This is the first article of a three-part series examining key characteristics associated with leadership: Innovation | Transparency | Inspiration

Buzzwords can develop a life of their own. Being called a leader used to be sufficient. Now, the adjectives describing the type of leader we are have become critical. From authentic to zero-tolerance, compassionate to servant, we are recognizing the sometimes-vast but more often nuanced differences in leadership styles.

This article series reviews some common but different leadership descriptors and whether to embrace or ignore them. We will start by looking at what it means to be an innovative leader.

Innovation is just for tech startups

Innovation is often associated with new, so it makes sense that anything successful happening in Silicon Valley would be referred to as innovative. But innovation and innovative leadership are not limited to technology, startups or even new businesses.

Research published in the Harvard Business Review boils the characteristics of an innovative leader down to 10 aspects. The top five include having a strategic vision and a customer focus, with what HBR calls a "fearless loyalty to doing what is right for the organization and the customer."

These innovative leaders also possess the ability to engender trust and communication up, down and across the organization. Their research indicates that the characteristics of innovative leaders are consistent across industries.

Breakout innovation

Thus, while it seems that innovation leadership is a term relegated to tech startups, the idea of creating a strategic vision that heavily focuses on and incorporates the customer is not limited to the West Coast. Looking outside of traditional avenues of input and inspiration — crowdsourcing, co-creating, collective impact are steps organizations across industries are embracing.

But what does that mean from a practical application standpoint? Even if innovation leadership is valuable in a variety of organizations, what does it mean to be successful as an innovative leader?

Researchers at Stanford looked at the trend of organizations increasing their focus and participation with outside sources (specifically co-creating) to determine what actionable steps make an innovative leader a successful one.

While it is clear that innovation can be a powerful tool, according to their research into creating breakout innovation, the key to ensuring it results in true, measurable action and impactful outcomes requires the following five steps: "share power, prioritize relationships, leverage heterogeneity, legitimize all ways of knowing and prototype early and often."

In other words, it is one thing to be an innovative leader, it takes a little more to be a successful innovator.

Next steps

Regardless of our industry, it is clear that becoming an innovative leader is a worthy endeavor to pursue. The issue of clarifying semantics is the only challenge of embracing the innovation descriptor.

On the other hand, enhancing our commitment toward developing into an innovative leader includes inspiring greater trust and creativity among peers, subordinates and key stakeholders and pursuing passionate problem solving for the good of the company and client. Any professional development that results in those outcomes is a bottom line worth pursuing.

In the second article of this series, we will answer this question: Do leaders need to be transparent?