If you lead you're damned, and if you don't you're damned

Just who are you supposed to be? General Patton or Jeeves the butler? IS managers are getting an earful lately about leadership -- from consultants, executives and the press -- and are snagged between two contradictory roles: the leaders they're now supposed to be and the service mentality they've always had. IS and line managers are confused, even soured, about IT leadership.

What separates the IT leader from the IT manager? The pundits keep stressing strong values, inspiring interpersonal skills -- and the ability to think and act like a businessperson. That means thinking strategically and understanding your business, markets and customers. Being a leader includes go-get-'em actions: spotting and seizing business opportunities and increasing shareholder value and profits.

That's all important, but the list has a giant blind spot. It leaves out something solid IS professionals feel deep in their bones: that the primary job of IS is to serve the business.

Ask IT managers, from supervisors to chief information officers, and they'll tell you their role is to enable the business to achieve its goals through IT. Good IS organisations have a deeply ingrained service mentality. IT managers may want to participate in business decisions; they sure want line managers to better understand IT. But ultimately, the CEO and top line management must call the tune, and IS must dance to it.

And however much CEOs bellyache about the lack of IS leadership -- a common complaint, according to leadership guru Noel Tichy -- businesspeople still believe IS's first job is to support the business. If anything, power over IT decisions is passing to the business side. What were once IT decisions -- selecting applications, building infrastructure -- have become decisions that chief executive officers, general managers and even boards of directors are expected to make.

Part of the confusion, I'm convinced, is that leadership experts keep holding up CEOs as examples of leadership -- visionary CEOs such as GE's Jack Welch and Intel's Andy Grove, who have turned around their companies or conquered their markets. But CEOs are the wrong model for the IT leader. If top IS managers were expected to be that kind of business leader, we'd see electronic-commerce initiatives falling under the aegis of IS instead of line managers. More IS organisations would operate as profit centres. And line managers wouldn't be gaining authority over IT spending.

No wonder, then, that to many IS professionals, leadership remains a vague, uncomfortable concept, like a suit that's three sizes too big. If we want IS managers to act like leaders, we must zero in on what it means to lead and serve a business at the same time. I'm not sure anyone has done that, not even the leadership experts. They have a lot to say about the great CEOs, leadership skills and values, but little about acting like a leader when you are in a support role.

Other support functions -- finance, human resources and legal departments -- suffer the same problem. For all the lip service paid to the importance of a company's human resources, you don't hear of HR directors who are great business leaders. Those best-selling books on business leadership always profile CEOs, entrepreneurs, factory managers and sales whizzes, never chief financial officers or other support-function heads.

IS needs real leadership, but leadership will remain an empty buzzword to many IS managers, a term that elicits sighs or snickers, until it takes IS's service role into account.

* Allan Alter's e-mail address is allan_alter@cw.comThis article appears in ComputerWorld, March 20, 1998

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