What Does It Take To Be A Real IT Leader?

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Elliot Luber is a visiting assistant professor of business, management, and leadership at SUNY Empire State College’s School for Graduate Studies. Here, he shares his views on what it means to achieve true leadership in IT by balancing the transformational and the transactional.

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Many of our ideas about what it means to be a leader are outdated, especially in IT. Many people I’ve worked with assume someone who acts tough is more of a leader than someone who takes the role of a soft-spoken mentor.

Sure, a leader must have backbone. But, in this concept of leadership, we’re really talking about an old-school boss or a director — someone who is effectively a manager, good at execution perhaps, but not so skilled at creating culture and sharing a vision.

The way I see it, a manager is someone who is transactional, while a leader is someone who is transformational. Achieving true leadership in IT is a particularly tricky proposition. It’s about balancing transformational and transactional roles, which do not naturally dovetail.

The late Peter Drucker wrote, back in the 1950s, that a leader is concerned with the question “What should we do?” while a manager asks “How should we do it?”

By the very nature of their chosen profession, however, IT workers often find themselves narrowly focused on following methodologies, conducting scrums, and adhering to ISO standard procedures. Often true leadership gets lost in the transactional business of writing code, managing infrastructure, and meeting deadlines.

To succeed in IT, you have to learn to play two roles simultaneously: that of a leader and that of a manager.

IT leaders harness culture in the service of transformation. They give people a purpose and help build a future. They encourage new ideas and let them float as high as they can, like balloons in clear blue sky. They’re all about the big picture, the big process, the big change.

Yet, in the IT world, you’ll encounter marketing people who say, “Let’s go to the moon,” and expect your team to deliver a rocket in six months.

A manager will get that rocket built. A manager is all about planning and technical execution. Straight-up management is always about transactions. You’re looking for better, cheaper, faster ways to handle what needs to get done. You need the discipline to invest, plan, execute, and monetize the results. Traditional IT management is no place for dreamers.

What’s puzzling to me is that we do not yet have a word to describe the IT executive who is able to successfully balance the transactional and the transformational. I’m talking about someone who has an ambitious vision of the future, and a real plan to make it happen.

The person who can span both disciplines is rare. These are competing values, and you can’t be everything to everyone without burning out. It’s not a sustainable model.

Further, IT culture is about technology and precision. Good code is not written haphazardly. Yet, brilliant ideas sometimes emerge from chaos, and we all need the freedom to raise up trial balloons to test out our ideas.

(Image: wildpixel/iStockphoto)

(Image: wildpixel/iStockphoto)


How, then, can an IT leader achieve balance between culture and strategy? Between transformation and transaction?

Let’s take the example of an IT manager who, wanting to get a program written quickly, announces it in the press before it’s fully baked. This is a not-so-subtle way to put pressure on developers. By doing so, a manager may get the team to meet the deadline, but could lose his or her best coders in the process. The business gets a project delivered on time, but the manager loses important players, and institutional knowledge goes walking out the door with them.

A leader, on the other hand, might opt to communicate the deadline pressures carefully to the team — perhaps along with a bonus for making the tight deadline. That way, even if the team ultimately fails to make the deadline, the leader will have earned the goodwill of his employees. Ultimately, though, it’s not good for the business if the project is delayed.

One of the best leaders I know is an absolutely fearless public speaker who stands at the very edge of the stage and challenges employees to ask tougher questions. This executive goads them by asking, “That’s all you got?”

I had the opportunity to work with this person on a project, and the experience was extraordinary. This leader not only communicated clearly a vision that motivated employees, but also took time to speak one-on-one with clients to make sure that the vision for the company was being put into practice by employees in the real world, where it mattered most.

This leader, who was responsible for the entire business, took the time to check on the work of the rank and file, even while mapping out a groundbreaking vision for the enterprise. This experience taught me an important lesson: A true leader has vision and follows through on the minutest details of success, leaving nothing to chance.

In my last blog, I wrote about connecting technical work to the bigger picture of your company’s strategy and customer experience — and learning what’s important to the corner office.

If your goal is to become a true, modern-day IT leader, remember to do your job, but not to the exclusion of all else. Stay in tune with your surroundings. Let all your balloons rise as high as they can, but never let go of the string that controls them.