Seeing Beneath the Surface: Innovation and Leadership

These days there is a lot said and written about the need to innovate. Companies are encouraged to innovate and the topic is now a natural part of most MBA’s and leadership education programmes – something that is slightly ironic as many of these programmes themselves are in desperate need of a makeover! Innovation is important and certainly we in TomorrowToday, are part of the chorus strongly advocating the need for innovation.

Let me digress for a moment.

The first woman mathematician was reputedly Hypatia of Alexandria (A.D. 370 – 415). Taught by her father,Theon, Hypatia had twin problems to deal with in the exercise of her knowledge and abilities. Firstly, she found herself in a context where the all-powerful church considered mathematics and science to be heresy. Secondly, Hypatia was a woman! This was a time when it was unusual for women to receive an education. In spite of these obstacles, Hypatia became a highly respected teacher, scientist, astronomer and writer. One of her inventions, the hydroscope, made it possible to view objects beneath the surface of the water.

Because of her curious intellect and her devotion to education and new learning, Hypatia became a lightening rod in the political tensions that existed between the Christians and non-Christians in Alexandria. Much of what she believed and represented went against the Roman Empire’s Christian doctrines. Hypatia’s Neoplatonic views which were based on the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle (no favourites of the Church themselves!) prompted a mob of zealous Christian monks to murder her in the March of A.D. 415. Some believe that Hypatia’s death marked the end of the Greek mathematical tradition in Alexandria.

“So what has all this got to do with innovation?” you might well ask.


Well there is an important lesson to be learnt from Hypatia’s fate. Essentially it is that innovation often poses a serious risk to the establishment. With the vantage point of the 21 Century, one can review the Church’s stance towards science and mathematics and see it for what it was – bigoted prejudice without foundation. The thinking and discoveries of such disciplines threatened the Church’s all-powerful grip on ‘the truth’ and was something that posed a serious threat to their power. From where we stand today it is easy to see the Church’s folly and narrow-mindedness but here is the challenge: why do we think that history will not judge us in much the same way?

Thinking and invention that threaten our sensibilities today might yet prove to be tomorrow’s norm and today’s ‘truth’, be shown up as tomorrow’s folly. Those on the cusp of innovation often are met with opposition and hostility for daring to reveal an alternative way to see and do things. Within our organisations are layers of precedent and protocol that prove stubborn in the face of innovation. We often talk a better game than we practise when it comes to innovation within the ambit of our organisations. We murder the ‘Hypatias’.

If you decide to innovate, be careful what you wish for. Serious commitment to innovation will most likely change the way things are done and that might just mean you! In today’s connected and complex world, innovation is simply not optional. If you don’t innovate, somebody, somewhere, will innovate for you. The challenge is to build companies that are nimble, quick and which act as containers for an abundant capacity for adaptive intelligence. Such organisations don’t resemble those that have got us thus far. They might have the same logo on the outside but inside, they need to look different. Leaders who understand this are better able to lead effectively in such times. They recognise the need for their own Hypatias and encourage the kind of thinking that will challenge the status quo and in doing so, will help usher in the ‘new’.

It is always dangerous to be a Hypatia. But, we are better off for such people: people brave enough to point towards a better way and new thinking that changes the way we both see and do things. So, who is your Hypatia? And, what are they saying?

Answering those two questions is a good place to start.  That is only if you are a leader serious about the need to innovate.

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