When I was growing up in Singapore, I watched TV shows that shaped my ideas about heroes and villains. Among them were “The Lone Ranger” and “Robin Hood.” It was inspiring and transformative to see good triumph over evil every day.
Now that I’ve made my career as an innovator, I often think about the examples these shows gave me.
I never wanted to be like Tonto, but I cherished his loyalty. He did all the difficult work, but never got top billing. I admired Robin of Locksley because he had an effective sense of humor, and he assembled a team that made a virtue of defiance. Both of these characters had a cause greater than themselves.
What are the lessons here for innovators who buck the conventional wisdom and challenge the evil of inertia? Here goes:
1. Tonto did everything that he was instructed to do, but it was the Lone Ranger who made the big decisions. Tonto had to show his loyalty, but he was smarter than the Lone Ranger. Many CEOs rely on innovation, keep it loyal, but never give it the “center stage” position that it deserves as an instrument of change and transformation. One practical idea based on this: ask your senior executive sponsor(s) for a review of your job description, and work together to ensure that it is aligned with their objectives — and the CEO’s.
Robin Hood did not ask to run an incubator inside the Sheriff of Nottingham’s castle to test out new ideas about new taxation methods.
2. Robin Hood did not ask to run an incubator inside the Sheriff of Nottingham’s castle to test out new ideas about new taxation methods, or how to address poverty among the citizenry. He left and created his own set of rules, because his values did not match the Sheriff’s. So make sure you are working somewhere that there is a match of values with mission. If not, find your forest, and rob from the rich to feed the poor.
3. Robin found his leadership team one person at a time. He picked renegades in thinking — doers who were brave enough to challenge the status quo, who were rough around the edges, and who had a sense of drama and humor. As an innovator, avoid populating your team with people who agree with you on methods. The worst thing for an innovator is to be heard and followed. We need catalysts who change us as they change the culture and the markets.
4. Robin did not defeat the Sheriff of Nottingham. He held the world in balance between the status quo and innovation, until the King returned to set things back in balance. So as innovators, what is your objective? To change the world, with the innovator defeating the status quo for good? That a balance is reached between the present and the future, the core and the experimental? Decide that and discuss it with your team.
5. I never saw Robin or the Lone Ranger screaming about their passion for their ideas. Rather, I saw them always talk about their ideals, and what they wanted to achieve, one issue at a time. They devised ways to bring about change, one person at a time. Ideas were the instrument of their ideals.
When heroes only seek to satisfy the leaders, they lose the essence of what it means to be heroic.
A note of caution…
If I had my way now, as a grown-up and a seasoned innovator, I would have Tonto renegotiate expectations as second to Lone Ranger, the innovator-in-residence. Robin would realize that the path to victory is waiting for the King to reset the agenda.
But these fables and folklore help us frame our own journey and the challenges we face as innovators. You choose to be a hero in your own way. But when heroes only seek to satisfy the leaders, they lose the essence of what it means to be heroic. Imagine if Robin Hood chose to present his theory of work to the Sheriff and his compatriots, asking for funding to continue. The most nuanced lesson here is that asking for guidance does not mean asking for permission. You must always hold the threat of action.
Innovators are transformative agents who see the future before it arrives, and can bring their organizations closer to it. So let us as innovators behave in the fashion we wished others would. With humility, discernment, and most of all, with the courage to act.
Hi-yo, Silver! Away!