The Best Leadership Style? It All Depends.

The many comments by readers of my previous Leading Questions column, which explored the difference between leadership and management, revealed several truths:

  • Leadership and management are very different…but it’s hard to say just exactly how
  • Leadership is harder than management…but people who can execute are rarer than big thinkers
  • Management can be the more valuable skill…except when leadership is critically important

That these comments are in some ways contradictory doesn’t mean they’re wrong; they were made by intelligent CIOs, IT managers and others who have experienced what they write about. Leadership and management are situational: Different scenarios call for diverse responses and dissimilar skills. And what works in one situation can be disastrous in another. A Situational Framework

The concept of situational leadership was popularized by management guru Paul Hersey, who developed a useful matrix for determining the amount of direction and support that a leader should provide, and the skills required by the leader and followers. But his is a very general framework; a more useful model for CIOs would take into account the particular requirements and tensions of the role.

One situational leadership model was outlined to me by Bradford Brown, director of the Business Technology office at McKinsey & Company. At one-third to one-half of all companies, IT doesn’t function well, Brown says. Development projects come in very late or well over budget or both. There may be fundamental problems with IT. The leadership qualities required of a CIO in this situation are a deep competence in the underlying processes of IT and a firefighter’s mentality, Brown says.

At the other end of the spectrum, about a quarter of companies enjoy well-run IT departments and recognize the strategic importance of IT, Brown says. The leadership qualities needed in this situation are, on the business side, an ability to engage with senior executives, talk their talk and understand their businesses; and on the technology side, the vision to channel the power of IT for competitive advantage. Functional competence in IT is secondary. Brown observes that a firefighter CIO would be a flop in this situation.

The situation for CIOs at the remaining portion of companies—a quarter to a third, in Brown’s estimation—falls somewhere in between. Leading-edge IT isn’t the concern, but the ship is sailing smoothly. Leadership here calls for an ability to steer others toward the goal of continued execution, using soft skills such as charisma, rather than the highly directive capabilities required in the first situation.

Behind the Situation

Brown’s useful framework for situational leadership can be taken to an even more fundamental level. CIO magazine’s annual State of the CIO report, released in October 2004, detailed how many CIOs are now struggling to reconcile the competing demands for IT-driven innovation and cost-cutting. In response to this push-pull, two opposite views of IT and the CIO role seem to be emerging:

  1. A strategic view, in which IT is seen as a key tool for achieving competitive advantage and is managed accordingly, keeping in mind the need for increased efficiency in IT spending
  2. A “factory” view, in which IT is regarded as a utility function that should be achieved at the absolute lowest cost.

This dichotomy highlights the fact that CIOs’ situations depend not only on their own competence but also on influences from above. CIOs laboring under the factory view have a much harder leadership task; they must continually prove the value of IT, and their own positions, before they can talk about the strategic value of IT.

But it is possible to improve your situation in life. The way to nudge CXOs from a nonstrategic view of IT to a strategic view, says Jeff O’Hare, the senior vice president of corporate IT at Cendant, is to use technology to make them successful. “If you can make other people successful, you’ll quickly convince them of your value,” O’Hare told me recently. In that sense, the highest form of leadership is to serve others. That’s a good goal for every CIO to reach for, regardless of his or her particular situation.

Leading Questions is a monthly column about leadership and management issues. Senior Editor Edward Prewitt always welcomes your feedback at eprewitt@cio.com.

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