Nike as a Leader in Innovation

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Leadership refers to the ability to influence, inspire and guide others towards a predetermined destination. Different leaders have different approaches to, and styles of leadership all aimed at achieving the goals and objectives of their firms. In this essay, two such leadership models, which foster innovation, are examined in greater detail. Further, the essay focuses on Nike as a firm that has been at the forefront of innovation and at its current chief executive officer, Mark Parker who has been responsible for the success of the global footwear and athletic apparel giant.

Leadership Approaches

Each approach to leadership is premised on a number of different factors which may include among others the task at hand, the members of the team and the current conditions at the organization or within the team. Leadership styles may include the situational model, the transformational approach and the charismatic style.

Situational Leadership Model

            For the situational model of leadership, the key premise is that no single style of leadership fits all situations; as such, each scenario or situation in the organization will require a different approach. Essentially, the leader, as Dinh, Lord, Gardner, Meuser, Liden & Hu (2014) note, is required to adjust the approach they take in influencing or leading their teams depending on the prevailing conditions in the organization or the task to be performed of the individuals to be led. This model of leadership requires a great deal of emotional competence on the part of the leader and an exceptional knack for risk taking given that such leader will need to try out several approaches when dealing with their team members. As Hernandez, Eberly, Avolio & Johnson (2011) observe, this style of leadership requires leaders to not only possess an innovative side so as to adapt their skills to the organizational goals but to also have the requisite leadership experience and an ability to set goals for their teams. Essentially, this style calls on leaders to offer an example to their team members of innovation and creativity in handling of situations that arise in the organization.

Transformational Leadership Theory

            Avolio & Yammarino (2014) observe that this leadership style is hinged on the ability of a leader to inspire their team members and thus cause a transformation among them.  As a leadership approach, the transformational style involves great interaction between leaders and members of their teams, a fact that promotes the sharing of ideas and hence fosters innovation within the team. It is also founded on the collaboration between team members and their leader to identify a need for change, craft a vision for achieving such change and thereafter create a framework for achieving such goal. Best suited for organizations and teams where rules and regulations are not fixed and rigid, transformational leadership calls for meaningful communication between the leader and their team members to achieve remarkable success. Leaders who subscribe to this approach, as Schork, Heblich & Terzidis (2016) point out, tend to inspire and motivate their subjects through intellectual stimulation and the consideration of each individual’s needs and strengths. In this manner, this approach supports the expression of creativity among employees and thus increases their ability to innovate.

Leadership & Cultural Transformation

            Often times, the onus is on the team leader to offer direction and vision in the transformation of an organization. Through engagement of employees and rallying them towards a common cause that would result in the achievement of organizational goals, leaders can cause a transformation in the culture of an organization. One such example is that of Nike chief executive officer Mark Parker who also doubles as the president and chairman.

Mike Parker at Nike

Before Mike Parker’s assumption of the helm at Nike, the global athletic apparel giant had been struggling with sales numbers and overall revenue figures. He ascended to the top of the company in 2006, at a time when sales were slumping and profits were low; product launches were few and research and design had slowed down. During his twelve year tenure at the top of Nike, the company has been able to double its market capitalization and profit margins, as Golden (2016) observes, have grown by 57%. Much of this turnaround has been a result of cultural transformation at the company. Parker has been able to introduce a culture at Nike of open door leadership where each employee is free to float their idea to the head of product design. Through this transformational approach to company leadership, the firm has been able to embrace innovation and to prioritize product design, just as Latham (2014) foretells. For instance, before his ascension to the top, Nike was a rigid organization where everyone stuck to their roles- product manufacture would only rely on product designs from the research and development team; a fact that limited creativity and innovation at the firm.

            With the promotion of Parker to the helm of the Oregon based entity, and his transformational as well as situational approach to organizational leadership, the number of products has increased and the firm now serves more than just the traditional athletics and high end luxury segments of the market. Masaviru (2016) writes that Nike also serves the younger ‘street style’ generation which had hitherto been largely ignored by the firm. This consumer segment, Masaviru (2016) further points out, has been instrumental in the success of products such as the Fly Knit, the

Air Max, and the Free Run. In his almost two decades at the research and design section of the Nike Company, Parker and his team (which operates under the transformational and situational approaches of leadership) have been responsible for the design and creation of nearly thirty limited edition shoes (Childs & Jin, 2018). The innovative acumen of the Pennsylvania State University alumnus saw him christened the most creative CEO in 2012 by Fast Company and three years later the business person of the year by Fortune. Both accolades bear witness to the innovation and leadership abilities of Parker at the giant athletic apparel and footwear maker.

