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INNOVATE® Washington DMV Edition

Leadership matters. That’s an undeniable truth — the quality and type of leadership we cultivate and practice are paramount. From my journey in big consulting fi rms to my own innovation advisory practice, from startups to Global 500 companies, the critical success factor remains: leadership is the foundation of open innovation and impactful progress.

The Limitations of Traditional Business
Early on, I naively believed technology alone could drive business success. But, I learned that merely deploying technology was a superficial solution. True innovation doesn’t stem from reducing costs or improving processes alone — it’s a mindset. I recognized a deeper, transformative approach was missing. Enter digital transformation. Here was a business framework that place people, not processes or technology, at the center of innovation. I embarked on a new path, focusing on startups and their adoption of lean and agile principles, believing corporations had much to learn from these dynamic ecosystems. Yet, a glaring truth emerged: the success of any enterprise boils down to leadership.

Regenerative Leadership
My career-long research introduced me to regenerative leadership. It recognizes businesses as living, breathing ecosystems of individuals with feelings, thoughts, and aspirations – not as combinations of processes, technologies, and data.

To innovate, a leader must adopt a regenerative mindset, the goal being to co-create a human centered organization. It’s essential to view businesses as more than profit-generating machines.

We have a crisis in leadership. Most people feel undervalued and, hence, disengaged.

Management vs. Leadership
This crisis stems from outdated leadership development models and practices, ill-equipped to navigate the complexities of modern technology, macro-economic forces, consumer behavior shifts, and the advent of AI. We confuse management with leadership, leading to a mechanistic mindset and worse, the commoditization of human agency.

Historically, we’ve viewed workplaces through a factory mindset, obsessing over productivity and efficiency. But in an era of rapid technological advancements, why are we working more, earning less, and drifting apart as communities? A lack of true leadership. While management is essential for certain aspects like inventory, data, or equipment, applying this managerial approach to people is flawed. We can’t control human beings; that’s an illusion.

The Path Forward
Our leadership revolution begins with a mindset shift. When we hire someone, the mindset shouldn’t be, “You will produce because I pay you.” Instead, it should be, “You are a valuable partner in our shared vision, and I embrace your whole person.” We must move from commoditizing human agency to valuing and nurturing it.

As we navigate this era of change, it’s crucial to remember leadership isn’t just the way forward — it’s the only way forward.

Ken Polotan is the founder and CEO of T H E O R I, transforming traditional businesses into high-performing, human-centered, and agile digital organizations. Ken is a thought leader, conference speaker, and content producer.

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