Leading isn’t hard the way neurosurgery is hard. It’s hard the way digging a ditch is hard.

Thinking about what I’ve accomplished since I starting publishing KJR and its predecessors, I consider Leading IT: <Still> the Toughest Job in the World one of my highlights. What follows is my attempt at the Classic Comics version.

Leadership defined:

Peter Drucker and Admiral Grace Hopper suggested, respectively, that, “Leadership is doing the right things. Management is doing them right,” and, “You manage things. You lead people.” I don’t like them because neither is a definition.

And so, mine: “If people are following then you’re leading. Otherwise you aren’t.”

I’d leave it at that except President Eisenhower did me one better, with, “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”


The Leadership compass

“Leader” isn’t a title. It’s a choice. Which brings up the leadership compass: Every employee is in a position to lead in one or more of four directions. They can lead South, to the people who report to them on the org chart. They can lead North, to those higher up on the org chart, and especially those they report to. They can lead East, to their organizational peers. And they can lead West, to those who make use of the services their organization provides.

As a general rule, some managers excel at leading in the southwesterly direction; the rest are northeasterners. Southwestern leaders are good at getting done what they’re supposed to get done. Northeastern leaders are good at getting ahead in their careers. At, not to put too fine a point on it, brownnosing and schmoozing.

But also on getting the budget and resources their organizations need, from the people who are in a position to provide them.

Leadership Power Rankings

How you lead depends in large part on the level of power you bring to bear on your relationships, and there are five levels. You can (1) control, which is the power a programmer brings to their relationship with the computers they program. You can (2) exert authority – you can tell someone what to do, and hope they do it and do it right. You can (3) persuade – you can modify a colleague’s thought process so they reach the same conclusion you’ve reached. And you can (4) influence, which is like persuasion only less complete: you can modify a colleague’s thought process so it’s closer to your own.

And, least appealing, you can (5) be a victim – you can be powerless, which is the definition of victimhood.

No matter which direction you’re facing you have opportunities to lead, which you can take advantage of so long as you recognize that influencing is a legitimate leadership result.

Which brings us to the world of technique: How effective leaders get others to follow their lead.

The eight tasks of leadership

Effective leaders master eight tasks:

Setting direction: Leaders must be clear about their organization’s mission, vision, and strategy. The mission is the reason the organization exists – what it’s supposed to accomplish. Vision is a clear and precise account of how tomorrow will be different from yesterday. Strategy is how the leader expects to deliver on their organization’s mission and make the vision real.

Delegation: Effective staff get things done. Effective leaders build organizations that get things done for them. The process of getting staff to do the leader’s work and do it well is the essence of leading.

Staffing: To build organizations that get things done, effective leaders must be adept at determining who to recruit, hire, train, and promote so the organization is staffed with people they can delegate to.

Decision-making: Decisions commit or deny staff, time, and money. Everything else is just talking. Decent leaders don’t necessarily make good decisions, but they do take the steps needed so good decisions get made.

Motivating: A point not worth bothering to make is that motivated staff work harder and better than apathetic staff. Leaders motivate by (1) avoiding de-motivating employees; and then (2) energizing them.

Managing team dynamics: Most of the work that gets done gets done by teams – collections of employees who trust each other and who are aligned to a common purpose. The best leaders don’t consider themselves part of the teams they lead, but do take responsibility for creating the conditions that result in trust and alignment.

Instituting culture: Culture is how we do things around here – not on a procedural level, but on an attitudinal one. Employees who share the same unconscious assumptions and thought processes collaborate more effectively than those who don’t.

Communicating: For the most part, the way leaders accomplish the first seven tasks is by communicating – the eighth task. Communicating means they listen, inform, persuade, and facilitate.

There’s a myth that leadership training is pointless, because you can’t teach someone to be a great leader.

It’s a myth because it’s based on a bipolar outcome.

