CIOs Should Pick Their Battles Wisely

By Larry Bonfante  |  Posted 04-08-2015 Print Email

Having the courage of your convictions and being willing to fight the good fight is definitely a tool that great leaders have in their utility belts.

One of the qualities associated with great leaders is the willingness, courage and ability to fight for what’s right. But as the old adage goes, discretion is the better part of valor.

When I was working at Pfizer in the 1990s, I had a reputation as a person who was willing to fight the good fight. The staff viewed me as a “man of the people,” willing to fight for the little guy. However, sometimes my management viewed me as a pain in the lower back! I had the good fortune to be able to work with a talented executive coach back in those days (which perhaps is one of the reasons why I have become an executive coach and am such a strong proponent of coaching). She helped me understand that there was a difference between being a person of conviction, and being, as Tom Petty would frame it, a rebel without a clue.

She helped me understand that there are three scenarios a leader has to work through. Scenario one is when you see something you feel needs to be addressed that you feel very strongly about and actually have an opportunity to impact. While it might require a hard fight and an upward climb, these critical issues which you feel passionately about are well worth the fight. First of all, they are congruent with your perceptions of what is right and what a person of integrity would care about. Second, you have at least a puncher’s chance of winning the fight. In these cases you should muster up all the passion, energy and acumen you can to fight the good fight.

The second scenario is something that you may disagree with but is not truly a major issue and you can learn to live with. In these cases you are best served conserving your political bullets for a more important crusade. Remember the best way to ensure you lose the war is to concurrently fight battles on too many fronts!

The final scenario is the toughest for a leader to navigate. It’s the situation where you feel strongly about an issue but in your quiet moments you realize you really don’t have the opportunity or ability to impact the situation. These are the tough ones because every cell in your being is telling you to fight the good fight. However, your judgment and experience is telling you that as noble as this may sound, the bottom line is that you won’t impact the end result. As a matter of fact, all you’re likely to accomplish is to tick off a lot of senior level people whose support and good will you may very well need to win a battle on another day.

In these cases you have two choices. One is to muster up the maturity and discipline to hold your tongue knowing that your energy can’t impact the decision and you are better served fighting a different fight on another day. The other option is if the issue is so important that it impacts your integrity and your feeling of being able to continue on as a positive contributor to a management team you can’t support, is to take your ball and go home! This is a fairly drastic approach that should be used judiciously (although I must admit I have done this in my career).

Having the courage of your convictions and being willing to fight the good fight is definitely a tool that great leaders have in their utility belts. Having the maturity to pick your battles wisely is also a sign of great leadership. Always remember you can’t help anyone if you waste all your political capital.

Larry Bonfante is a practicing CIO and founder of CIO Bench Coach, LLC, an executive coaching practice for IT executives. He is also the author of Lessons in IT Transformation, published by John Wiley & Sons. He can be reached at


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