As CIOs grow in seniority and influence they must shift their emphasis from management to leadership. The two are different.

Management is about execution: coping with complexity, organizing and staffing, planning, controlling, performance improvement and problem solving. Leadership requires soft and intuitive or touchy-feely competencies.

But let’s face it, most CIOs would rather have all four wisdom teeth extracted than come to grips with the latter issues. Yet those who master the art of leadership outperform their weaker counterparts in the workplace time and again.

Shifting from management to leadership

Most senior executives, including CIOs, mix both leadership and management. How they balance the two depends on many factors that relate to the circumstances of the business and to the seniority of the CIO. As a generalization, the more senior and influential they are, the more CIOs should shift their emphasis from management to leadership.

“There’s a scale of management and leadership,” says Darrel Poulos, an organizational development specialist. “As CIOs gain in influence and stature, the focus of their role switches from essentially transactional and responsive, to visionary and change-oriented. The different roles are not mutually exclusive, of course. Even so, CIOs are able to position themselves at a point on the chart where their attention is mostly focused.”

The role shift from management to leadership is fundamental. It’s from an environment of relative certainty to one of considerable uncertainty.

“Executives at the very top of organizations know there are few if any right answers,” says Robina Chatham of the Cranfield School of Management in the United Kingdom. “They have to embrace ambiguity, uncertainty and human complexity.”

It’s the human complexity – the “touchy-feely” elements of leadership – that CIOs find particularly difficult to master. Such issues are not amenable to analysis, yet they can have a significant impact on team performance. Low motivation and morale are examples of the negative impact of flawed leadership; strong coherence and high productivity are examples of positive impact.

Defining emotional intelligence

Leaders who are on top of the soft issues of leadership are said to be “emotionally intelligent”.

Emotional intelligence was a term coined by Daniel Goleman, a management guru at Rutgers University in the US. It is the ability to manage yourself and your relationships effectively. And to be able to alter the way you react as circumstances dictate. It’s made up of four things: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and social skills.

The business case for emotional intelligence is convincing. Time and again, those strong in emotional intelligence have been shown to outperform their weaker counterparts in the workplace. This is particularly so where people skills count – as they do, for example, in IT management, service, teamwork and IT leadership.

Although it isn’t easy, the good news is that the soft issues of leadership can be learned. Good leaders don’t have to be born that way, they can grow into it in the workplace.

The problem is that learning emotional intelligence is more difficult than conventional (“cognitive”) learning and takes far longer. The principle reason is that it affects different areas of the brain, so it has to be conducted differently from conventional learning. “One must first unlearn old habits and then develop new ones,” says Goleman.

One-day seminars won’t do it. It’s a ‘learning by doing’ process. Things begin with a preparation stage in which would-be leaders are selected and primed. It then runs through stages of motivation, training and reinforcement, in which classroom training is combined with mentor-supported learning on the job. Mentors help students to heighten their awareness and improve their responses to interpersonal situations.

The whole process takes months, and a high level of motivation. You have to want to change, and be willing to constantly monitor your actions and choose new behaviors.

As a CIO leader, emotional intelligence will be a very useful tool to have in your tool box. So get a mentor and start working on it.

Andrew Rowsell-Jones is vice president and research director for Gartner’s CIO Executive Programs.

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