What is Leadership in IT?

This is a topic I sometimes get asked about by journalists.  There are numerous articles published in magazines and online about “leadership”.  Consultants will sell you studies and there is generally supposed to be a rather large problem about it.

The IT profession worries a lot about how it is perceived by its customers, partners and suppliers: whether it has a seat at the top table, whether it is listened to and, when it is feeling collectively pessimistic, whether anyone is listening at all.

Now there is a lot you could talk about here and I will only attempt to answer the leadership question.  It’s something I have put a lot of thought into, after all it is a large and a complex topic.

Lets start at the boring end of this and define our terms, leadership in the Oxford Dictionaries Web-site is defined as:

  • “the action of leading a group of people or an organization, or the ability to do this”

Not much use is it?  So we then get to leader where the first definition is:

  • “the person who leads or commands a group, organization, or country”

This is not getting anywhere is it?  So then we take a look at lead and at last with the third definition (ignoring the parts about leading animals and winning a race) we find:

“#3 be in charge or command of:

  • organise and direct
  • be the principal player of (a group of musicians)
  • set (a process) in motion
  • begin a report or text with a particular item
  • in boxing make an attack
  • in card games play the first card”

So let’s see if we can work with these?  Well simply it is important to recognise that leading and leadership have many different meanings for different people, different organisations and different contexts.

There are four elements of this that resonate with me.  The first is that leadership in IT requires you to organise and direct. And I like the dictionaries juxtaposition here of ORGANISE and DIRECT.  It is a big risk that you may sometimes be tempted to do too much organising of the IT Department and forget to set strategic directions clearly; and vice versa since direction of IT without effective order and organisation will almost certainly end in tears.

Secondly setting a process in motion is of course also very familiar to anyone in modern organisations these days.  Leadership in the 21st Century is usually rarely in the military mode where you ask people who report to you to advance in a particular direction (or indeed shout CHARGE! follow me!).  Most likely in complex organisations these days IT leadership is about working with, persuading and influencing “business process owners”, in your and often in other companies or structures, to deliver together the shared objective.  Less dramatic than shouting CHARGE, it is probably harder to do and requires a completely different set of skills including, analysis, communications and political ‘know-how’.

Thirdly being the principal player of a group of musicians is a really tremendous definition, which I really like.  These days no-one in IT knows it all, understands every technology old and new, is a database expert and a networking genius, can manage waterfall and agile projects and so forth.  You rely on the talent and the experience of your immediate team and their teams.  If I have learnt one thing over my time as a CIO it is that IT is a team sport.  For it all to work it has all to work together and the analogy of an orchestra is an excellent one.  Whether the CIO is the conductor or the first violin depends on you, and I think sometimes it is smart to be part of the team and sometimes to conduct it.

Finally there is the boxing attack, and yes on a small number of issues you are going to have some fights.  Most things can be resolved by compromise but leadership does involve having some principles and lines in the sand, where an IT leader will need to fight his or her corner.  An example will be the point where if a system is not renewed the business is in danger, or you are insecure, or don’t have adequate back-up.  You cannot compromise on those issues.

I invariably disappoint the journalists with complicated answers like this on IT leadership but I really do think it just depends – depends on the culture of your organisation, depends on the circumstances you find yourself in (a Recession requires very different leadership from a Boom) and above all depends on you.

But I would suggest you think as an IT leader where you want to be on the following dimensions:

  • organise
  • direct
  • process
  • conduct
  • (and very rarely) attack

About paulcoby
I am CIO at the John Lewis Partnership in the UK. I was Chair of SITA - the airline solutions company owned by the Air Transport Community - for 11 years. I am also on the Boards of Clydesdale and Yorkshire Bank and Pets at Home. Previously I was Head of BA Services and for 10 years CIO at British Airways. I am interested in Roman and Military History. The views expressed are entirely my own not my employers.

One Response to What is Leadership in IT?

  1. Hey Paul..

    Long time since the oneworld days a dozen or so years ago. Really enjoyed working with you and the BA team back when we were strategizing what an Airline Alliance IT would / should be all about.

    Anyways – really nice to see you have a blog going. I read this article with interest and wanted to say that you touch on a very interesting situation today facing many IT leaders. I, as you firmly believe that there are no “IT” projects, just business projects and that in order for IT to succeed, we need to anticipate the business needs and have the right skills, talents and resources to execute. Your insight leaves one to consider that we as IT leaders really need to focus on the right things.

    I look forward to reading future blogs. If you have an interest, I as well occasionally write about all things technology, family, people and business – check out my blog at http://www.fengstad.ca.

    Take care,
    Grant Fengstad
    (former Director, IT Canadian Airlines and CTO Air Canada)

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