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.

Since sports metaphors are popular among management consultants (yielding grossly inflated speaking fees for washed up sports figures in the bargain) I always love hearing interviews with the coaches of losing sports teams. I’ve synthesized a typical example:

“Ed Jones just didn’t play very hard this game,” complained the coach. “And John Smith demoralized the team with that interview he gave you reporters yesterday. If he’d spend more time trying to hit the ball and less time spouting off, it would give the whole team a lift. And then there’s Jim Johnson. Sure, his stats look good, but he’s grandstanding. He needs to be more of a team player.”

And on, and on. If I had a manager who publicly berated his staff like that I wouldn’t bother firing him.

I’d hire a recruiting firm to sneak him into my fiercest competitor instead.

And then there were the professional football players in the late ’80s, who arm-twisted the concessionaires into supporting their strike. The next year, when the concessionaires went out on strike, do you think the football players supported them? Not a chance.

This may be one of the more useful crossover lessons from professional sports to business leadership — say what you have to in order to get your way, then conveniently forget it when it becomes bothersome.

The first time I was exposed to “employee involvement” our visiting consultant, diluting his sports metaphors a bit, explained how it would transform the role of the leader: from decision-maker and expert to “coach and mentor”.

Now there’s an energizing concept.

You still hear this nonsense every so often, so let me clear it up once and for all: coaching and mentoring are wonderful ancillary qualities for a leader. The job, though, consists of setting direction, establishing priorities, and clearing away every obstacle to success.

Somebody famous once contrasted management and leadership as “doing things right” vs doing the right things. I’m not sure I agree. I think leadership makes sure decisions get made; management makes sure jobs get done.

Making sure decisions get made isn’t the same as making all the decisions, and the most important difference between good and bad leadership is decision style. There are four ways to make decisions: Command (you just make it), Consultative (you ask a lot of people, then make it), Delegated (you give it to someone else to make), and Consensus (you ask everyone involved to make it together).

The worst leaders make a lot of command decisions. Command decisions make sense in a crisis (there’s no time to ask anyone else) and when the leader knows so much more than anyone else that other opinions add no value. Leaders who make lots of command decisions either have lots of crises (bad leadership) or weak, untrained staff (bad leadership).

Good leaders make a lot of consultative decisions. Gather a lot of facts, ask for a lot of competing opinions, and you’ll be a lot smarter about the choice you have to make.

Good leaders delegate a lot of decisions. Figure out the best person to make the decision and give him or her ownership of it. You’ll deal with less detail and the delegatee will grow with new responsibility. (Now, you get to help that person figure out which of the four decision styles to use. In most cases, I’d recommend the consultative style.)

Reserve consensus decision-making for very special situations. Consensus decisions are expensive and time-consuming. Use consensus processes when (a) you need everyone involved to own the decision; or (b) you’re leading your peers to a decision nobody has the authority to make.

If you find yourself trying to do everything by consensus, you’re not leading. Quite the opposite, you’re avoiding leadership, playing it safe.

You’re making sure you can blame the team.