Monday, April 27, 2009

Leadership Oblige

Leadership is crucial to the success of any organization. It is even more pivotal in the case of guiding organizations through changes and improvements due to the resistance typical in such endeavors.

The textbook definition of leadership is that it is “a process by which a person influences others to accomplish an objective and directs the organization in a way that makes it more cohesive and coherent”.

While this provides a high level description of the duties of a leader, how does one go about successfully performing this role? And more relevant to us at this site, how does one perform leadership duties in order to successfully implement IT process improvements?

There are many attributes that a successful leader must possess. They include ethics, beliefs, values, character, knowledge and skills. All these skills can be learnt and practiced by virtually anyone. However, it is very rare that individuals who find themselves in leadership roles seek out the characteristics of a good leader and attempt to mold themselves in that way. The few that do tend to get caught up in the bog of “bossing people about” and end up losing track of the “inspiration” part of the role.

My goal with this post is not to go in to depth on the theory of what constitutes exemplary IT leadership. There are many resources on the net that will cater to that. I would like to share with you some of my own experiences and anecdotes to illustrate leadership qualities that are outstanding.

A leadership example, albeit fictional, that stands out in my mind is something I saw while reading Frank Miller’s graphic novel “300”. This is the award winning graphic novel that the film starring Gerard Butler was based on (and follows quite faithfully). There is a panel depicting the fight between the Spartans and the Persians in the narrow pass that is advantageous to the Spartans. The bodyguards of King Leonidas are depicted thinking “We’d fret for our King – if we could just keep up with him” as their King fights several paces ahead of them thanks to his superior fitness and fighting abilities, unprotected by his bodyguards, as they are unable to keep up with him. What struck me about this depiction of the Spartans and their leader is that not only do the Spartans love their King and are willing to risk their lives for him (a rarity in the IT world for starters), his talents and skills are so far beyond theirs that they are unable to assist him even though they wish to. How often do we see something like this in today’s world? Perhaps that is why the 300 Spartans and their King are immortalized in legend while today’s leaders are immortalized in corporate scandal.

In my own experience, working and consulting at various organizations, a disturbing characteristic I saw time and over again was the manager’s descent into “policeman mode”. This consisted of unnecessarily elaborate monitoring of employee entry and exit times as well as breaks and time away from the desk. More than necessary monitoring of internet activity as well as conversations with coworkers was also a characteristic of this state of affairs. Of course, such measures are necessary and appropriate in the event of an employee underperforming or abusing his privileges. However, these manager’s entire time was spent in this type of paranoid patrolling. Needless to say, processes at these organizations were minimal and the maturity was extremely low. The talent and skill levels of these so-called managers was laughable as was their knowledge level of what was current in the industry. Coincidence? I don't think so.

My interpretation of this situation is that the “paranoid police man act” stems primarily from inadequate knowledge and awareness of the correct managerial and technical duties that are expected from a leader. . In the rapidly changing world of IT, a great deal of effort must be undertaken on everybody’s part to keep current. It is, therefore, easy for people to slip and fall behind in the chase to keep up with current methodologies and techniques. What happens next is that since there is a lack of knowledge on the correct actions to be undertaken, the only thing left to do for the manager is to perform a large amount of monitoring of his employees.

Another common pitfall I repeatedly see IT leaders fall in, is the tendency to jump from one band-aid solution to another as opposed to determining a feasible long term strategy and sticking with it. Well established processes will be of no use if top management comes in and changes everything at the last minute. Occasional emergencies do occur but if you are having emergencies every day then you need to reconsider your entire approach from the top down. Very often, the business forces IT to change projects midstream which causes havoc with scheduling and capacity management. The probability of introduction of defects in the product or service also increases. The business as well as IT must work in cohesion to create an atmosphere that allows for high maturity and stability within the organization. Perhaps the business would be well advised to take a slower and steadier approach to gaining market share than a rapidly shifting and chaotic marketing approach.

Over and above these two main duties (that are often mishandled), the responsibilities of IT leadership are:

  • Championing the cause of IT Processes and their improvement

  • Fostering a culture of staff commitment and understanding for IT Process Improvement

  • Ensuring training at all levels

  • Providing resources for IT Process Improvement from the board

  • Setting realistic goals including a reasonable schedule and not attempting to change everything all at once

In Victorian times the aristocracy was expected to take responsibility for their privileges by performing acts of kindness towards the less fortunate. The term used to summarize this concept was “noblesse oblige”. In today’s day and age, it is time for leaders to understand the concept of “leadership oblige” that has been outlined above.


  1. "...immortalized in corporate scandal"


  2. Is management skill a necessity to be a leader?

  3. Hi Fibol,

    I believe that as long as a leader has even one person reporting to them, a certain amount of managment skills are necessary to inspire that employee to be the best that they can be.
    Perhaps a low level manager may not need highly extensive management skills as required by a CEO or CTO but the possesion of certain basic managerial skills would be essential in my opinion.

    Thanks for your question and best regards,


  4. Vivek,
    In my experience, especially in IT, The willingness and ability of a manager/leader (just like King Leonidas) to roll his or her sleeves up and work alongside the team is one of the most important parts of being a leader. This applies whether you are a helpdesk team leader or a CIO/CTO, and everything in between. I've seen many organizations where the head of IT, was a good manager as far as managment principles go, but the only reason his people did anything for him was only because he was the "boss". I've ACTUALLY HEARD one CIO comment, "I don't do that, I'm the CIO, thats why I've hired these people..." and he wondered why he had such a high turnover rate. This one in particular was a very successful department head from another business unit who had some tech experience earlier in his career, so was tapped to lead IT as a CIO. I wonder if that was The Peter Principle at work, or if the idea of getting in the trenches as needed is more important to IT teams than other business units?


  5. Hi Kendyl,

    Thank you for your comment.
    While it may not be necessary for leaders to actually roll up their sleeves and join the ground-level work, I do believe that:

    1) It should be clear to all that the leader is capable of joining in if necessary and
    2) The leader is capable of doing a first rate job at the ground level should the need arise (like King Leonidas fighting the Persians)

    In reality, a CIO should not be performing ground level work - that is a sign of inefficiency and something gone wrong.
    But the CIO's track record from the first job out of college to the present one in which he is a CIO should be legendary (like Leonidas)
    That is what will inspire those under him.



  6. I fully agree, that if there is the NEED for the CIO to be in the trenches there is certainly something wrong and quite probably that CIO should be there in the trenches in title also.

  7. Being in the trenches is a realistic expectation in a small organization, but the CIO is usually fighting other battles. Technical savvy my help in systems planning, decision making, and more... but I don't expect to see them doing any network config, app deployment, DBA work, or cluster management. Just a little time away from it and they are probably dangerous. They do however need to know enough to ride herd on problems, to drive busines goals thru systems, and to address the needs of the team. But most of this is management...

    Leadership has one simple attribute - followers. I have seen this happen many ways - for brief or extended periods. But anytime you are asking your people to address a hairy monster of a challenge, the truth of your leadership accumen will surface. How you gain and maintain trust, in the face of uncertainty and desparation, to get results beyond the norm... consistently... keeping your boss and your team happy; If you are doing it... or if your people are doing it because you have made it possible... then you must surely be a leader.