Is IT leadership the toughest job in the world?

It better be, because Leading IT: (Still) the Toughest Job in the World just hit the shelves. I’m calling it a second edition because it includes everything from the original, and I didn’t want to mislead anyone who already owns it.

But it contains as much new material as old — if you own the first edition and decide to read this one too, you won’t be disappointed. It is, perhaps, a second first edition.

But is IT leadership really the toughest job in the world, or am I just pandering?

The answer is, while I’m not entirely above pandering, running an IT organization probably is more difficult than any other leadership role in the world of commerce, because IT leaders face a uniquely difficult set of challenges.

Challenge #1: Smarts

High on the list is a point made by InfoWorld’s Eric Knorr in the foreword he was kind enough to write for the new edition: Technical professionals mostly figure they’re smarter than the managers they report to. Not only does this generality hold up pretty well, but the better the IT manager, the better it holds up.

This doesn’t make IT unique, of course … it’s true for any department staffed by engineers. Leadership is getting others to follow, and when the people who are supposed to follow you all figure they’re smarter than you are, leading them is a whole lot more interesting.

Challenge #2: Product Complexity

Imagine you had to create a detailed view of your company’s technical architecture. Not just a functional view that shows the building blocks and their interconnections, but a blueprint-level specification that shows everything and describes how the parts interact.

Now imagine you run out of Prozac.

It is, I suppose, possible that complex products like planes, trains and automobiles might have more and more complex moving parts.

But I doubt it, because the engineers who design these products have a huge advantage: They get to specify components that are designed to fit together. IT, in contrast, buys functional building blocks and has to make them work together in spite of their design inconsistencies.

And IT leaders have to run organizations capable of implementing, maintaining, and operating all of this complexity.

Challenge #3: Foxes vs Hedgehogs

The ancient Greek poet Archilochus said, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Jim Collins turned into one of his Good-to-Great principles, even though, based on what I learned about animal behavior and neurobiology back in my sociobiology days, I’m pretty sure the biggest thing hedgehogs know is, “Curl into a ball and stick out your spines when a fox is trying to eat you.”

Not that arguing the accuracy of ancient Greek poetry with Jim Collins is a good use of time.

Anyway … when you run a whole business, not only can you focus on one big thing, focusing the company on one big thing is your job.

When you run IT, you don’t get to delegate all the nasty complexities. At least, not entirely. All those smart people, who are responsible for all of those moving parts that were never designed to interoperate? You have to be able to communicate with all of them on their terms. In IT, hedgehog = empty suit.

Challenge #4: The difference between ignorance and apathy

It’s “I don’t know and I don’t care,” which, sadly, describes the attitude of far too many business executives about information technology. The same people who willingly invest millions in focus groups and taste tests to find out how to improve the company’s products, and more millions to understand how customers are responding to an advertising campaign, want you and your organization to figure out the information technology the company needs on your own.

Not in principle. In principle they want to be heavily involved. But in practice they can’t spare the time. They also can’t spare much staff time either. Except, that is, for the one or two people whose time they can cheerfully spare because they’re known to be worthless.

Meanwhile, there are investments you need to make whose costs will be quite tangible, but whose benefits will be invisible … investments in the IT equivalent of preventive maintenance.

Try to explain their importance and everyone’s eyes glaze over. Make them anyway and you’re accused of buying technology for technology’s sake. Fail to make them and you suffer the usual litany of outages, slowdowns, and costly overdue upgrades.

Is leading IT the toughest job in the world? Maybe, maybe not.

It’s certainly tough enough.