IT Leadership: Overcoming Three Career-Limiting Myths

By Marc J. Schiller  |  Posted 01-20-2012

IT Leadership: Overcoming Three Career-Limiting Myths

What exactly is IT leadership?

Since I spend an awful lot of my time teaching leadership skills to IT professionals and managers, it's a question I get asked on a regular basis.  For a while, I answered the question with a synthesized review of different academic theories of leadership and how these apply to the world of the IT professional. Result? Glazed eyes and frustration.

Trial and error yielded what I thought was an answer that would drive engagement and discussion rather than provide an exact definition. The new response went like this:

IT leadership is a lot like pornography. I can't tell you exactly what it is, but I know when I see it and when I don't. But, more important than defining it is learning to see when you need to provide it and how to do just that.

I liked the laughs this answer got, and the interest it seemed to create with workshop attendees. But questions about the scope and nature of IT leadership kept coming up throughout the day. During one session a few months ago, a bright young analyst asked very matter-of-factly, "Why, exactly, am I at this leadership training? I don't manage anybody."

I responded with a question that was directed at the entire room of about 30 IT professionals: "Do you believe that IT leadership is only applicable to those with formal responsibility to manage others?" Imagine my surprised when nearly all of the attendees raised their hands. This was my "aha" moment.

See, all this time, I'd thought people were asking about the nature of leadership and how it differs from management. In reality, it wasn't an academic question at all. It was a question of basic relevance. And most non-managerial IT professionals (at least those showing up in my workshops) weren't exactly sure of the relevance.

Leadership Challenges Facing IT Pros Today


Over the next several months I explored this issue carefully. I asked IT professionals, managers and leaders a number of questions about leadership in general and IT leadership in particular. These questions included:

  • Which are the biggest leadership challenges facing IT pros today?

  • What are the leadership skills needed most by IT pros?

  • Who in the IT organization should acquire which skills?

  • Why is it important to have IT leadership skills in the first place?

Interested in the responses? Click here to participate in the survey and receive your free copy of the full results. It takes less than five minutes.

The collective answers to these questions revealed many important things about the nature of IT leadership development. The answers also helped explain why CIOs so frequently complain about the lack of leadership skills and abilities of their people.

Among the important insights the survey uncovered were the three false and highly limiting beliefs about IT leadership. These three beliefs are held by IT pros on all rungs of the organizational ladder:

  1. IT leadership only applies to managers with staff to manage.

  2. Leadership is mostly about motivating people and getting them to do what you want.Leadership is leadership.

  3. There is little difference between IT leadership and any other functional leadership.

Let's debunk these limiting beliefs in reverse order.

Myth No. 3: Most people would agree that leadership is fundamentally about the way one behaves that inspires and motivates others to follow them. And while there are certain behaviors that are generally applicable to all functional areas of life and work, there are wide variations in what motivates people in one functional setting versus another.

For example, political leadership skills and motivations are vastly different from ethical or educational leadership skills and motivations. That's why we often find that people are well suited for one type of leadership role and totally unsuited for another.

This is an especially important point when considering the functional context in which IT professionals need to demonstrate leadership. For example: It is not uncommon for a business analyst (with five or so years of experience) to "lead" a group of middle managers (each with an average of 15 years of experience) to agreement on a new business process and how it should be automated. The skills required by this business analyst, to drive this type of content-based facilitation, are vastly different from the skills required by a mid-level sales executive who is "leading" a new team of distributors.

This same example serves us equally well in debunking mistaken belief No. 2, i.e., that all leadership is essentially about getting others to do what you want. The business analyst I described above doesn't personally "want" anything. His leadership role is to help his colleagues articulate what they want. The leadership he needs to deliver is in showing others a path to their success, NOT in getting them to walk in his path. This style of facilitative and consultative leadership (as opposed to managerial leadership) is a hallmark of IT leadership and applies to all levels of the IT organization.

This example also debunks mistaken belief No. 1 that leadership is only for managers with staff to manage. It demonstrates that IT leadership is mostly about inspiring, influencing, facilitating and guiding people you interact with, whether these people work for you, or are your peers, your boss, or the stakeholders of a specific IT operational system or project.

Bottom line: IT leaders and professionals alike need to let go of their very limited views of what IT leadership is, and to whom it applies.

Marc J. Schiller, author of "The 11 Secrets of Highly Influential IT Leaders," is a speaker, strategic facilitator, and an advisor on the implementation of influential analytics. He splits his time between the front lines of client work and evangelizing to IT leaders and professionals about what it takes to achieve influence, respect and career success. Download a free excerpt of his book at http://11secretsforitleaders.com