The Propulsion Model of Creative Leadership (Revisited)


I'm very indebted to Adam Hansen (@adhansen on Twitter) for pointing me to Sternberg's work on the "propulsion model" of  leadership.  We were discussing the dimensionality of ideas ("ideas in space") and he mentioned the propulsion model as the closest thing he'd come across. 

A propulsion model of creative leadership

Robert J. Sternberg, James C. Kaufman, Jean E. Pretz

Adam is absolutely right.  Sternberg's concept of creative leadership is described in terms which require a dimensional metaphor ... a "spatialization" of different variations on product ideas, market position, business strategies, etc.  

It also reminds me of a recent dialog we had on #innochat discussing what made innovation work or not in different organizations.  One factor that came up was the instincts of particular leaders, which sometimes seem to trump formal processes or organizational cultures in allowing/encouraging/shaping particular innovations.

Of course, Steve Jobs always comes up in this context, and in the midst of the launch of the iPad, it seems like it might make sense to revisit Sternberg's model and see if how it fits current innovation thinking.  At the same time, we can examine the dimensionality inherent in the model.

In each of the following, a leader promotes a particular direction of movement, or a specific conception of where the organization (company, community) is or should be located.  A leader basically says one of the following things (apologies to Sternberg if I've misinterpreted) ...

  • We're in the right place at the right time, all we have to do keep doing the same thing. (replication).
  • We're in the right place at the right time, but not for the same reasons we thought.  (redefinition).
  • We need to move forward in the direction we were already going, in small steps (forward incrementation).
  • We need to move forward in the same direction, but leap ahead, beyond expectations (advance forward incrementation).
  • From where we are, we need to move in a different direction entirely (redirection).  
  • We need to go back to where we were, and then start again in a different direction (reconstruction/redirection).
  • We need to get to a different point entirely, and then start moving in a different direction (reinitiation).  
  • We're going to combine two different directions, to create a new strategy (synthesis).

It's a great taxonomy of leadership, expressed in terms of a spatial metaphor.  A couple of thoughts:

1) Where do we feel Steve Jobs fits in this taxonomy?  Personally, despite a lot of admiration for Apple's success and products, I don't think he represents disruptive leadership (e.g. redirection or reinitiation).  Basically, he incrementally follows a pattern of taking existing innovations (often pioneered by other companies) and combining them with great design and marketing execution.  So his individual product strategies could be labelled synthesis, and his leadership style is forward incrementation or sometimes advance forward incrementation. The result (for society) is often more profound, but the strategy itself has followed the same general direction in a remarkably consistent way.

2) Like all spatial metaphors, the "propulsion model" requires conceptual differences to be expressed in terms of distance on an imaginary grid or map.  Although this is a tricky metaphor with lots of fuzziness embedded, it does allow us to express strategies in concrete terms and generates some useful impressions of the real-worlds risks and advantages of strategic choices.

I'm going to be talking more about this approach to thinking about innovation in further posts; I feel there is a lot to be gained from rigorously pursuing a spatial approach to innovation, as long as we're conscious of what we're doing.