Bigger-than-life IT leadership

75 percent of the first-level executives said they wanted to spend less time with their bosses. A significant percentage wanted to spend a lot less time, with some going to the extreme of wanting to spend no time at all, with the CIO.

Why are leadership books so popular? Because leadership -- great leadership -- is rare today. Sadly, this is true nowhere more than in the IT industry.

In a continuing effort to map the leadership landscape, the IT Leadership Academy recently asked 300-plus first-level IT executives (those who report to the CIO), second-level executives (who report to the first level) and third-level executives the following questions:

1. What percentage of your IT career would you say you were well led?

2. How do you spend your time? If you could change where you spend your time, what would you spend more time on? Less time on?

On the first question, we were so surprised with the responses that we double-checked to make sure we were listening correctly. But it's true: 20 percent said they were never well led, 5 percent said they were well led for more than half of their career, 10 percent said they were well led about a third of their career and 65 percent said they were well led less than 20 percent of their career.

Corroborating the responses to the first question is what I consider a mind-blowing statistic derived from the second question: 75 percent of the first-level executives said they wanted to spend less time with their bosses. A significant percentage wanted to spend a lot less time, with some going to the extreme of wanting to spend no time at all, with the CIO. Some context has to be considered: Just about everyone surveyed wanted to spend more time with customers, whether that meant line-of-business executives or real cash-money customers. Assuming that people were rational in their responses -- that is, they wanted to spend more time on higher-value activities -- the question becomes, Why don't IT workers find time spent with their bosses a higher-value activity?

This brings to mind the thinking of the late James Freedman, former president of Dartmouth College. He once wrote that American college students were rich in idealism and altruism but poor in role models. "They are not so much indifferent to idealism as uninspired by their elders," he said. The same situation appears to be true in IT shops around the world.

What do I read into the survey results? That IT leadership has to be inspirational -- it has to be bigger than life and much bigger than make-the-numbers-this-quarter whack-a-mole.

Some CIOs have figured this out and are ready to ride with the CIO Posse. (Some background: The CIO Posse is what a group of CIO emeriti call themselves. They are regular participants in the CIO Boot Camp, a program focused on upgrading the leadership skills of those who would lead IT in their corporations.) We asked the CIO Posse what their biggest surprise was when they first sat in the CIO hot seat. To a person, they said it was the shock of realizing that "I had to be bigger than me." They had to be bigger than Tom (Mantz, formerly of Praxair), Bruce (Barnes, formerly of Nationwide Financial Services), Ken (Harris, formerly of Pepsi, Nike and The Gap), or Anita (Ward, formerly of Safelite AutoGlass). They had to take on the persona of a leader. They had to become bigger than life, recognizing that everything they said or did -- every gesture, word and facial expression -- sent a message and set a tone.

The days of the CIO as your best pal are over. It is time to lead!

Thornton A. May is a longtime industry observer, management consultant and commentator. Contact him at thorntonamay@aol.com.

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