As CIO, you can lead with character, by knowing what are your values and what you believe.

IT-Leadership-Doug-MoranCharacter is the attribute we ascribe to people whose lives and actions reflect their beliefs and values.  Strong character requires emotional maturity and self-confidence.  But leading with character goes beyond simply having character.  Our ability to lead is in large part based on our ability to trust ourselves and  instill trust in others.  Those we lead want and need to trust us.  And to trust us, they must know us.  That means allowing them to get close.  It means sharing and exposing our beliefs and values. 

Leading with character can be uncomfortable.  We are in essence giving others insight into who we truly are.  Leading with character also means exposing ourselves to criticism and doubt, especially when our actions diverge (or appear to diverge) from our stated values. 

The Part Character Plays in the CIO Role

Character has special importance for CIOs and other IT leaders.  This has nothing to do with moral superiority.  It is simply a function of the unique perspective our roles provide.  Because technology is a critical enabler connecting and touching every part of the enterprise, we have the ability to see how the groups or functions interact and interrelate.  We can see what works well and where challenges exist.  We can see the unintended consequences of actions and the knock-on value that no one anticipated.

"Strong character forms a strong leadership foundation.  It gives us the confidence to do what is right regardless of the doubts and complaints of others.."

Connecting Character to Great Leadership

Our unique perspective is an invaluable resource.  Unfortunately, we often fail to exploit it fully.  The problem is that most of us fail to see how important our character is.  We fail to see the connection between our beliefs and values and the service we provide.  Great leaders, however, see the connection.  They recognize that their character enables them to guide and propel their organizations into the future. 

Although I’ve spent nearly 20 years working in IT, my greatest challenges have rarely been technical.  My biggest obstacles to overcome have been organizational complexities or dysfunctions.   These challenges provide CIOs many opportunities to develop their ability to lead with character.

CIOs play a key role in the softer side of business.  We are key contributors to things like defining and promoting corporate culture and organizational identity.   The character of an organization is often a reflection of its leaders’ beliefs and values.  As we provide solutions that cut across the enterprise and connect different parts of the organization together, we can often see things as they really are.  We observe the behaviors that reinforce or undermine the organization’s values.  For example, an organization may place a premium on collaboration and honesty.  Do our business partners look for ways to share resources or collaborate when they acquire new capabilities?  Does our reward and compensation system promote or discourage this type of behavior?  Our perspective enables us to see the interactions that either reflect a particular value or run counter to that value.

Why Character Matters in IT Leadership

It is easy to see the role character plays in the softer side of business.  What about the more objective functions?  How does character contribute to things like strategic planning, R&D, technology innovation, project prioritization, capacity planning, vendor/product selection, and the myriad other tasks for which we are accountable?  Character matters for these things, because our values determine what and how things are done.  For example, we all strive for objectivity and intellectual rigor in our decision-making processes.  Look at how business cases are evaluated and priorities are set.  How often do sponsors “game” the system to get their project done?  Does the CEO’s pet project that has questionable value make the cut because no one is willing to ask the hard questions?  How can you influence those processes to ensure that they remain objective and analytically sound? 

Ultimately, we can use our position and visibility to understand and change fundamentally how our organizations operate and behave.  We can encourage positive behavior while identifying and correcting problems.  The challenge for us is to overcome our trepidation about the personal (and often polarizing) aspects of character.  It is important to find balance in how we express our values and beliefs.  At one extreme, we can come across as self-righteous.  At the other, we seem irresolute. 

Strong character comes from knowing oneself.  Self-knowledge gives us the confidence to trust ourselves.  The more we demonstrate the strength of our character – by ensuring that our words and deeds are consistent with our beliefs and values – the stronger that trust grows.  Strong character forms a strong leadership foundation.  It gives us the confidence to do what is right regardless of the doubts and complaints of others.

How do we build and demonstrate a strong character?  Here are five steps that one can take to begin the process.

  1. Decide that character matters.  The simple act of making character important will raise your awareness of whether your actions are harmonious with your beliefs.
  2. Take time to inventory and examine your beliefs and values.  Your beliefs and values are your character’s foundation.  The process of fully understanding them is unending, so get started now!  While you are at it, take a look at your organization’s beliefs and values.  Examine the character of other leaders around you. Are your beliefs and values aligned?
  3. Share your beliefs and values.  Leading with character means being open and explicit about what truly matters.  This means talking about your personal beliefs, your organization’s beliefs and what they mean to you.
  4. Test your actions and decisions. Critical self-examination will help us maintain alignment between our actions and our beliefs and values.
  5. Have the character to act on your self-examination.  It takes character to stay the course when all doubt you.  It also takes character to change your position, especially one that you hold dear.  Leadership demands that we be able to do both as the situation dictates.            

Character builds our self-confidence and trust.  It allows us to trust ourselves and others.  Being a leader often means taking unpopular positions.  It means making difficult decisions.  Our positions and decisions may cause others to doubt us.  At times, we may even share their doubt.  When our actions are based on who we are and what we believe, we will have the strength of character to endure these doubts.  Success in the face of doubt depends on our ability to remain true to our principles and beliefs.  Failures will occur, and we will make mistakes.  Character is not about perfection.  It is about striving to seek the wisdom to know what is right and having the conviction to do it regardless of the opinion of others. 

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