In his latest guest blog, Randy Pennington writes that the CIO's true role is to build, inspire, and empower a team of highly engaged professionals. That makes leadership your primary job.

What if we are making the challenges of digital transformation and technology leadership too complex? 

Stephen Hawking began his book A Brief History of Time with the retelling of an anecdote that has been around in various forms since the late 1500’s.

After a presentation on the structure of the solar system by a leading astronomer, an elderly lady confronts the presenter to disagree with his assertions that the Earth is a ball orbiting the Sun. According to her, in the Hindu tradition, the world as we know it rests on the back of a giant turtle.

When confronted with the obvious question about the platform on which the turtle is standing, the lady confidently replies, “It’s turtles all the way down.”

We know that this explanation of cosmology doesn’t hold up in the face of reality. On the other hand, the key to successful transformation—digital or otherwise—might be as simple as this: It is leadership all the way down.

What’s is the IT Leader’s Job?

The usual response to this question falls into one of two categories: (1) help the organization reach its goals by successfully implementing its IT strategy; or (2) ensure that we provide cutting edge IT services and support to help the company reach its goals.

Both responses accurately describe your responsibilities. Your department, division, or team adds value and earns its keep by accomplishing these things.

"There is not a single organizational challenge that can be solved without influencing people to come with you toward a common destination. That makes leadership your primary job."


Neither response, on the other hand, describes your true role as a CIO, CTO, or other technology leader. Your true role is to build, inspire, enable, and empower a team of highly engaged professionals to fulfill your group’s purpose and the success of the enterprise. In short, to lead.

There is not a single organizational challenge that can be solved without influencing people to come with you toward a common destination at the desired pace. Digital transformation is the focus du jour, but it could be anything that shows up on your annual goals. That makes leadership—more than technological competence or brilliance—your primary job.

Where Great Leaders Focus Their Efforts

Great leadership, especially when you need people to embrace change, has less to do with position and much more to do with the power to influence. You can mandate compliance, but people readily volunteer their commitment to leaders they trust.

So begin there. Nothing else matters if you aren’t a leader that people can trust to guide them into the future. Beyond that, leadership that drives transformation requires these four things:

  1. Clarity around a compelling vision or purpose. The first question asked when leaders pronounce the generic need for change is “from what to what?” The second question is usually some version of “why is this important?” Transformational leaders articulate the specifics about how the future will look, what it will take to get there, and why that is important. They are careful to frame all of this in the context of why it matters from the perspective of those they wish to influence. Remember: the vast majority of the reasons leaders talk about when describing the need for change doesn’t matter to most of the people listening. People do things for their reasons, not yours.

  2. A culture that inspires and develops great performance. Your culture is much more than an inviting environment where people enjoy coming to work. There’s nothing wrong with that, but a fun place to hang out without the expectation for positive results is a party, not a business. The culture you need to achieve transformation must invest in developing talent. It creates the expectation that everyone is accountable to each other and the customers you serve. Most important, it places a premium on execution, continuous improvement, and innovation.

  3. A champion for the resources required. The best leaders are advocates for their team. They help them avoid the frustration that happens when time, tools, and resources aren’t available to complete the job. Additionally, they help adjust and reframe expectations in those times when resources are not available to meet the demands of the job.

  4. The courage of accountability. Your team needs you to hold yourself and others accountable for contributing to the change. They want you to go first to set the example, and they are desperate for leadership that will address non-performance with those who are creating roadblocks. Accountability is about ownership, and that is crucial for true transformation.

But, where are the meetings, team charters, budgets, and project plans? They still exist but merely as the tools to help you successfully do your job.

Joe Calloway wrote a great little book titled Keep It Simple. In it, he shares this quote from Steve Jobs: “Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.” Calloway goes on to say, “Successful people have the ability to make the complicated simple. That’s one of the reasons for their success.”

That goes double for successful leaders. In the end, it is simple. It is leadership all the way down.

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