Former NASA CIO tells how government CIOs -- who often face challenges of mythological proportions -- can become heroes.
Politics As Harpies
Harpies were cruel monsters with the head of a woman and body of a bird. Known for snatching food, they abducted and tortured the defenseless. In ancient mythology, they were instruments of punishment in acts of divine retribution.
The mythological hero Jason and his Argonauts managed to prevail over the harpies with the help of the great North Wind. The wind blew the harpies safely out of the way and Jason successfully continued his search for the Golden Fleece.
Many of the private-sector counterparts of CIOs underestimate the lethal potential of politics. Internecine behaviors are difficult everywhere, but in the federal sector, executives must learn to tolerate, master or endure the politics that makes our country both proud and ashamed.
Politics can snatch funding resources from a program mandated by legislation or presidential direction. It makes mountains out of molehills. It works for you or against you, as the wind blows. It snatches defeat from the jaws of victory and victory from the jaws of defeat.
Politics can be defeated with patience -- just wait for the strong winds of change. The most results-oriented executive will understand that public-sector politics is the real currency that funds government programs. Stakeholders will want a return on investment measured in dollars and in positive political favor. This favor looks like life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness ... and votes.
Executive classes can help. A congressional operations seminar, for example, is invaluable. CIOs should understand: Who are the appropriators? What state are they from? What are you doing that affects their state? Are your program efforts building up or depleting political capital?
Culture Like Cerberus
Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the gates of hell, ensures that only dead people enter the Underworld. Hercules (known as Heracles in Greek myth) encountered Cerberus while completing his 12 Labors. He had to overpower Cerberus without killing him. He needed divine help from Athena and Hermes and also had to complete several purification rituals. With this help, he finally completed his labors.
Organizational culture defeats many CIOs. To prevail, they might need initiation rituals. Robert E. Quinn gave valuable advice for CIOs embarking on cultural change: "One key to successful leadership is continuous personal change… a reflection of our inner growth and empowerment."
CIOs must first seek to understand the mission, the customer and the organizational culture. They will also need to humbly listen, learn and seek help.
All this talk of monsters might seem misapplied, but myths are helpful in understanding today's problems. As British author Karen Armstrong tells us, "It is, therefore, a mistake to regard myth as an inferior mode of thought, which can be cast aside when human beings have attained the age of reason. Mythology is not an early attempt at history, and does not claim that its tales are objective fact... it is a game that transfigures our fragmented, tragic world, and helps us to glimpse new possibilities by asking 'what if?' -- a question which has also provoked some of our most important discoveries…"
Mythology can offer hope to the tragic world of the federal CIO. Learning from ancient heroes will benefit modern-day CIOs in today's epic journey.