Leading innovators are leaders who have demonstrated common qualities in successfully achieving breakthrough innovations that have changed their organizations, and in some cases, the world.

Across several countries and industries, leading innovators have exhibited four distinctive qualities. We will discuss the first one on this post, and the other three in the upcoming weeks. In short, this is the first post in a series of posts exploring four qualities of leading innovators.

Let me start off our conversation with one of the most distinctive and pronounced characteristics of leading innovators: They spot and ferociously seize opportunities.

Ferociously Opportunistic

Many of us have heard the old maxim “success occurs when opportunity meets preparation.” In regards to innovators, this cannot be further from the truth. Innovators are ferociously opportunistic.

They do not wait for the opportunity to arrive; they prepare, seek an opportunity, and when the opportunity presents itself, innovators seize it. This is what a recent survey of more than 100,000 entrepreneurs in Latin America found. The study across 19 Latin American countries named five competencies of innovators. Among them, opportunity-based entrepreneurship was associated with higher growth expectations.

The study, detailed in the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, also highlighted that preparation was a key part of achieving success in identifying opportunities. The interweaving of such things as managing information well in order to spot opportunities and the innovator’s own education were also positive predictors of opportunity identification.

Another insightful study, conducted by XBInsight, collected competency data on nearly 5,000 leaders across a wide range of industries. Seizing opportunities was also named as one of the top leadership traits of innovators.

In areas where innovators sought opportunity, but the opportunity was not self-evident, innovators broke through tradition and dogma to create an opportunity for innovation.

Researchers point out that innovators have little patience with the status quo. In their quest for the opportunity, they challenge the people around them by asking questions to bring clarity to the situation at hand and understand where things could go to in the future.

The point of asking insightful questions is to stretch people’s imaginations in the quest for continual learning and the relentless pursuit of best practices. In short, successful innovators are careful of being boxed in organizational inertia. In the words of innovation and creativity expert, Dr. Gary Oster, “Successful innovators have exceedingly short doctrine lists and necessarily keep dogma in abeyance.” History is replete with examples of such leaders.

Leading Innovators at Work

Can we think of innovators that have been ferociously opportunistic? Jack Ma, founder of China’s Alibaba is one who deserves such recognition. A one-time English teacher, he visited the U.S. as a translator in 1995, where he was introduced to the internet, something that was virtually unknown in China at the time. His opportunistic drive led him to try to set-up a version of the yellow pages; he failed. Then, he tried something else: seized the opportunity to connect China with the rest of the world. He later, in 1999, formed Alibaba. Alibaba is not only connecting the world today, but it has become an industry giant, described by some as the world’s biggest online commerce company.

In the U.S., we can think of great companies like Apple. Interestingly, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook also highlighted opportunity as the driving factor in Apple’s success. Tim Cook noted that Apple’s opportunity to innovate stemmed from making products that gave people the ability to do things they could not do before. Because Apple was able to discover those opportunities, its products filled the void, and ultimately, led to innovation and the exponential growth of the company.

Reflection Moment

One cannot help but feel excited about the examples and data above. I do! But none of this would matter without application. This is why I want to use this small section, so we can reflect for a moment. The goal is to begin to embrace the characteristics of leading innovators. Here we go…

Day 1. What opportunities exist to lead change in my business or organization? (Get in front of a wall with a pack of post-it notes and start writing. As you write the opportunities, take the post-its and stick them on the wall. Then, walk away.)

Day 2. Observe the opportunities on the wall. Are there any patterns. Group the opportunities and associate them in groups of similar opportunities. Then, walk away.

Day 3. The fun part: action! As you see the groupings, what are you going to do now? (Write two actions for each grouping that will pave the way to seizing the opportunity.)

Day 4. Start making calls, writing, …just get started…


The next series of posts will explore the next three characteristics of leading innovators. Read you soon! 😉

Always motivated, lugo

©2018 LugoSantiago Enterprise Group

References and Notes:

Allen, F. 2014, “What makes Alibaba’s Jack Ma a great innovator, Forbes, [online] Available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/frederickallen/2014/05/07/what-makes-jack-ma-a-great-innovator/#1df01d5c2c71.

Bernstein, J. 2018, “The most creative people in business in 2018,” Fast Company, [online] Available at https://www.fastcompany.com/40571996/how-we-selected-the-100-most-creative-people-in-business-for-2018.

Eisner, S. 2016, “The “In-Factor”: Signature Traits of Innovation’s Leaders”, Journal of Applied Business Research, vol. 32, no. 1, p. 185.

Lecuna, A., Cohen, B. & Chavez, R. 2017, “Characteristics of high-growth entrepreneurs in Latin America”, International Entrepreneurship and Management Journal, vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 141-159.

Oster, G. 2011, The light prize: Perspectives on Christian innovation, Virginia Beach, VA: Positive Signs Media, p. 191.

“What is Alibaba? It is a marketplace, a search engine, and a bank, all in one”, Wall Street Journal, [online] Available at http://projects.wsj.com/alibaba/.