CIO Leadership Calculus

How the mathematics of collaboration can improve a CIO’s chances for success leading their organizations and themselves.

Linda Cureton, Contributor

November 15, 2013

5 Min Read
Team and personal greatness are a function of the clarity of purpose.<br />

I have to admit that I am a geek -- a geek’s geek, in fact -- with an affinity to infinity and an intense love of mathematics. Calculus, my favorite, is the mathematical study of change. It offers several interesting insights that can help in overcoming leadership challenges. 

Federal CIOs clearly understand the need to deal with changes in their ecosystems. Even now, we need to understand the effects of change as we assess the impact of the recent government shutdown. In this case we can observe how undesirable results arise from an infinite series of inactions of political stakeholders.

Leadership is all about change. Leaders implement new programs, discover breakthroughs in science, make struggling organizations successful, and lead troops to victory. They lead people and organizations, and most importantly, they lead themselves. Let’s take a closer look at these aspects of leadership from a mathematical perspective. 

The additive power of collaboration
When leaders bring individuals together to collaborate, teams are created. They create an environment where the skills of each individual create new team skills. In addition, the collective capacity of each individual creates new team capabilities.

Colin Powell, in It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership, asserts: “Good management gets 100% of a team’s designated capability… Great leadership… takes their followers to 110, 120, and 150 percent of what anyone thought was possible.”

[More on IT Leadership: Read What Star Wars Teaches Us About Technology ]

Another powerful aspect of collaboration comes through diversity. Homogeneous thinking will not bring about new ideas, approaches, or solutions. Diversity in terms of style, occupation, skill, race, gender, socio-economic status, and many others will bring a larger solution set to a particular challenge. The well managed, diverse team will offer more together than as individuals. 

One final aspect of the power of collaboration is what I will call orchestration. This is readily apparent in the musical magic created in the improvisational style of jazz collaborations. Each musician brings his individual gifts to the table. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines improvisation as "the extemporaneous composition or free performance of a musical passage, usually in a manner conforming to certain stylistic norms but unfettered by the prescriptive features of a specific musical text.” Great jazz leaders such as Duke Ellington knew how to guide and set the musical context to create the inspired magic. Similarly, successful leaders will excel at doing this in a business context.

For federal CIOs, the additive power of collaboration can be achieved in several ways. One example is with IT governance. There has always been much discussion on whether the CIO has a seat at the table or controls the budget. We see iterations of legislation, most recently the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), attempt to legislate power and control. 

However, notwithstanding the fact the "legislated collaboration" is an oxymoron, the real power lies in shared decision-making made through effective collaboration. This is ultimately enabled by a trifecta of legislative direction, active agency implementation, and the collaborative skills of the agency CIO. 

Results-oriented leadership and the second law of thermodynamics
Thermodynamics is the science concerned with heat and its relation to energy and work. Wikipedia gives the following definition of the second law of thermodynamics:

“The second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of an isolated system never decreases, because isolated systems spontaneously evolve toward thermodynamic equilibrium -- the state of maximum entropy.”

In plain language, this means that things naturally go from hot to cold unless you do something. Objects don’t spontaneously heat up unless something happens to cause them to heat up.  

As it applies to the federal CIO, IT governance won’t just improve by itself unless you do some work. Datacenters won’t consolidate themselves. Customers won’t move to (or away from) the cloud because you hope -- hope doesn’t create heat. In other words, unless a CIO does something, datacenters will experience a technology urban sprawl and be more disparate, email systems will spring up like dandelions, and infrastructures will become more heterogeneous. 

The message for the federal CIO is simple: Work. Do something -- apply some heat. Otherwise, you will not see results. 

Leading yourself is more important than leading others

Control is not leadership; management is not leadership; leadership is leadership. If you seek to lead, invest at least 50% of your time in leading yourself -- your own purpose, ethics, principles, motivation, conduct. Invest at least 20% leading those with authority over you and 15% leading your peers.

— Dee Hock, Founder & CEO Emeritus, Visa

Below-average leaders do below-average things. Average leaders do average things. Excellent leaders do excellent things. Thus if a leader is called upon to do great things, she must be prepared, inspired, and be in alignment with her purpose in life. For myself, I felt much more inspired to do great things as the CIO of NASA -- an agency whose mission touched my heart and soul -- than when I was a weapons systems program management intern. That alignment of heart, mind, and body was essential for success and happiness. 

As federal leaders are called upon to implement change, no matter how big or small, the mathematics of change needs to be understood. You must create and sustain an ecosystem for collaboration, be action oriented, and, most importantly, ensure your heart is in it. If you don’t, things just won’t add up.

About the Author(s)

Linda Cureton


Linda Cureton is the former CIO of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and is now CEO of Muse Technologies, Inc., specializing in IT transformation. Her company helps organizations develop strong leadership, technology solutions, and program management to achieve powerful outcomes. Previously, Linda served as principle advisor to the NASA Administrator, providing oversight and leadership for all of the Agency�s information systems supporting the scientific and programmatic needs of mission. She held various other executive IT positions including Associate CIO at Department of Energy and Deputy CIO at Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

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