Looking for creative IT leaders

Creativity leadership is the new career differentiator for emerging IT leaders. Longtime denizens of the technology demesne are no strangers to the terms leadership and creativity. It's rare, however, to see the words used together. This will change, according to research coming out of the IT Leadership Academy as we move deeper into an accelerated, creatively destructive, innovation-based economy.

There are libraries full of books on leadership, but people in IT tend not to be featured in those texts. Best-seller wannabes target IT folk as readers of leadership books, not as exemplars that appear in them. This must change. Business school curricula focusing on leadership don't rely heavily on case studies of IT practitioners; more frequently than not, the IT case is used to demonstrate what not to do. That may be why IT has such a bad reputation with number-crunching MBAs.

I'm not the first to comment on the eminently improvable state of leadership skills in the IT industry, and I certainly won't be the last. The leadership skills of CIOs' and CTOs' first-, second- and third-level reports are not, by anyone's calculation, complete.

But more significant than the need to top off IT professionals' leadership skills is the fact that what IT must lead is changing. The scope and scale of the IT mission is undergoing a significant transformation. No longer are the people in IT seen as sequestered wizard-priests tending giant machines in isolated dungeons. We have moved beyond the old focus on back-office processes, and for many organizations, IT has become the major element of customer-touching activities in the front office. IT is at the base of customer experience, all the way from presales to delivery, deployment and billing. But the evolution of our profession doesn't end there. The next step for IT is to become an active and significant contributor to the process of product and service design. This puts IT smack-dab in the centre of what Richard Florida has called the "creative class".

This sociologist-cum-demographer has provided a valuable service by tracing the boundaries and behaviours of this group of people. His book, The Rise of the Creative Class (Basic Books, 2003) insightfully demonstrates that 30 percent of the US workforce (about 40 million people) can be bundled together in this class, which consists of individuals making their living in idea- or innovation-based occupations.

What Florida doesn't say explicitly, though it is implied, is that the creative class isn't well led or provided for by existing institutions, even though it will be a force in shaping the future economy. The potential leadership of the future is up for grabs. Part of the grabbing will involve developing the skills necessary to lead.

The IT conversation isn't just about business. Increasingly, it's about the essence of society -- how we live our lives. More and more, IT decisions involve not only dollars and cents but public- and foreign-policy considerations as well, as demonstrated by the prominence of issues such as information security, privacy and outsourcing. A little investment in developing the capacity and reputation for creative leadership will pay big dividends in the future.

Thornton May is a longtime industry observer, management consultant and commentator

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