Many of you might be asking yourselves, “How can I get on my company’s high potential list?" You’re putting in long hours to beat your performance metrics. You’re embracing your organization’s culture and values. You have a solid reputation among your colleagues. And you’re getting impressive performance reviews. You feel like you’re doing everything right. But still, high potential status remains elusive.

What’s the problem? Research suggests that in the past you could have made it to high potential status just by being a value creator who is able to execute. But today, more is expected of you—you must be both a value creator and a game changer. If you want to be a high potential executive, you need to learn how to lead your team to innovate. Why? Because in order remain competitive today, organizations know they need to innovate not just once, but time and again.

So what can you do? The first step might require you to challenge your conventional notions of good leadership. Over the past 10 years, along with three collaborators, I have been studying exceptional innovation leaders in different industries. The leaders we studied all rejected the widely accepted notion that a leader must be visionary. Instead of creating a vision and inspiring others to execute that vision, they considered it their role to create a community around shared purpose, values, and norms, and to build organizational capabilities required for innovation. They also embraced a fundamental belief that we saw reflected in their mindset and behaviour—namely, that everybody has a slice of genius. They believed that even seemingly ordinary people have the potential to make extraordinary contributions to innovation.

Think about it. Direction-setting leadership can work well when the solution to a problem is known and straightforward. But what if the problem requires a completely original response? By definition, then, leading innovation cannot be about creating and selling a vision to people and then somehow inspiring them to execute it.

To create a team that can innovate, the hard work starts with you. You need to recast your role and responsibilities. Your primary task is to unleash people’s talents and passions, and harness those slices of genius into a collective solution to address a problem or opportunity that will allow your organization to grow.

The hard work doesn’t end there. Once you’ve begun to make this change in mindset, you must also ask yourself, “Does my team have what it takes to innovate?" To know for sure, you need to understand how innovation works—through a process of collaboration, discovery-driven learning and integrative decision-making—and then begin to build the culture and capabilities required to overcome the challenges.

Despite what many seem to believe, innovation is not about solo genius, it is about collective genius. Innovation emerges most often from the collaboration of diverse people as they generate a wide-ranging portfolio of ideas, that they then refine, improve, and even evolve into new ideas through discussion, give-and-take and often heated discussions. Thus collaboration should involve passionate disagreement. Yet, this friction of clashing ideas can be hard to bear. It can create tension and stress—particularly in talented teams, where there can often be a sense of “too many cooks in the kitchen". Many of us dislike conflict and try to discourage or minimize differences. But if you want the free flow of ideas and the rich discussions that collaboration needs, then you need to learn to manage these tensions—to create an environment supportive enough that people are willing share their slices of genius, but also confrontational enough so that the benefits of collaboration can be realized.

Innovation requires a process of trial and error, with false starts, mistakes and missteps along the way. Through a series of experiments, innovative groups act rather than plan their way forward, and solutions emerge that are usually different from anything anyone anticipated. But this, too, can be uncomfortable. Most of us prefer to move systematically towards a desired outcome. We set a goal, make a plan, assign responsibilities, work the plan and track progress until the goal is achieved. Isn’t that approach just good management? Not when it comes to innovation. To lead innovation, you need to create an environment that balances the need for intelligent mistakes and improvization with the realities of performance.

Creating something novel and useful is most often an exercise in combining existing ideas, including ones that once seemed mutually exclusive. To do this requires moving beyond either-or thinking to both-and thinking. But this can also be difficult. All too often, leaders and their groups solve problems through domination—where one group prevails—or compromise—where the group meets in the middle. Unfortunately, domination and compromise usually lead to less-than-innovative solutions. Innovation requires decision-making that allows for the integration of ideas—combining option A and option B to create something new, option C, that’s better than A or B. Making integrative choices is what allows difference, conflict and learning to be embraced in the final solution. But for this to work, you must ensure that your team is patient enough to let great ideas emerge and be developed; and at the same time, you must instill enough urgency and direction to ensure that decisions actually get made.

Innovation problem-solving can feel unnatural and even dangerous in many organizations. But if you want to be high potential today, it is not enough to build a team that can execute and deliver value. You must also build a team willing and able to do the emotionally and intellectually hard work of innovation. The world is counting on you to be forward-looking—and mastering new ways of leading is how you can change the game.

Linda A. Hill is a Wallace Brett Donham professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, and faculty chair, Leadership Initiative. ©2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

Close