Looking for creative IT leaders

Creativity leadership is the new career differentiator for emerging IT leaders. Long-time 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, in the US, 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.

But the IT industry is improving and changing.

The scope and scale of the IT mission is undergoing a significant transformation. No longer are the folks 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 main 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 nation's workforce can be bundled together in this class, which consists of individuals making their living in idea- or innovation-based occupations. His colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University estimate that this group accounts for about half of all US wages and salaries -- about $US1.7 trillion.

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.

The IT conversation isn't just about business. 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.

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