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Reimagining the leadership principle in Information Technology

“Success is not measured by what you accomplish but by the opposition you have encountered, and the courage with which you have maintained the struggle against overwhelming odds.” — Orison Swett Marden

Information technology (IT) leaders are being taught to embrace the words as the faithful do their relics: with devotion, hope and a flawed understanding of their meaning. Indeed, “The Leadership Principle” appears everywhere in a capitalist’s code of conduct, ready to bestow boons if only we believe in their mystical power to change our uncompetitive ways.

Those who we imagine have been touched by such magic are seen as our heroes. They are Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, J.K. Irving and John Bragg, Wallace McCain and Pierre Peladeau. We read about their indefatigable optimism and remarkable ability to amass vast amounts of capital. And we admire them for their preternatural success and unwavering determination.

However, as a friend who is an IT entrepreneur and a self-made man points out, leadership is not really about any of this. “It took me some time to understand what I really wanted from my own business,” Sam Gower says. Gower is founder and CEO of T & T Solutions, Inc in California. Gower says, “One day it finally hit me. I wanted to build something that no longer needed me in any capacity. I wanted others I may have inspired to build upon what I have accomplished.”

It is a rare and poignant definition, but it suggests that at some fundamental level true leadership is as much about loss as it is about gain.

Again, Gower explains: “Too often, we fail to make the distinction between IT leaders and managers. Some leaders are managers, and the reverse is also true, but not always. Managers have specific, supervisory roles to perform. And, so, managers typically accumulate resources in order to get the job done.  Leaders, however, can appear almost anywhere, at every level in an organization. They give things away freely – their time, their ideas, and at times even their personal ambitions – in order to build something larger than themselves.”
If Gower is correct, then the IT world has all the managers it can handle. Now, more than at any other time in recent history, it desperately needs leaders.

What was the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico this spring but a major failure of leadership? As soon as the extent of the damage became clear, those who were responsible – the corporation’s senior executives, the industry’s regulators, the U.S. administration – scuttled for their nearest silos of selfishness, pointing accusing fingers, and tallying the costs of the disaster to the bottom lines of their respective reputations. It was a disappointing display of pathetically bad management with no indication of courage. Courage is exemplified by that leader who does not fold under pressure.

What was the decision to spend $1-billion on security for the G8 and G20 summits in Canada this summer but an example of short-sighted, process-oriented thinking? Anyone with a realistic vision of today’s global conditions would have divined this as an unnecessary waste of tax dollars at a time when public deficits all over the developed world are spinning out of control, necessitating deep cuts to those very programs that spur innovation, productivity and competitiveness. Resources get wasted while catastrophes like the floods in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province get modest attention at best- and that too only because they provide great photo opportunities for global leaders.

In today’s international business environment it is becoming increasingly difficult to identify truly inspiring leaders.  The news media provides us with a daily dose of reports about “leaders” who started out with promises, inspiration, and expectations of unprecedented success and have failed to achieve anything of significance or have only succeeded in creating an environment of mistrust, suspicion and fear. We need leaders who have the ability to motivate, accept responsibility, and create a true and sincere organizationally based desire to succeed both at the individual level and at the team level.

In a previous column, I alluded to opportunities for Pakistan based entrepreneurs and leaders to consider aligning with Atlantic Canada’s strong economy. While Atlantic Canada has never been particularly deep in visionary talent, it has been fortunately rich in the sincere leaders it boasts. Its once-backwards regional economies have been transformed by leaders at all levels of government, industry and higher education who believe that what they are doing pays competitive dividends to the future, even if the personal rewards of the present are underwhelming.

We must find and encourage new IT leaders who understand the practical and comprehensible magic of self-sacrifice. Or, says Gower, “You can make a real business case for relinquishing your hold on short-term, personal interests if you’re strategically laying the groundwork for long-term results. The leadership principle is like a virus. Once it infects a corporate or government culture, it can spread very quickly.”

IT leaders must create an organization of people who know their jobs well, but also know the mission of the organization. Empowering people to use their knowledge and their ability to think creatively will result in new solutions being developed. An environment of innovation, creativity, and empowerment will outperform any competitor.

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