“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
I used to think that I understood innovation.
Then I spent a decade and a half leading innovation in one form or another. Starting new initiatives. After thousands of hours of combined leading, experimenting, and learning, I’ve learned that many of my assumptions about the nature of innovation were wrong.
I believed innovation is all about brand new ideas. Unprecedented. Original. Blue Ocean. Never been done before.
I mean, if it had been done before, or if it was built on the work of someone else, was it really innovative?
Martin Luther as Innovator
Then I studied the life and history of leaders throughout history who were part of major leaps forward in their time. People like Leonardo Da Vinci. Steve Jobs. Martin Luther.
One of the best books I’ve read that offers insights into the life of Martin Luther is Brand Luther by Andrew Pettegree. (Penguin, Oct. 2015)
If I asked you to think of history’s top innovators, Martin Luther might not be the first person who comes to mind. He might not even crack the top ten. But let’s consider the case for Martin Luther as an innovative leader, and the Protestant Reformation as a time of innovation:
- Challenged commonly-held beliefs of the day. Like many innovators before and since Luther didn’t conform to the general consensus. His critical thinking skills led him to breakthrough insights outside the norm of his day.
- Leveraged new technology to achieve unprecedented scale and reach. Luther is well-known for using the relatively new technology of the printing press in unique ways. This caused the message of the Reformation to spread like wildfire, in ways traditional publishing approaches of his day could have ever accomplished.
- Developed unconventional approaches to getting his message across. Beyond technology alone, Luther innovated in many other ways wildly different from his contemporaries, such as using woodcut illustrations. He also used simple non-academic language, and published in the common language of German rather than Latin.
- Created a new system that would change the lives of tens of millions of people throughout history. Perhaps the best case for Luther as an innovator is the influence of his work over the past 500 years. Luther’s approaches to bringing the Bible to people in their common language, encouraging them to read it for themselves, and challenging church authority has changed the world throughout history.
Here are three lessons from the life and times of Martin Luther that I hope will inspire you in your own leadership and call to innovate.
1. Start with Purpose
Luther was driven by purpose. All effective innovation starts with a compelling purpose. A highly conscientious man, over the course of his early life Luther became convinced that the church of his day had buried the truths of Scripture under layers of church doctrine and tradition. He’s perhaps most famous for his Ninety-five Theses on church indulgences, but when he penned those, he had no interest in splitting the church as he knew it, but rather calling out a practice that he felt was unbiblical and wrong.
All effective innovation starts with a compelling purpose.
Eventually, however, through a series of increasingly profound experiences, he became driven by a purpose to reform the church and restore the centrality of the Bible to Christian life. What we now know as the Protestant Reformation was born.
Without purpose, Luther would have had no reason to innovate. His driving purpose motivated him to risk his life challenging the status quo and creatively using technology of his day to spread his message.
All innovation should start with questions like: “Why are we doing this? To what end do we need a breakthrough? Why do we need to find new and better ways to accomplish our mission?”
2. Leverage your Context
We’ve already talked a bit about who Luther was, but his context is just as important. Where and when Luther was born, plus his life experiences, created fertile soil for God’s purposes. Here are a few things that shaped Luther’s world:
- Luther’s family - His mother was a pious, intelligent woman, and his father was a strong, easily angered, combative man who was clever and ambitious in business.
- The Catholic Church – The dominant religion and power structure of his day, Luther came to believe it had added layers of rules and tradition that distracted from the truths at the core of the faith.
- The humanist movement – It shaped the way intellectuals engaged with knowledge. For instance, humanists believed in the importance of reading original texts instead of summaries or translations. This informed Luther’s belief that common people should be able to read the Bible for themselves, in their own language.
- Technological change and innovation – The breakthrough communications technology of his day, the printing press, had been invented some 65 years prior to Luther’s writing of the Ninety-five Theses, but it had not yet been used in the way Luther and his contemporaries did to drive mass communication.
- Entrepreneurial opportunity – Luther was surrounded by entrepreneurial endeavors because of his geopolitical and economic context. For example, the prosperity of the publishing industry was a key driver in the spreading of his and other Reformers' ideas.
- Life experiences and education – Luther studied law and then philosophy, before committing himself to the monastic life. He became faculty and was promoted to higher roles, ultimately becoming chair of theology at the University of Wittenberg.
- Friends and contemporaries – He was surrounded by people who were living out their own giftings and context, in such a way that made the Reformation possible.
We are all a product of two things – who God created us to be, and the context in which we are placed. The better we understand who we are, our strengths and weaknesses, and how to live that out in the context we are placed, the more effectively we can innovate.
What are your unique strengths? Weaknesses? And where has God placed you in this season? How can you best live out who you are in that place?
3. Collaborate: It's Required to Innovate
The idea of the lone innovator is a myth. Innovation takes a village – many individuals using their own gifts and talents coming together in a shared context.
Luther gets an undue amount of credit for his role in the Reformation. He was a very important figure, but he was also surrounded by contemporaries who used their own talents and gifts to further the movement.
Looking just at Luther’s immediate circle of collaborators, here are just three examples:
- Lucas Cranach was an artist, entrepreneur, and friend of Luther. He was court painter and ran a thriving art studio and production shop in Wittenberg. He innovated and mastered art of creating woodcuts of vivid imagery and emotion. Cranach was also savvy in business, investing in paper mills and production capacity. Both critical innovations would prove vital for spreading the message of the Reformation.
- Frederick the Wise was the local authority in Wittenberg, and patron to both Luther and Cranach. A devout Catholic himself, he nonetheless protected Luther when Rome demanded that Luther be handed over to church authorities. At one point, Frederick hid Luther away in his castle in Wartburg. It was during this time of isolation that Luther undertook arguably the most innovative and impactful work of his life — translating the Bible into German.
- Philip Melanchthon was a follower of Martin Luther, and ultimately his closest colleague. Described as a “towering intellectual force,” Philip was said to be “shy, stammering… and frail.” Unlike Luther, he was cautious, timid and reluctant to assert himself. But Luther saw him as his intellectual superior and looked to Philip to correct and improve his own work. Melanchthon took Luther’s ideas and built on them.
Luther was surrounded by collaborators who joined him using their gifts to ensure that the innovation of the Reformation was sustainable.
What About You?
Do you have people in your life who bring different perspectives, gifts, and lived experiences to the table? Innovation takes a village – many individuals using their own gifts and talents coming together in a shared context.
So, what is your driving purpose?
So, what is your driving purpose? How can you leverage who you are, and your context? And, who are you surrounding yourself with?
God made you. He put you where you are for a reason. He gave you specific gifts and lived experiences, and he has a plan for you. “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (Psalm 139:16)
Innovation is not new. It is based on ancient truths and principles. Our task as leaders is to translate these ancient lessons to our own unique moment.
Consultant, speaker, and writer Dave Raley is the founder of Imago Consulting, a firm that helps faith-informed organizations generate profitable growth by developing sustainable innovation. He’s also the co-founder and host of the Purpose & Profit Podcast - a show about the surprising ideas at the intersection of nonprofit causes and for-profit brands.
Hear Dave Raley on the Purpose&Profit Podcast as he discusses “Netflix, Monthly Donations, and The Subscription Economy” (05/22/23) – LISTEN