What do the co-founder of Netflix, a 16th-century Japanese daimyo, and a Serbian-American inventor have in common? They epitomize the values of great and innovative leaders.
You can learn a lot from studying the likes of Reed Hastings, Oda Nobunaga, and Nikola Tesla, to name a few of the best visionaries the world has ever had. Analyzing their behaviors and what made them shine can unlock insights you can use in your role as a leader.
They must’ve done something right to be hailed as some of the greats. This article will take you on a deep dive into the traits that made them successful in their respective fields and guide you on how to be an innovative leader yourself.
7 Innovative Leaders and What You Can Learn from Them
1. Reed Hastings: Calculated Risk Taker
As a leader, you will constantly face risks. Even when you feel your ideas will be a smash hit, there’s no guarantee that you won’t fail. But sometimes, you’ll need to take the road not taken to beat your competition.
Reed Hastings, Netflix’s co-founder, understands risks and failures are part of the game as a leader. “You’re not going to beat someone a hundred times larger with a straightforward conventional approach,” said Hastings in an interview.
When Netflix was challenging Blockbuster, Hastings slowly incorporated innovative policies that were once unthinkable: no late fees when returning DVDs, even allowing customers to keep them for however long they wanted.
Over time, these small nudges toward a new, radical way of consuming media led the company to get ahead of Blockbuster through streaming. Now, Netflix has reached a $175 billion valuation and is producing high-quality content of its own.
2. Oda Nobunaga: Accepts and embraces change
Truly innovative leaders know that change is the only constant in life. They are constantly on the lookout for new trends that have the potential for transformational change and use them to their advantage. This is best exemplified by 16th-century Japanese daimyo Oda Nobunaga.
The Battle of Nagashino Castle in 1575 is often considered a turning point in Japanese military history.
As Takeda Katsuyori continued laying siege on Nagashino Castle, his enemy, Okudaira Sadamasa, was running out of solutions. Thankfully, a relieving force led by Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga arrived with 38,000 men to help.
But it wasn’t the number of reinforcements that overpowered the Takeda army; it was Oda’s ability to think of new solutions—a trait that exceptional leaders exemplify.
Where the close combat tactics of samurais and cavalry were typical on the battlefield, Oda opted to use an innovative weapon at the time: musket guns. This embrace of new weaponry allowed Oda to drive the Takeda army away, end the battle of Nagashino Castle, and pave the way for the Japanese Gunpowder Revolution.
3. Nikola Tesla: Willing to push the boundaries
Radio technology was first thought to be unthinkable until it was proven otherwise by one of the most influential inventors of the 20th century: Nikola Tesla.
The Serbian-American’s boundless imagination allowed him to discover what was possible in electrical engineering in the late 1800s. One of his major inventions was the alternative current induction motor, which would be used to power hundreds of homes and buildings.
His relentless imagination motivated him to patent over 100 inventions. Though others found his visions of the future outlandish at the time, the modern world wouldn’t be the same without Tesla breaking technological boundaries. He had a forward-thinking mindset that you could adopt to help your team innovate and set new industry standards, which can advance your business and the community, as well.
4. Taiichi Ohno: Action-oriented philosophy
There’s a difference between reading about the statistics of the production process and being on the factory floor yourself.
The practice of examining a problem where it happened is called Genchi Genbutsu (“Go and see for yourself”) and is one of the many influential philosophies of Taiichi Ohno.
More than being the production-control executive for Toyota, he was also the mastermind behind what made the car manufacturing company so efficient. With Genchi Genbutsu, he urges leaders to step out of their high office and visit where problems in their organization occur.
By seeing problems with your own eyes, you can help take action and solve their root cause much quicker.
5. Indra Nooyi: Steadfast decision-making
Soda and nutrition are two things that aren’t commonly seen together, but that’s not how Indra Nooyi saw it in her time as the CEO of PepsiCo.
As part of the company’s pledge to make its products healthier, Nooyi decided to take the necessary steps to create healthier and more sustainable products. She hired Mehmood Khan, Pepsi’s first chief scientific officer, in 2007 who lauded Nooyi for her commitment to raising the bar in the food and beverage industry.
While critics had told her to forget about such efforts, Nooyi stood firm. By 2017, PepsiCo’s sales of its healthy products grew by 75%, reaching $17.5 billion.
There are bound to be critics when you decide to make a change in your company. If you trust in yourself and the change and hold firm, it might just lead your company to significant breakthroughs.
6. Harry Truman: Lifelong Learner
Harry Truman wasn’t elected to the U.S. presidency. But after the sudden death of then-president Theodore Roosevelt in 1945, Truman was forced to rise to the occasion from his position as vice president.
Despite not having much experience in foreign policy, President Truman would eventually play an important role in ending World War 2 and founding the United Nations. What helped Truman navigate the leadership role he was unprepared for was his knack for reading.
According to Samuel Rushay, supervisory archivist at the Truman Library, reading provided the president with “ethical and moral guidance,” which helped him make tough decisions. Truman read voraciously, mainly classic literary works such as Plutarch and Shakespeare, and was always learning.
“Not all readers become leaders,” Truman once said, “but all leaders must be readers.”
7. Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp: Disrupting the game
On a cold winter night in Paris in 2008, Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp had a problem: they couldn’t find a cab. This moment made the pair ask themselves: “What if you could request a ride from your phone?” And thus, Uber was born.
The pair challenged the transportation industry by becoming, as Tom Goodwin wrote, “the world’s largest taxi company [that] owns no vehicles.” Kalanick and Camp were so committed to disrupting the transportation industry that, by 2015, Uber was valued at $51 billion. Uber also became one of the most famous pioneers of the sharing economy.
The moral of the story? Great leaders look for opportunities to improve the status quo.
Putting It into Practice
Although the leaders mentioned above represented different industries and periods of history, their traits are universal and timeless: being smart about taking risks, embracing change, pushing boundaries, taking action, believing in yourself, learning continuously, and being disruptive.
Besides learning about these traits, it’s also essential to practice them in your daily life. Cultivating these traits may take some time and the proper support system.
Coaching4Good’s career coaches will guide you through focusing on your strengths and becoming a leader. Find the right coach for you when you contact Coaching4Good here.
Kim Garmany is the Chief Operating Officer at Coaching 4 Good, a woman-owned career and leadership development company based in Austin, Texas. Leading with kindness and compassion, Kim has spent most of her career working with nonprofit organizations to build stronger communities. She believes that all people should have access to a safe place to live and dignified work.
Take a look at what she’s up to now at coaching4good.com.
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