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Down To Business: There's No Leader's Manual

The bold and the beautiful don't always make the best CEOs and CIOs. There's far more to leadership than meets the eye.

In a recent sit-down with a half-dozen top CIOs, the discussion turned to their priorities. Each was asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, the importance of business and technology issues ranging from data center consolidation (rated low) to employee compensation and regulatory compliance (medium) to security, data privacy, and business process optimization (high). Only one item got a 10 from every CIO at the table: leadership.

Most of us know the traits of great leaders. They're smart, driven, decisive, demanding but fair. They also aren't above listening and learning, and they're master communicators. The rest is a crapshoot. For most tech execs, the hard part is recruiting, identifying, and managing leaders. A prescription can't be written out in this short column, but know that it takes great leaders to find, groom, and keep great leaders.

Also know that business technology leadership isn't just about championing projects, managing teams, and overseeing budgets and architectural choices. It's also about earning the respect of your peers in other company organizations. Do the product development and sales leaders see you as a can-do ally? Does HR consult you when it's hashing out company policy? Does the CFO see your projects as overhead costs to be reined in or business initiatives to be supported?

For those stepping up the leadership rungs, former GE chief Jack Welch and his wife, Suzy, provide some pointed advice in the June 19 issue of BusinessWeek. In a word: overdeliver. To apply the Welch wisdom to the IT profession, if your manager asks you to report back on the top vendors in a technology segment, don't return with just a short list of companies and products. Investigate and suggest alternative approaches, challenging the conventional wisdom. As the Welches state: "Give your boss shock and awe"--but be careful not to show up your peers with "unfettered braggadocio."

The highest-profile stars aren't always the best leaders. In fact, "celebrity leaders" can be a detriment to their organizations, consultant Richard Lepsinger and academic Gary Yukl argue in their book, Flexible Leadership: Creating Value By Balancing Multiple Challenges And Choices (Pfeiffer, 2004). Among the problems the authors cite: Companies tend to rely too much on a savior; celebrity leaders raise expectations to unrealistic levels, sometimes resulting in crashing disappointments; when a celebrity chief screws up, the reputation and valuation of the entire company get dragged down with him; celebrity leaders are too sheltered to change fast enough with the times; and their "sage-like" approach doesn't fly with today's workforce of self-starters.

Certainly, there have been tech industry icons aplenty who fit one or two of those stereotypes--Jim Clark at Netscape, Carly Fiorina at HP, Sanjay Kumar at CA, John Sculley at Apple. But celebrity isn't necessarily a negative. Bill Gates and Larry Ellison have managed to groom superhigh profiles while leading their companies with extraordinary business and technical vision.

Contrast two CEO stalwarts of the enterprise software industry. "Studied, experienced, mature, trusted, conservative, quiet, resolute, and worldly"--that's how SAP's PR man characterizes CEO Henning Kagermann. Then there's's Marc Benioff, the anti-Kagermann--brash, irreverent, loud, even crass (not his PR man's description). To a great extent, each exec represents the culture of his company, which has served both companies well.

Among CIOs, the regulars on the speaking circuit are familiar to most of us. They're the same ones quoted all the time in the press, often through the filter of their handlers. But just because these celebrity CIOs have something to say and are unabashed about saying it doesn't make them worse (or better) than their peers who toil in relative obscurity.

Leadership is mostly an art form. Some people just have the right stuff. You'll know it when you experience it. Now go find it and cultivate it.

Rob Preston, VP/EDITOR IN

To find out more about Rob Preston, please visit his page.

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