A childhood love of invention and creativity steered CCL’s David Horth into a career as an engineer. But his knack for “making new things happen in organizations” opened the door to his work as an innovation expert. Today, David understands both innovation and leadership — and has focused his work on the intersection of the two.
David is co-author of The Leader’s Edge: Six Creative Competencies for Navigating Complex Challenges, a senior faculty member, and a sought-after speaker.
How did you end up working in the leadership development field? Was there an “a-ha” moment or a gradual process?
DMH: Looking back, it seems like evolution. I can see there were patterns around innovation from an early age. At age 16, I remember when the hovercraft designed by British inventor Christopher Cockerell landed on Dover Beach (my hometown in England). I was intrigued by that. I thought if I could become a technical expert, then a manager, maybe I could come do something about innovation, working from that angle.
I started as a chemistry major, but dropped that quickly and became an engineer. I worked as an engineer at ICL [International Computers Limited, a large British company] for 21 years. We had a stunning piece of technology that was sitting in the lab. No one knew how to get it in the market. I helped steer its development through the organization’s political morass to do this. In 1985, this technology won the Queen’s Award for technological innovation.
It was clear that I had a knack of making new things, new technologies happen in organizations. The CEO saw this and wanted me to focus on how to make the organization more innovative. I spent a couple weeks in the U.S., where the study of innovation was more advanced. I attended conferences, including one in Holland, where I met Stan Gryskiewicz and others from CCL. I came to Greensboro to work for CCL in 1988.
What books have been influential or favorites in the innovation or leadership field?
DMH: My bible for innovation is Inside Corporate Innovation by Robert Burgelman and Leonard Sayles. I met Burgelman in Palo Alto in 1987 and shared with him how I was using his model for describing organizational innovation as a diagnostic tool. His model describes what needs to happen at different levels in the organization, how to adjust process and structures to accommodate innovation. This work has influenced my thinking a lot.
Richard Foster’s Innovation: The Attacker’s Advantage, George Land’s Breakpoint and Beyond and more recently The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christianson, have all been important to my understanding about organizational innovation and how organizations need to pay attention to and navigate the complexities of innovating before the product cycle drops off. You have to invent something new before it is too late, not from a moment of “oops, we need another product.”
There are a lot of books out there now about the management of innovation and innovation process but little about leadership and innovation and the invisible processes that support or inhibit innovation. The Everyday Work of Art by Eric Booth is on the edge of that. It looks at what goes on through the eyes of the artist. Although it was not written from a leadership perspective, for me, it’s loaded with it. It’s like a precursor to the book I wrote, The Leader’s Edge. Theresa Amabile, who worked with CCL to create our KEYS organizational assessment, talks about creating a climate in which innovation can happen, so some of her writing plays in the invisible space that I mentioned. Also my good friend, Bob Rosenfeld’s book: Making the Invisible Visible, based on his extensive experience in creating innovation systems in organizations.
What aspects of your work really jazz you up these days?
DMH: Design work. I see myself as a designer. In my engineering career, my work was to look at a client problem or issue and turn it into a product or technical solution. Today, I’m designing experiences, not technology. I get very proud, puff my chest out, when I think of CCL programs I’ve helped to design, most recently Maximizing Your Leadership Potential and Leadership Fundamentals. Whatever it is I help design doesn’t depend on my innovation expertise and often doesn’t contain modules pertaining to innovation but I do try to help the design teams put some creative flair into the design to help produce some kind of wow for the participants. I’m proud of the Innovation Leadership workshops and custom programs and the tools I’ve worked on — Visual Explorer, Leadership Metaphor Explorer and now Wisdom Explorer. I love helping others transform their ideas into programs and products. This kind of work brings together both my design and my innovation expertise.
Do you have a favorite place to visit? Or a place you’ve traveled to that was extraordinary?
DMH: Where can I feel really at peace? Being near the sea. Not the mountains — I can’t be 4,000 feet above sea level without feeling ill! I grew up by the sea.
One place I’ve never been back to and would like to see again is Australia. I visited in 1972, stayed mostly in Melbourne and Sydney, but I spent some time in the outback. I learned to make the sound of a kookaburra. I know only a few people who can make the sound of a kookaburra on a didgeridoo!
Speaking of the didgeridoo, you also love to listen to and play all sorts of music.
DMH: My sons tell me I play something like 35 different musical instruments. Right now I’m learning to play the five-string banjo, and I love it.
Every time I take time to reflect on who I am, what my unique purpose is in the world, it comes back to this: I am a musician and I’m a teacher. But I’m not a music teacher. Finding the sweet spot at the confluence of music and teaching for me has been a lifelong journey. One of the projects I hope to emerge from this quest is a leadership development tool, which for now I call Audio Explorer (I have prototyped this successfully). In the meantime, I mostly keep the teacher and musician in me apart.