How Some Leaders Discourage Innovation—and Success

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By Mike DuBose with Blake DuBose

If you were asked where leaders should start on the journey toward lasting organizational success, what comes to mind? There are numerous possible answers, but many business experts and researchers would probably say, “They need to cultivate the organization’s most important resource: its employees.” As Jim Collins noted in his bestselling book Good to Great, one of the major ingredients for business success is hiring the right, competent people who fit your culture and then placing them in the positions they enjoy.

But who are the “right” employees? To some extent, it depends on each organization’s culture. However, there are common traits that outstanding staff members tend to share. Generally, you want creative, passionate, and entrepreneurial employees who look forward to coming to work each day; work together in harmony; produce desirable, innovative, high-quality products and services that result in happy clients; execute plans promptly; strive for efficiency with profit in mind; and collaborate as an organization across divisions to be competitive in the marketplace. When you have teams filled with such positive, can-do people, magic happens!

Since 2006, we have been trying to accomplish these goals within our companies with the added purpose of “creating opportunities to improve lives.” Simply put, it’s tough! Our path has been one of ongoing experimentation, failures, stumbles, and some successes. We have studied many companies and leaders, some successful and some not. Our research has begged the question: why do some organizations like Apple and Pixar seem to score one innovative success after another, while once-successful companies like Kodak descend into failure?

Two of the most important ingredients in the success formula appear to be having the right employees and leaders working together “as one.”  However, this is often not the case in the American workplace. In fact, a recent Gallup Poll found that 72% of American employees are not fully engaged in their jobs or the workplace. According to Gallup, they lack motivation and are “less likely to invest discretionary effort in organizational goals or outcomes.” The poll also found that 24% are "actively disengaged," indicating they are unhappy and unproductive at work (and likely spread their negativity to coworkers). As this discontent permeates the American workplace, the problem will continue to spread.

I recently met Linda Hill, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard University, who has studied leadership and collaboration in some of the most well-known companies in the world. I also read her excellent book, Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation. Through her research, she has discovered some key points about leadership, collaboration, and how leaders fail to energize their workforce.

From studying Hill’s work and through additional research we have conducted, we found that leaders in dysfunctional organizations often:

  • Inaccurately believe that creative employees always want to build something new and useful; they fail to see how difficult innovation can be. They don’t consider the question, “How are we going to compete and survive?”
  • Don’t promote discovery-driven learning. They fail to realize that their employees want to learn and grow.
  • Think that they have all the answers and everyone should follow their lead. They see themselves as the only ones who can make innovation happen.
  • Make decisions too quickly without input from others, or spend far too long seeking perfect solutions. The longer the ideas are talked about with no action, the more frustrated employees become. Projects often stall, run over budget, or fail to achieve greatness.
  • Promote people who agree with them, surrounding themselves with individuals who tell them what they want to hear and stroke their egos.
  • Fail to solicit ideas from different parts of the organization, especially those on the front lines, to create the best solutions and plans for the future.
  • Accept all the credit when things go right and blame others when problems occur. Losing, failing, and making mistakes are considered unacceptable, rather than being embraced as learning opportunities.
  • Don’t promote mutual respect amongst employees. Politics and backstabbing run rampant.
  • Do not seek feedback on their performance from their peers or the employees they lead.
  • Discourage employees from expressing disagreement. Different viewpoints aren’t shared within the organization. Conflict and debate is discouraged.
  • Fail to encourage, publicize, and enforce a well-defined culture and set of values that staff members create and want to follow.
  • Don’t develop strategic plans for the future with input from multiple sectors. Employees are in the dark about where to focus their energies, and they don’t know where they’re going or how to get there. The emphasis is on short-term outcomes rather than long-term, innovative solutions.
  • Don’t conduct ongoing SWOT analysis (examining their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities for growth, and threats). Thus, they’re often blind to approaching challenges or dangers. They rely on revenue streams that are becoming outdated without diversifying or seeking new options until it’s too late.
  • Develop job descriptions that are so specific that they place boxes around people and block them from imaginative thinking.
  • Enforce strict hierarchies and bureaucracy, which encourages people to work in silos. Every idea must travel up and down the power ladder before being approved, which impedes information flow and the generation of diverse ideas.
  • Emphasize profit and greed. Making and saving money are the top priorities, following by pleasing customers and shareholders. Employees are considered last.
  • Refuse to “think outside the box” and are tradition-focused with an emphasis on the past.
  • Aren’t open, candid, and transparent.
  • Allow incompetent staff or individuals who don’t fit the culture to remain in the company and frustrate those who would otherwise excel, driving the best employees to leave.

The bottom line: Being an effective leader isn’t easy, but successful, humble leaders keep working to improve, knowing that they will sometimes fail and make mistakes. When I met Don Knauss, CEO of Clorox, he made a statement that resonated with me: “It’s all about your people; it’s not about you. If you are going to lead these people, you’d better communicate and lead by example that you care more about them than you care about yourself!” Therefore, in our companies, we try to put our employees first and create a culture where they look forward to coming to work most days. Leaders who don’t may find themselves at the helm of an organization where creativity is stifled and innovation is stagnant!

Our next column will focus on ways to build a collaborative, successful company that will survive in the long term.

About the Authors: Our corporate and personal purpose is to “create opportunities to improve lives” by sharing our knowledge, research, experiences, successes, and mistakes. You can e-mail us at

Mike DuBose, a University of South Carolina graduate, is the author of The Art of Building a Great Business. He has been in business since 1981 and is the owner of Research Associates, The Evaluation Group, DuBose Fitness Center, and Columbia Conference Center. Visit his nonprofit website for a free copy of his book and additional business, travel, health, and personal published articles.

Blake DuBose graduated from Newberry College’s Schools of Business and Psychology and is president of DuBose Web Group (

Katie Beck serves as Director of Communications for the DuBose family of companies. She graduated from the USC School of Journalism and Honors College.