The 8 essential habits of highly effective IT leaders

Leadership should be your top priority in steering your tech organization forward. Here's how to ensure success

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When the subject is organizational effectiveness, the key leverage point is leadership. With it, the rest will happen. Without it, IT will break up into isolated teams -- organizational silos, each of which might be effective at its own responsibilities, but that degenerate into mutual finger-pointing whenever something goes wrong.

Which gets to the question of whether leadership can be taught, or if it's something innate that some people just have, while others are born to be followers. This one is easy: The U.S. military has officer schools that consistently produce fine leaders. They are highly selective in whom they enroll; there's no thought that just anyone can be taught to reach the top ranks of the discipline. What they recognize and address is that aptitude by itself isn't enough. Those who aspire to leadership have a lot to learn to achieve their aspirations.

So, yes, leadership can be taught. Perhaps a better way of saying it is that leadership can be learned. While not everyone can become a great leader, everyone can become a better leader than they currently are.

First, though, they'll need to know what the job entails -- not in some fuzzy, inspirational way, but in terms of specific tasks they need to master and practice every day. Leadership doesn't happen as a result of simply trying to burn "follow me" thoughts into the heads of everyone around you. It happens because you take concrete steps that result in those around you following your lead.

The 8 directives of highly effective IT leaders

Leadership -- getting others to follow -- consists of eight tasks. That's it. The more skillful you are at them, the more likely it is that the people around you will go where you think they ought to go and do what you think they ought to do. And understand, "people around you" isn't limited to the employees in your organization. It also includes your boss, your peers, and those to whom your organization provides value (not your "internal customers").

What are the eight tasks? I was hoping you'd ask. They are (excerpted from "Leading IT: (Still) the Toughest Job in the World," which just hit the shelves and is, depending on your perspective about a book that's about half entirely new, either the second edition or the second first edition):

  • Setting direction because you can't lead if you don't know where you're going.
  • Delegating because if nobody knows what they're supposed to do, "follow you" doesn't mean anything.
  • Making decisions because as a practical matter, everything you need anyone to do is the result of making these well.
  • Staffing because if leadership is getting others to follow, choosing the right "others" is the difference between having to do it all yourself anyway and watching admiringly while it all gets done better than you could have done it.
  • Motivating employees (and everyone else) because the more energy everyone applies to their responsibilities, the more gets done, the better it gets done, and the more everyone enjoys the process of doing it.
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