Few who aspire to leadership will become great leaders, no matter how much education they receive on the subject.

But only the most oblivious will improve their skills at the eight tasks and still fail to become a better leader.

As with so many other subjects, when it comes to leadership perfection is the enemy of the good.

When I launched this column as Infoworld’s “IS Survival Guide back in 1996, it introduced the three bedrock principles of good management: (1) Customers … real, external, paying customers … define value; (2) form follows function; and (3) everyone involved must be aligned to a common purpose.

In the 28 years since then I’ve figured out, read about, and otherwise discovered one or two additional notions worth the attention of IT leaders and managers. But none of those notions have led me to jettison any of the big three I started with.

So I figured, as Keep the Joint Running winds down, it wouldn’t hurt to revisit them. And so …

Customers define value

Start by defining terms – the starting point for any rational conversation. And so, what is a customer? A customer is the entity that makes the buying decision about your company’s products and services. I say “entity” because while it might be a person who makes the buying decision, it also might be a committee, or, in these strange times it might be an AI. And so, “entity” it is.

Not the entity that uses them? No, although the sales process is a whole lot easier when the entity that uses a product or service also makes the buying decision.

So we need a different term for those who use, and as someone once pointed out, “user” sounds like someone who enjoys recreational pharmaceuticals. So for our purposes we’ll call those who use our products and services “consumers.”

We also need a term for those who provide the money used to buy products and services. Call them “wallets.” As anyone in sales will explain, everything is easier when the customer, consumer, and wallet are the same entity.

Then there’s the deficient oxymoron, “internal customer” – a term that conflates customers, consumers, and wallets. To be fair, IT does have these. But few IT leaders understand with clarity that the CIO’s internal customer is, personally, the person who can fire them or retain their services. Organizationally IT’s internal customer is the budget committee, which makes the decision as to how much the company should spend on information technology.

Form follows function

I was meeting with a CIO and his direct reports. My goal: Demonstrate to them that engaging my services for improving IT’s organizational performance by helping them construct a useful system of IT metrics was a good idea.

The CIO asked me a question: “What metrics do most IT organizations use?

I made the mistake of trying to answer his question. And worse, because I didn’t have any survey data to rely on, it was obvious I was tap-dancing, too.

The right answer was to answer a question with a question: Form follows function. Different IT organizations have different organizational performance goals. That’s what we needed to discuss.

“Form follows function” is the centerpiece of all successful designs, whether the subject is the organizational chart, the company’s compensation system, or minor matters like your company’s products and services. Start by nailing down “function” and take it from there. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what happens to stick.

Align everyone to a common purpose.

Imagine you’re the captain of a galley – one of the oar-powered warships the Greeks and Romans used in their naval battles.

Imagine your galley’s crew is divided into 50 port oarsmen and 50 starboard oarsmen; also imagine you have two direct reports (mates; call them the p-mate and s-mate). The p-mate thinks the galley should head in the bow’s direction, and instructs their 50 oarsmen to push their oar handles as hard as they can. The s-mate thinks stern-ward is the better direction and tells his half of the crew to pull their oars as hard as they can.

What does the galley do? It spins, of course.

So you reorganize. Instead of a p-mate and s-mate you decide to have a bow mate and stern mate. Now, the front 50 oarsmen push their oars as hard as they can; the rear 50 pull their oars as fast as they can. What’s the galley do? It churns, taking all the power exerted by the oarsmen and using it to neutralize the oarsmen’s efforts.

Don’t believe me? Check this out: Dragon Boat Racing Teams Compete In Epic Tug Of War (Storyful, Sports) – YouTube .

This is what happens when those in your organization aren’t aligned to a common purpose. Each does what they think is best, but because they have different goals they mostly neutralize each other’s best efforts.

Bob’s last word: Please don’t think leading and managing IT, or any other organization for that matter, is so simple that three core principles are enough to get you by. Enough? No. But they’re a pretty good place to start.