IT Leadership is Nothing Special

By Marc J. Schiller  |  Posted 04-04-2012

IT Leadership is Nothing Special

"Leadership is leadership. There's nothing special about IT and there's no such thing as IT leadership." This is what I was recently told by a successful CIO of a billion-dollar plus company with a staff of more than100 full time employees.

The issue came up in the context of a round-table discussion on the topic of leadership challenges for today's CIOs. Two other round-table participants echoed similar perspectives, citing their personal experiences to further support their cases.

If you find yourself agreeing with this perspective, you're in good company. Unfortunately, you're also absolutely wrong. Hard to believe? I'll prove it. Just the same way I proved it to my panel co-members. It will only take about 30 seconds.

The proof that IT leadership is special

The proof is pretty simple. Because you (I mean all you CIOs out there) say so-albeit in a slightly indirect manner. Just take a look at the CIO Executive Council's survey and report on Best Practices for Advancing the Strategic Impact of IT and the CIO. In this study, CIOs overwhelmingly point to "the lack of depth in leadership skills of their staff" as the No. 1 impediment to their own career advancement. In other words, whatever CIOs have been doing to date to develop the leadership skills of their people clearly isn't working.

Now, if leadership is leadership-and by extension leadership development is leadership development-you are left with one of two sticky choices. Either IT people are freaks of nature who can't learn what everyone else can. Or, you have to face the fact that IT leadership development is indeed different from conventional leadership development. (I suppose there is a third option: that IT folks simply aren't getting any leadership development at all. But no self-respecting CIO at our roundtable wanted to go there for cover.)

Even if you're not 100% convinced from this simple fact, you're probably at least open to hearing why I believe IT leadership is different from general leadership. Let's start with how we got into this mess in the first place.

Why IT Leadership is Different From General Leadership

Over the last few years, the term "leadership" has become the new "in" word for consultants, writers, professors and other so-called management gurus. It's no longer cool to just be a great manager. Now you have to a leader. In fact, almost overnight everyone had to become a leader.

When the book "Leadership for Dummies" came out, I couldn't help but think this had all gone a bit too far. Seriously, does anyone really want to be lead by a dummy?

Combine this "leadership" frenzy with the desire of CIOs to get closer to, and be more like, their business-side countperparts. Now, you have the ideal conditions under which otherwise smart CIOs fall prey to the idea that what they need isn't some parochial version of leadership for geeks, but rather to join the ranks of the general managers and learn their brand of general leadership.

When we look carefully at the differences between the leadership needs of IT managers versus general managers, three key differences emerge. These differences make the strongest case for a special brand of leadership development for IT pros.

  1. Basic leadership models. General leadership development takes as an almost basic assumption that the trainee needs to lead a group of people day-in and day-out, and that the trainee is senior to those whom they need to lead. In many cases, general leadership development programs focus on helping the trainee let go of the conventional carrot-and-stick tools of the manager in favor of the "soft" skills of the leader.
IT leadership is very different. IT leadership requires the skills needed to lead those who do not report to you on a regular basis. What's more, IT leadership needs to teach junior team members (for example, the business analyst) how to lead senior executives through a particular process when they have no management control over them at all. Finally, the focus of IT leadership is more appropriately placed on leading a variety of people through an initiative over time than it is about leading people on a day-to-day basis.

  2. Difference in context. Leadership development doesn't happen in a vacuum. It requires context. General leadership development emphasizes generally applicable management scenarios, such as getting your team to accept a budget reduction as a means for teaching how to deal with difficult situations. The problem is that a scenario like this is of limited help to IT professionals because it doesn't translate well to their unique problem areas. In place of "typical" management scenarios, IT professionals need help learning how to address the most common IT problem areas. These include leading difficult stakeholders, driving change integration and delivering "bad" news to senior executives.

  3. Individual versus team orientation. General leadership development, with its roots in management development, emphasizes the individual. IT leadership, on the other hand, needs to be much more mindful of the overall IT team in the philosophies and principles it teaches. Take, for example, the topic of expectation management. Every successful IT leader knows how critical it is to manage user expectations. I can't imagine any CIO disagreeing that it is an absolutely essential leadership skill for all IT professionals. Leaving aside the fact that few general leadership development programs ever address this issue, the method and manner of expectation management as practiced by a front-line project manager is very different from how it is practiced by the CIO. Furthermore, for expectation management (and many other key IT leadership practices) to really work, they need to be practiced by all areas of IT. That means ensuring there are appropriate linkages between the leadership behaviors of the individual and the philosophies and approaches of the group. Without it, the individual IT professional can quickly find himself or herself at odds with his or her own team members.

The Bottom line on IT leadership

If you are a seasoned CIO who is firing on all eight cylinders personally, by all means, go and attend that general leadership development program with your peers from other areas of the company. It will help you build a common language and experience with them and it will help you grow as a leader of your people.

But, if you want to develop the leadership skills in your team so that you can attend that meeting (without fearing your colleagues will bite your head off because of your team's less-than-stellar leadership performance) make sure they get some real IT leadership development first. Because IT leadership is special. And you know what? It feels good to say so.

About the Author

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