Try not to be judgmental about leadership. Thinking that you always have the best answer or approach is a sure path to career disaster. There can be so many reasons why the right leadership hasn't surfaced above you. Big issues may distract top executives. They may fear showing their lack of specific knowledge (especially if it is a technology issue). The ghosts of former failures may haunt them. Whatever the reason, it creates a prize opportunity for you to demonstrate leadership.
There are many ways to influence the senior leaders of your company. The key to success is finding the way to push the envelope without losing your credibility. Be sure your behaviour fits the occasion. Leading from below is a high-wire act that requires almost bipolar behaviour - courage and confidence balanced by humility, assertiveness yet deference. Freely share the credit for success. It may take a little practice but it will pay dividends.
One time I pushed the envelope aggressively, only to be called to task by the company president. I pitched my approach to him as hard as I knew how. Finally, I got a note of what I interpreted as approval:"You have my support to proceed at your own risk." Interpretation: if it works, he takes the credit; if it fails, the blame is mine. I did it anyway. It worked.
Grow Your Own Leadership
While you work on influencing the senior leadership of your company, set the stage for your own IS group. Find ways to recognise and nurture the emerging leadership deep in the organisation.
How do you uncover the hidden talent in the organisation? Get to know the people yourself. While that isn't always possible in large organisations, you should try to get to know as many as possible. This is how you find out about the leadership people exert in their personal lives. The one who led the effort to build the new town football stadium, the president of a professional association, the leader in a political campaign. These are natural leaders hungry for the opportunity to use their skills at work.
Do all eyes of your staff turn to you every time there is an issue? You have work to do to encourage the leadership below. Try the following behaviours:
Solicit employees' ideas and encourage participation in important discussions.
Learn to speak after others have given their thoughts. The boss's words can stifle other input.
Never disparage what went before, even if you disagree with it. Try to build on others' ideas rather than knock them down. Fear of embarrassment is a powerful demotivator.
Provide positive feedback and recognition to those who demonstrate leadership.
Let others lead. Show the way by restraining your own drive to lead and being a supportive follower.
Use failures to teach. Experience is the best teacher and failure the consummate coach. Without support from above and the ability to learn from mistakes, people will avoid risk-taking.
Whether nurturing the emerging IT leadership or having the courage to demonstrate your own leadership in senior executive circles, know that you are contributing to the ultimate success of your company.
Before retiring in 1999, Patricia Wallington was corporate vice president and CIO at Xerox. She is now president of Florida-based CIO Associates
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