IT leadership in trying times

Turbulent times offer the best test of an IT executive’s mettle, and never before have so many forces converged to challenge today’s technology leadership.

“Times are difficult. There is conflict, recession and erosion of trust. It’s really quite stunning,” said Warren G. Bennis, distinguished professor of management at the University of Southern California and author of the best-selling books Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge and On Becoming a Leader. In his closing keynote address to attendees of the three-day Computerworld Premier 100 conference here, Bennis told IT executives how to develop those qualities within themselves and their organizations.

Through interviews with 150 leaders, Bennis has learned how exemplary technology leaders get to be that way and found the following six core competencies that describe what people want from their technology leaders:

People want direction. Leaders provide that direction, said Bennis, by creating a sense of purpose in the organization and defining shared goals and objectives. Scott Adams’ “Dilbert” cartoon humorously depicts what happens when there’s “a disconnect between a vision and value statement and the reality of how people feel about their work,” he said. When a company’s mission is consistent with an employee’s personal values, that’s a successful relationship.

“This notion of alignment of values is absolutely critical,” said Bennis. Workers also want passion in their leaders. It’s a trait “you can spot in a minute,” said Bennis, and something for which General Electric Co.’s Jack Welch, for example, will likely be best remembered. People also want to have meaning in their work. “When people really feel they have meaning, they have motivation,” he added.

People want trust. Successful leaders provide organizational integrity, which involves competence, constancy, caring, candor and congruity. How do leaders create an atmosphere of candor? “Listening is critical,” said Bennis. “The capability to generate and sustain trust is key. These days, it’s especially important, considering the multiple crises we’re in.”

Personal integrity is another factor. Most leaders aren’t aware of how they’re perceived by others, which is why self-reports aren’t reliable and are being replaced by 360-degree reviews, said Bennis. The key components of personal integrity are ambition, competence and a moral compass. “Successful leaders keep those three things in balance,” he said.

People want understanding and acknowledgement. Exemplary leaders provide the power of appreciation and deep listening. An appreciation of workers is often a missing element in organizations, Bennis said. “It’s so important, not just [for] the one-minute compliment, but to be known,” he said. “It’s easy to forget that because we’re so busy with our 24/7 schedules.” A great leader knows when to abandon his ego and listen and learn from others, explained Bennis.

People want hope and optimism. Leaders provide that through something Bennis called “adaptive capacity,” an ability to seize opportunities and be creative. A great leader’s outlook tends to the positive, he said. “A sense of ‘We can do it.’ Leaders need that. It’s key,” Bennis said.

People want learning and personal growth. Great leaders provide developmental opportunities. “Especially in [the IT] field, a sense of learning and growth is what people more and more are looking for,” he said.

People want results. Leaders have a bias toward action, risk and courage, according to Bennis. More than anything else, a great leader must be able to execute. “Knowing the difference between being bold and being reckless — it’s an art. And leadership is to a large extent an art.”

When the qualities that people want — and that leaders can provide — converge, the results for companies can be clear goals and objectives, reliability and consistency, empowerment, energy and commitment, a loyal and more productive workforce, and improved confidence and creativity, said Bennis.