            During his tenure at the top, Parker has been able to prioritize innovation at Nike; the company presently works with athletes to continually develop footwear (and even apparel) that are not only stylish and comfortable that also help such athletes maximize their performance The ability of Mike Parker to approach issues from a non-traditional viewpoint has also seen the company concentrate more on the footwear business rather than spread out thin into other areas such as accessories and apparel which had hitherto taken the focus out of the company’s core product, the shoes. Childs & Jin (2018) make note of the fact that through Parker’s initiative and innovative approach as well as application of both the situational and transformational styles of leadership, Nike has been able to rake in a bigger share of the multibillion dollar US footwear market.

Discovery Skills & Innovation

            Parker’s ability to apply the five aspects of discovery skills (as advanced by Dyer, Gregerson & Christensen, 2009) has led to great rewards for Nike as a company. For one, his use of associating to connect different unrelated events has helped the firm become an icon in pop culture; Parker was able to associate Nike’s footwear with popular culture and thus take advantage of street style. His ability to inspire his employees to develop questions around products has also been able to contribute to the innovative culture that now dominates the Nike Company. Through observation as an aspect of discovery (Dyer, Gregerson & Christensen, 2009), Parker has been able to lead Nike designers and creative teams to become more responsive to customer needs and thus more innovative. This has helped inculcate in Nike as a company, the culture of innovation and customer focus. Further, his situational approach has allowed him to experiment with various designs and products, which has in turn enabled Nike as a company (under Parker’s leadership) to encourage creativity among its employees. To Nike, this has been instrumental in sowing the seeds of innovation and product design. As Graham-Leviss (2016) also alludes of innovative leaders, Parker has been able to demonstrate curiosity and hence presided over great innovation at Nike. Finally, Parker’s situational and transformational approaches to leadership have enabled the workers at the company to network with individuals such as athletes, fashion bloggers and critics whose inputs have enabled Nike to become the company it is today; known for its leadership in innovation (Masaviru, 2016). This is evident in the thirty limited edition shoes whose design and subsequent adoption by the company Parker and his team has been able to preside over.


In general, transformational and situational approaches to leadership have seen the Nike Company grow from strength to strength and become a notable leader in innovation in the fashion industry largely due to the exploits of a leader who observes such approaches.  The innovative leadership of Mike Parker has helped the Oregon based footwear and athletic apparel maker recover from a slump that stifled innovation and limited creativity at the firm. Today, the firm is not only responsive to customer needs but continually carries out extensive research into footwear in order to stay ahead of the competition; Nike is today an innovative leadership firm.


Avolio, B. J., & Yammarino, F. J. (Eds.). (2013). Transformational and Charismatic Leadership: The Road Ahead. Emerald Group Publishing.

Childs, M., & Jin, B. (2018). Nike: An Innovation Journey. In Product Innovation in the Global Fashion Industry (pp. 79-111). Palgrave Pivot, New York.

Dinh, J. E., Lord, R. G., Gardner, W. L., Meuser, J. D., Liden, R. C., & Hu, J. (2014). Leadership Theory and Research in the New Millennium: Current Theoretical Trends and Changing Perspectives. The Leadership Quarterly, 25(1), 36-62.

Dyer, J. H., Gregerson, H. B., & Christensen, C. M. (2009). The Innovator’s DNA: Five “Discovery Skills” separate True Innovators from the rest of us. Harvard Business Review 87(12), 60 -667

Golden, J. (2016). How Phil Knight turned a Dream into a $25 Billion Fortune. CNBC, May9, 2016. [Online] Accessed January 15, 2018 from

Graham-Leviss, K. (2016). The 5 Skills That Innovative Leaders Have in Common. Harvard Business Review, December 20, 2016. [Online] Accessed January 15, 2018 from

Hernandez, M., Eberly, M. B., Avolio, B. J., & Johnson, M. D. (2011). The Loci and Mechanisms of Leadership: Exploring a More Comprehensive View of Leadership Theory. The Leadership Quarterly, 22(6), 1165-1185.

Latham, J. R. (2014). Leadership for Quality and Innovation: Challenges, Theories and a Framework for Future Research. Quality Management Journal 24(2), 116-122.

Masaviru, M. (2016). Image Restoration: From Theory to Practice; the Case of Manny Pacquiao and Nike Company. Image, 51.

Schork, S., Heblich, B., & Terzidis, O. (2016). Effective Innovation Leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 28(3), 131-139

January 19, 2024



Corporations Management

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