Opinion by Thornton May

Leadership for the IT revolution

Which type of leader will come to the fore in this dynamic time?

Opinion by Thornton May

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Leadership in some form or fashion is taught in every college and university on the planet and has been practiced in every organization that ever existed. Despite that omnipresence, as well as society’s fascination with leadership and ample journalistic treatment of what appears to be a perennial “leadership crisis,” many executives lack a framework to evaluate and improve their own leadership. “Good” and “bad” leadership remains for the most part a subjective, bordering-on-mood-based assessment.

For the past six months, I have been working with a group of early-, mid- and late-stage leaders to better understand the changing state of leadership. To get the ball rolling, stretch the mind and precipitate animated conversation, I asked this group of IT leaders if the traits that made Alexander “great” were still relevant today. They concluded that leadership has evolved significantly in the 2,400 years since the boy king conquered most of the known western world, with contemporary leaders perceived as being more community-focused. 

End of story? Far from it. The tension between the two extremes of leadership style has been studied for millennia. As Emma Dench, the McLean professor of ancient and modern history and of the classics at Harvard University who co-teaches a popular elective course at Harvard Business School called “All Roads Lead to Rome: Leadership Lessons from Antiquity,” explains, “The Romans grappled actively with a very central issue of leadership: How much is a leader for themselves — or how much are they for the people as a whole. … ‘Is it just you on an island, or are you part of a community?’ ”  

In recent times, community has been ascendant — but not universal. The tension remains. In 1991, Joseph Rost, professor emeritus of leadership studies in the School of Education at the University of San Diego, researched the state of leadership, examining 450 books, chapters and journal articles. His research documented more than 200 different and not always consistent ways the leadership industry defines “leadership.” The leadership industry cannot seem to make up its mind whether leadership involves going ahead of others, facilitating others to run, showing others how they should run, motivating others to run, designing the trail the runners run on, timing the run or giving prizes to the fastest runners. 

Despite (or perhaps as a direct result of) this lack of clarity, “leadership” is a big industry. Annually, American companies spend more than $160 billion on leadership training and education and nearly $72 billion recruiting leaders. Global expenditures are three times bigger. The general consensus is that a) we need more leaders, and b) the leaders we have need a skills upgrade. 

What skills, though? Leadership is not an immutable set of universal traits. The British have an expression, “Horses for courses,” by which they mean that just as some horses are best on wet tracks, or long tracks or short tracks, so are some people better suited to certain activities than other people. This applies in IT leadership. Horses for courses; environment matters. 

To be successful, IT leaders need to identify and apply a subset of leadership traits relevant to the environment in which they find themselves. This means that when the environment changes, leaders have to change — not who they are, but how they lead. 

The essential thing to realize is that the environment is changing, and radically. I have written many columns characterizing our technological age as revolutionary in nature. Such times can be disorienting, but they’re also ripe with potential. Nathan Rothschild was convinced opportunities were greatest when cannonballs were falling in the harbor, “when there’s blood in the streets, even if the blood is your own.”  

In revolutionary times, two kinds of leaders present themselves, as the middle ground is deserted in favor of the extremes.

The Alpha (α) leader declares the status quo a disaster, claims to have the answer and starts giving orders. This style of leadership is sometimes termed “leading through dominance” — inducing sought-for behaviors via one’s power and formal authority. 

The Delta (δ) leader acknowledges that things are not working as well as they should be and sets about asking fundamental questions designed to collaboratively get at the root cause of the problem. This style of leadership is sometimes termed “leading through prestige,” where behavior change is induced by displaying one’s knowledge and expertise. 

Which leader comes to the fore is a function of the fear, patience and wisdom of the followers. What kind of leader sits at the helm of your organization?

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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