Here is a speech I gave at my Toastmaster club on the 25th of January. I just added some links for readers to be able to get more information about some topics or ideas.

There is a quote about leadership that I like very much. It is: "Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff."

This year is an election year in France and the US. And Toastmaster has a new motto that is all about leadership. So for our leaders and ourselves, because we are at least a little bit leading ourselves too, hopefully, it's a good time to ask us some questions about leadership. Especially how can we make sure that leaders are innovative enough to be able to find new directions, and if possible directions that are not heading toward the cliff?

I am going to talk about this, first in the corporate context, then in the indivual context, and eventually in the context of a country too.

More than 10 years ago venture capitalists used to often replace the founders at the top of some startups they controlled after having invested in them. And they often put people with a managing background in charge of these startups.

But over time they realized that it was very often a disaster. They thought that by putting someone with a good track record of managing people or money, they would optimize the growth of the companies they had just acquired. But the reality was that the new leaders were most of the time unable to make good strategic decisions.

Now the smart venture capitalists don't replace the founders at the top, and they explain it by saying that "innovation is the most difficult core competency to build in any business".

Especially innovation is the most difficult thing a startup has to do, and innovation is at the heart of a startup. It can only succeed by out innovating its often more powerful and more entranched competitors.

By the way, that's what Apple and Steve Jobs did with the iPod, iPhone and iPad. When Apple was not run by Steve Jobs it didn't succeed at innovating and lost money and market share.

So what are the characteristics of an innovative corporate leader? Well the most important thing is of course having a good track record of successfully innovating in the main domain of the company.

Now let's talk about ourselves. At our individual level, innovating means that we have to take risks. It is often very difficult to successfully innovate and it takes time. There is a very high risk of failure too. But we can learn from these failures and try again.

For example I started working on a free software project on my free time in 1999, and in 2002 I stoped working on this project because it was stagnating and I realized that it was not really possible to innovate on it. Then I worked for around one year on another free software project but it was a complete failure. It was only in 2006 that I started to work on a new project that let me and others innovate and finally became very successful around 2009. So it took me 10 years.

Indeed many people who are working with startups say that persistance, resilience and the ability to pivot, which means to change course while still trying to innovate in the domain you chose, are the most important qualities of startup founders. That's because they are the most important qualities that innovators need.

Now about countries, many economists, politicians and journalists make an anology between countries and companies. For example they talk about "Made in France" or "Made in America" or about "Factory France" as if countries were very big factories. It follows that, if we think successful innovators are good leaders for companies, then they should also be good leaders for countries.

Unfortunately, most leaders in most coutries are professional politicians, this means they are not likely to have a good track record of innovating in the domains, especially in high tech, that are likely to create many high salary jobs and to increase growth.

But let's look at the background of the people in charge in some countries. For example if on one side you have a country with 8 engineers in its government and on the other side you have a country with not even one engineer or scientist in its government, which country do you think is more likely to become a technology leader in the future? So in case you wondered the country with 8 engineers is China and the country with no engineer is the UK. And no, neither France nor the US approach China in this regard with at most 2 scientists or engineers.

To conclude, these days, with the Internet, smartphones, tablets, new software, and many other new things are coming every day in our lives. Innovation is everywhere, and everyone - that means people, companies and even countries - has to at least adapt and follow these innovations.

It is even much better of course when you can successfully innovate yourselves instead of just adapting to and following innovations created by others. Because when you successfully innovate, you get an edge, and often a very big one, over your competitors.

For example, as you know, Steve Jobs died last year. And nearly at the same time his company Apple became the most valuable company in the US.

So if I could choose one thing for us to remember about Steve Jobs and about this speech, it would be what a difference an innovative leader can make.