The citizen CIO

The total leadership column is about the search for a full understanding of leadership, in all its dimensions. But I think we’ve largely overlooked something important. For years, we have written about leadership as executives, in the context of organizations, industries and different sectors. We have missed an exploration of leadership as citizens, in the context of the neigh-borhoods, cities, states and nations in which we live.

Democracy in the information age is still working through an array of issues that are simultaneously threatening, confusing and enticing. These range from property rights, privacy and security to the need for improved public information, delivery of government services and enhancement of our democratic processes.

These challenges and opportunities will not be met without the leadership of those who understand how information is collected, managed, distributed and used. The contribution of CIOs in formal government positions will be necessary but not sufficient. Many different types of CIOs, as citizens, must be involved. The leadership challenge is for CIOs across the nation to find new ways to pool their collective talents and help protect our democracy.

Democracy in the Information Age

Since the birth of democratic republics, principles and assumptions have been present about the role of knowledge and information–from protecting freedom of speech and patent law to the requirements for heads of state to provide reports to the legislature. George Washington, in his first annual message to Congress on Jan. 8, 1790, said, “Knowledge is, in every country, the surest basis of public happiness. In one in which the measures of government receive their impression so immediately from the sense of the community as in ours, it is proportionably essential.”

In the first half of the 20th century, the advent of large-scale, rapid communication of symbols, voice and images (that is, telephone, radio and TV) brought new roles and impacts of information in a democracy. Similarly, it was in the first half of the last century that the foundations for information about our economy and our people were developed.

Advancements in the 20th century’s second half brought forth the notion of cyberspace, a term that attempted to capture the richness and scope of societal potential arising from the combined impact of computing and communications technologies. We have seen an exponential increase in the effect of information on our society: computer models of human organs and the earth’s climate; information assets like the human genome; navigational systems such as GPS; global systems governing markets, finance and supply chains; the World Wide Web; and continuous advances in artificial intelligence.

The CIO’s Contribution

The creation of the CIO position, and its ancillary positions of CKO, CTO and CLO, have all coincided with this era of exponential advancement. Someone had to take leadership on such a multifaceted set of issues and opportunities. After decades of systematically dealing with these challenges, CIOs have gained experience and judgment that is a vital–but hidden–national asset. CIOs know much about what is possible and what is not. They know how to realize these possibilities and the high risks of failure. They know what talents are required to build a continually evolving systems organization.

In short, CIOs have developed organized approaches to getting the right information and technology assets that will produce the maximum impact on the goals and aspirations of the organizations they help lead. These approaches are needed not just in businesses and nonprofits, but also in cities, states and the nation as a whole. And in these latter cases, many different types of CIOs must work together as citizens to understand what is possible, what is required and how to make it happen. For example, the U.S. national cybersecurity strategy, which was developed after 9/11, can never be implemented without wholly new forms of collaboration within the CIO community.

Millions will volunteer for the great national challenges, such as fighting a war. But the enterprise of designing and building a knowledge and information architecture for a 21st-century democracy is no less necessary, even though it may be less visible and produce fewer novels and movies. The CIO community needs to discover its members who are already contributing to these great human enterprises and follow their lead as they weave knowledge, learning, technology and information into the democratic fabrics of understanding, wisdom and judgment.

The Leadership Challenge

The leadership challenge for CIOs, as citizens, is to help bring to their fellow citizens the quality of information, systems, technology, learning and knowledge that CIOs bring to their companies. This involves much more than e-government, which is about helping citizens interface with government. It involves something more akin to “e-governance”–helping citizens more effectively govern themselves in a new century.

The key to taking up this challenge is a change in mind-set: from supplying customers to serving fellow citizens, from implementing requirements to defining possibilities, from competition in the marketplace to collaboration in the public arena. Only if more members of the CIO community bring their skills to bear will our democracy thrive in the information age.

In the course of my career, I have done three tours in private-sector organizations and two tours as a public servant. As I reflect on the lessons I’ve learned and applied, the most powerful ones actually come from the most exemplary citizen I know: my father. As a concerned member of his community, he showed leadership and a commitment to progress that transcended and enhanced his roles as father and employee.

Achieving “total leadership” is not just about understanding leadership practices, absorbing tips and techniques and discovering role models. The true mark of total leadership is being a whole person. Only when we lead as citizens, not just as executives, does the full power of leadership come within our grasp.



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