Editorial Viewpoint: Some reflections on leadership

This issue of CIO Canada explores various aspects of leadership as it relates to the CIO. The seven IT executives who participated in our annual roundtable had a lot to say on the subject. There was much they agreed on and much they disagreed on, which only goes to show how subjective our ideas about leadership can be.

When I think back over my own working life, it seems to me that the best leaders I have come across have all shared some essential qualities.

One of those essential traits is passion. Mississauga’s Hazel McCallion, a finalist for the 2005 World Mayor Award, has it aplenty, which is why they still call her Hurricane Hazel at the age of 84. Lee Iacocca has it, and leveraged that passion through an intensive media campaign to rescue Chrysler from the brink of oblivion. Legendary coach Vince Lombardi, who turned the Green Bay Packers into an NFL dynasty, famously had it. It was Lombardi who said, “If you aren’t fired with enthusiasm, you will be fired with enthusiasm.”

If passion is an essential leadership trait, then coupled closely with it must be prudence and practicality. We can all think of many passionate leaders who, lacking these disciplines, led their companies, their teams, their parties, their countries into disaster. When it comes to passion, we would all do well to remember that undisciplined fellow described by humourist Stephen Leacock: “He flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse, and rode madly off in all directions.”

Riding madly off in all directions is a surefire way to get nowhere fast.

Another essential trait of great leaders is that they are excellent communicators. Some of the best CIOs I’ve encountered go to great lengths to communicate their message to their staff and to the business. Some have come up with clever ways of marketing IT, including branding the IT department, creating slogans, putting out newsletters, establishing awards programs, and even creating books about the contribution of IT to the company. All this is good stuff, but the best IT leaders take it a step further. They recognize that communications is a two-way street, and they put as much effort into encouraging communications up and down the chain of command as they do promoting the message of IT out to the company.

Finally, great leaders are usually great relationship-builders. They’ve mastered the soft skills. There are many ways of building relationships, from open-door policies, to working in the trenches with the troops, to town hall meetings, to sharing a bottle of scotch with the project team. For any leaders listening, make mine a wee dram of The Macallan 15-year old.