International, American Society of Mechanical Engineers (FASME), International Society for Computers and Applications (ISCA), American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), and Institution of Mechanical Engineers (FIMechE).

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