Why Mutual Obligation is the key to Leading FOR Innovation

Why Mutual Obligation is the key to Leading FOR Innovation

Why Mutual Obligation is the key to Leading FOR Innovation

  • Posted by Cris Beswick
  • On 14/03/2023

When I talk about leadership in the context of innovation, I’m always particular about using the phrase ‘leading FOR innovation’ not ‘innovation leadership’ because building a culture for innovation isn’t about leaders becoming innovators; it’s about leaders building a system and environment where innovation can thrive.

In ‘Innovation is a Team Sport’, I unpacked my thinking on ‘teams’ and how the very construct and ingredients of a team have been watered down in many organisations to the point where the very essence of what a team is has been lost.

“Team members need to learn how to help one another, help other team members realise their true potential, and create an environment that allows everyone to go beyond their limitations”. [1] 

Let’s unpack that. Team members need to…

help one another,

help others realise their true potential,

help everyone go beyond their limitations.

Now, we talk about teams in organisations all the time, but how many teams in your organisation are doing the above? And is your leadership team also doing the above? The challenge is that innovation demands that we operate in this way. It’s pretty much non-negotiable if you want an organisation with high innovation maturity (the combination of innovation capability and culture).

So, how do we cross the chasm?

The common denominator across all the highest-performing teams in the world is psychological safety. The core tenet is the belief that you won’t be punished when (not if) you make a mistake. From a leadership perspective, that means being able to take risks, stick your neck out without fear of being beheaded, be creative, alternative, explorative and speak honestly. And that means creating the same environment for the rest of your organisation, but especially for managers in the middle of your organisation.

From a leadership development perspective, there’s more to unlearn here than learning, requiring significant shifts in attitude and approach. And unfortunately, for those that can’t adapt to leading with compassion, humility, love, curiosity, empathy, authenticity etc., there won’t be a place in contemporary organisations. It’s brutal to hear for those in this position, but the next generation of talent won’t follow leaders who embody an outdated approach to leadership.

Competence versus character

A core component of psychological safety in teams is trust; one of the best examples of this comes from the US Navy Seals. Like the British SAS, Navy Seals are recognised as one of the highest-performing teams on the planet, yet they value trust over performance; they value character over competence. The complete opposite of what we see inside many companies.

In Simon Sinek’s book The Infinite Game, he unpacks the approach Navy Seals use when evaluating new team members. Essentially, they are assessed on performance and trust using a 4-box model.

The performance component is about pure competence and an operator’s ability to do the job to a high level, and the trust component is about their character. The conclusion is that trust is more important. Remember, this is an organisation of teams that perform missions that many of us cannot even begin to imagine. They have concluded that a medium performer with high trust is better for a team than a high performer with medium trust!

In Simon Sinek’s unpacking of this, he also points out that in contrast to the Navy Seals, organisations have traditionally favoured the left-hand side of the matrix in either low-performance low trust or high-performance low trust. Either way, the metric used to reward and ultimately promote up organisations has been performance. Interestingly, Sinek also points out that the Navy Seals view this top left part of the 4-box matrix as toxic!

It’s my turn to buy dinner

One of the core elements of trust is the mutual nature of relationships. Do I believe you would do for me as I’m willing to do for you? Can I be as honest with you as I want you to be with me etc.? You can liken this to the mutual obligation we enjoy with friends. I mean people you enjoy spending time with who you’re absolutely in tune with. You go out for dinner one day, and you pay. The next time, your friend pays. But you haven’t spoken; there’s been no agreed contract of “I’ll get this one if you promise to get the next one” it just happens automatically, naturally. It’s a mutual obligation that is never discussed, yet entirely implicit and is just how you and your friend operate together.

That mutually aligned relationship is based on respect, standards and pure, unfiltered trust, and it’s how leaders should lead, and teams should operate.

Expectations versus commitments

So, how does mutual obligation manifest itself across leadership teams? Let’s look at the relationship between executives and managers in the context of innovation. As leaders, we expect managers to deliver growth and higher performance but, in many cases, there’s conflicting pressure to also deliver the core business. It’s the conflict between exploiting the core business and requiring exploration of new business (growth) through innovation.

In ‘Innovation is a Team Sport’, I outlined how we use particular language to differentiate the role of leaders and managers in pursuing innovation when we work with clients on this. The role of leaders is to ‘OWN’ the innovation agenda and to put everything in place that innovation requires. In contrast, the role of managers is to ‘DRIVE’ the innovation agenda, to use everything that’s been put in place to bring innovation alive on a day-to-day basis. If you’ve flipped the script on the other false narrative that innovation is everyone’s job, you can enable every other employee to ‘CONTRIBUTE’ to the innovation agenda. It’s an approach we call Own-Drive-Contribute, or ODC for short.

So, using that framework, you need to unpack and thoroughly answer the following questions:

  • What does ‘OWNING’ the innovation agenda look and feel like as a leader?
  • As a leader, what do I need to commit to in order to ‘OWN’ the innovation agenda?
  • As a leader, what are my expectations of managers’ DRIVING’ the innovation agenda?
  • What does ‘DRIVING’ the innovation agenda look and feel like as a manager?
  • As a manager, what do I need to commit to in order to ‘DRIVE’ the innovation agenda?
  • As a manager, what are my expectations of leaders’ OWNING’ the innovation agenda?

Unless absolute clarity on these questions is unpacked, aligned and agreed upon, psychological safety and trust will be low, and the mutual obligation will be impossible to uphold.

If leaders and managers aren’t clear on their expectations of each other, neither team will have clarity on how to act, behave and deliver on the mutual obligation. And, if expectations and commitments aren’t aligned, anyone delivering on their commitment is unlikely to meet the team’s expectations.

Applying leadership frameworks designed in this way is crucial where a high-performing innovation engine is required for growth. You can’t build a culture where innovation can thrive without leadership based on these principles, it simply doesn’t happen! The benefits are also much more comprehensive than this as it builds the foundations for better communication, collaboration, productivity, creativity, curiosity and exploration. These are all non-negotiable requirements for innovation and core ingredients for a culture that will attract and retain the next generation of talent every organisation needs and will continue to need to shape the future.


[1] Jain, Naresh (2009). “Run marathons, not sprints”. In Davis, Barbee (ed.). 97 Things Every Project Manager Should Know: Collective Wisdom from the Experts. O’Reilly Media, Inc. p. 96. ISBN9781449379568. Team members need to learn how to help one another, help other team members realise their true potential, and create an environment that allows everyone to go beyond their limitations.