The Big Ifs of IT Leadership

By Doug Moran  |  Posted 01-26-2010

The Big Ifs of IT Leadership

Most of us recognize that effective leadership is essential to our long-term success.  This is true whether we're a CIO or entry-level developer. 

IT leadership is becoming increasingly challenging. Budgets are tighter. Technology changes faster than business requirements. No sooner is the latest project completed than the next one pops up. All the while you are expected to deliver the same quality of service with fewer people and shorter timelines.

It has never been harder to be a CIO.

So, what does it take to become a truly effective IT leader? That question plagues CIOs and aspiring CIOs alike. Rarely do we get clear and actionable answers.

Rather, much of the leadership guidance we get is vague and of little value. We're offered such pearls of wisdom as, "improve your leadership presence," "think more strategically," or "integrate more with your business." All are valid pieces of advice, but typically, the person offering that advice has no clue how to transform them into behavior changes. Neither does the person receiving them.

The hard truth is that--even with outstanding guidance--leadership excellence requires a lifetime of work. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts or quick fixes. It takes time, effort and many mistakes. The good news is that we don't have to blindly stumble from one experience to the next in order to learn and grow. There are many good leadership development tools to help us assess our strengths and weaknesses and focus our learning. The best tools enable us to learn and grow from our experiences and hard work. 

My favorite tool is a poem written over 100 years ago, 'If-' by Rudyard Kipling. It has provided me with concrete and useful leadership guidance for almost twenty years. 'If-' describes a leadership path that I have chosen to follow. It has become an integral part of my leadership journey, and it can become a part of yours as well. 

Many colleagues ask, "What can a 21st century CIO learn from a Victorian-era poem?"  Kipling's words are just as relevant today as they were when he wrote them. The poem is full of enduring wisdom relevant for today's IT leaders. Its first two lines seem to have been written specifically for today's CIOs: 

"If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;"

IT leaders regularly deal with crises, from system failures to vendor disputes. Most CIOs either keep their heads or they lose their jobs. Each of the poem's sixteen couplets describes an essential leadership attribute. Together they form a comprehensive leadership framework that I call the "If 16."©

16 Attributes of a Leader

The framework includes the following sixteen leadership attributes: 

Composure - The Power to Keep Your Head
Character - The Wisdom to Know and Trust Yourself
Patience - The Strength to Endure
Selflessness - The Ability to Put Your Cause and Beliefs Ahead of Yourself
Vision - The Power of Having and Sharing a Dream
Self-Efficacy - The Confidence to Gain from Triumph and Disaster
Integrity - The Wisdom to Know the Truth and the Strength to Defend It
Resilience - The Ability to Bounce Back from Adversity
Boldness - The Ability to See and Seize Opportunities
Accountability - The Will to Take Ownership Regardless of the Outcome
Courage - The Ability to Face the Dangers When They Become Real
Stamina - The Will to Hold On When You Have Nothing Left
Authenticity - The Resolve Always to Be Yourself
Inspiration - The Ability to Connect With and Motivate Friends and Foes
Enthusiasm - The Energy to Fill Every Minute
Ambition - The Will to Make the World What You Want It to Be

These are very simple words and concepts. The difficulty comes when we decide to put them to use. The "If 16" Leadership Framework© allows a leader to examine successes and failures and to learn important lessons from both. Notice that the primary focus of these attributes is on the leader rather than those we lead. Followers are essential to leadership, but becoming a leader starts with the leader. 

Before we can lead others, we must know ourselves. Before we can challenge others, we must challenge ourselves. Before we can motivate others, we must first be motivated.

This idea of focusing on oneself first seems to run counter to many leadership theories, but it has ancient roots. In the sixth century B.C., Lao Tzu wrote, "He who controls others may be powerful, but he who has mastered himself is mightier still." Leaders understand that self-awareness precedes self-mastery, and both precede leading others.

No one is born with the skills to be a leader. Throughout our leadership journeys, we gain experience and perspective, which enable us to grow and learn. But growth and learning are not certain. They depend on awareness and choice. This requires critical self-examination and a rigorous regular inventory of our skills. Knowing the attributes we possess helps us expose those we lack. 

Early in my career, I worked for an IT leader who was, in many ways, the quintessential CIO.  He was strategic. He knew technology from the ground up. He was passionate about IT. His people respected him for his expertise. Unfortunately, he was lousy at working with his business partners. This should have been devastating, yet he overcame this challenge by recruiting and leveraging others who were great at working with business leaders. His self-awareness and choice enabled him to overcome his weakness.

Over the coming months, I will explore each of the "If 16" attributes in more detail, focusing particularly on their importance to today's IT leaders. 

Doug Moran is the author of the forthcoming book, If You Will Lead:  Enduring Wisdom for 21st-Century Leaders, and founder of the consultancy If You Will Lead, LLC. He was previously a divisional CIO with Capital One and served in a number of roles in the Commonwealth of Virginia, including deputy secretary of health and human resources, COO of the department of social services and telecommunications director.

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