In graduate school, while I monitored electric fish, my friend Henry McDermott watched prairie chickens mate.

Male prairie chickens congregate in an area the size of a suburban lawn called a “lek”. The highest-status male grabs a territory the size of a kitchen table in the middle. The others array themselves outward from there, in larger but more peripheral chunks of turf, doing the prairie chicken dance. Female prairie chickens wander through the lek, most mating with the central male. Success declines with distance from the middle. It’s disco.

Biologists erroneously figured the biggest, meanest male owned the middle. Henry discovered something different: over the years, those males who survive drift to the middle. It’s a seniority system.

In 1980 I stopped torturing fish, entered the business world, and spotted the similarity of prairie chickens and executive succession. Executives achieved power by avoiding decisions and their attendant risks. If they survived they progressed toward the center, though their companies stagnated.

The prairie chicken strategy no longer works very well – it will only get you to middle management, where stress is highest and security nonexistent.

In the 1990s, management power has a stronger tie to creating the company’s success. That doesn’t mean you will thrive by viewing one as the inevitable consequence of the other. Assuming you have a management title, you’re playing the power game every day. You can’t quite the game, any more than you can ignore the laws of thermodynamics. You can, however, decide how you choose to play it.

Machiavelli, the second-most maligned individual in history (the Sheriff of Nottingham was first, as the real Robin Hood was apparently a thug) wrestled with this, the main conundrum of power: can you achieve it and keep it while practicing the morality you preach?

Power has its own logic and morality. A leader who fails to do what’s necessary to maintain power will lose it others. If, at times, this means the execution or exile (or corporate equivalent) of an influential rival, that’s preferable to that rival’s executing or exiling you.

Do you have to sacrifice your principles to rise in your career? Not sacrifice. Rethink. Do you want to accomplish something? You think you can do a better job than those currently in authority? If you can’t gain and hold onto authority you won’t accomplish your goals. It’s a poor code of ethics that celebrates the failure to do good, and yields power to those who want it most.

And if acquiring and maintaining power requires unethical behavior? That’s Machiavelli’s paradox, and it’s intellectually lazy to think you’re somehow more noble by “refusing to play the game”. That’s how power ends up in the hands of those with the fewest scruples.

Am I advocating you start practicing ruthless, backstabbing politics? Not at all. I’m suggesting that if you ignore the realities of power you’ll never understand the behavior of those who embrace them.
Most of us operate under a shared system of mores we’ve all agreed to live within. We assume shared limits to each other’s behavior, experience shock when someone violates those norms, and expects society to impose sanctions to punish that behavior and prevent a recurrence. Charles van Doren calls this a state of law.

Those with both the most and least power live closer to a “state of nature” with fewer societal restraints. Punishment is a natural expression of success or failure in this system, not an expression of societal norms. This is the kind of system that evolves according to more Darwinian rules.

Which is why we can learn a lot from watching animals.


Bibliography: My thinking on this subject has been heavily influenced by two books: Management and Machiavelli, by Anton Jay, and A History of Knowledge by Charles van Doren, which describes the evolution of Western thought and culture.

Several years ago, deep in the throes of an empowerment fad, I became the “culture coach” for our IS organization. My fellow IS managers questioned my qualifications.

“You’re a techie!” one of them exclaimed. “The job needs someone who thinks about the human side of management!”

“The two aren’t mutually exclusive,” I replied, pondering how well someone who made that statement in public really understood the human side of management. My response didn’t entirely defuse the skepticism. I got the job anyway, probably because (a) the other IS managers viewed it as a career buster, and (b) I had the most important qualification – a thick skin.

Juxtapose an event a year earlier. A friend and fellow manager asked me to mediate a situation with one of her technically strongest employees, who didn’t think she really understood how much he contributed to the organization. Since I was a techie, she thought the guy might relate to me better.

As a previous column proposed, leadership is defined by who seeks approval from whom. Technically proficient employees – and IS needs a cadre of technically adept employees – often devalue the approval of technically ignorant managers.

This should be unsurprising. Soldiers prefer generals who have seen combat – they understand what soldiers go through in battle and are less likely to issue stupidly lethal orders. Journalists like editors who know how to write – they understand the process of ferreting out a story and are less likely to ruin good copy.

Programmers, DBAs, network engineers, all understand that managers who have never written and debugged code, made design compromises for the sake of production tuning, or tracked down a bad cable, won’t be able to judge performance. They’re right.

That’s why technical employees too often watch their ideas and recommendations go unheard while promotions and recognition go to their non-technical peers – like promotes like.

Technical employees understand that managers who have never held technical jobs are more likely to establish ridiculous deadlines, create unworkable project plans, embrace silly fads, and fall for extravagant vendor claims. And of course, they hold employees accountable for making it all work.

Technical employees want to walk into their manager’s office, describe a dust-up with some willfully ignorant end-user and what they did about it, and have the manager say, “Here’s something you might try. It’s worked pretty well for me in similar situations. And don’t worry – I’ll explain the facts of life to the user’s manager.”

Most important: leadership requires establishing an organization’s overall direction by articulating a description of what the future must look like. Technical employees are simply unlikely to find such a picture credible when painted by someone whose total technical depth consists of having attended one James Martin satellite conference.

Think about Bill Gates’ status as industry leader. At some primal level it’s deeply satisfying, despite Microsoft’s questionable business practices and even more questionable software design. The reason, I think, is that Bill Gates started as a personal computer hobbyist and weenie. He’s one of us.

Does this mean non-technical IS managers must immediately tender their resignations (after hand-writing them and handing them to a secretary to type, since they don’t know how to fire up the word processor)?

No. Nor is business acumen unimportant in the job – business acumen is absolutely vital to a CIO’s success. Too.

If you’re a non-technical IS manager, though, you have a big hill to climb. The most effective IS leaders act as high-level technology consultants for the rest of the company, understanding business issues, envisioning broad-brush solutions that maximize technical leverage, and providing insight into what will be required to make it all happen.

Then they have to translate it so the people who have to make it all happen understand what’s required, why it’s important and exciting, and that it’s feasible.

No big deal.