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Military School

Military methods hold unexpected how-tos for corporate CIOs

John Carrow, vice president and CIO for Unisys, didn't learn to be the IT leader he is today as a computer science graduate student at the University of Illinois. Nor was it during the 16 years he spent in IT at General Electric. It wasn't even during his five years as CIO of Philadelphia, where he helped the mayor turn around that then-bankrupt city. Rather, it was his experience jumping out of planes and working on the ground as a US Army ranger in the Vietnam delta in the late 1960s."The best training I ever had for becoming a CIO was the time I spent as a gung ho airborne infantry officer," Carrow is fond of saying.

Although there would seem to be few similarities between IT work and military operations, Carrow says the leadership and communication skills he honed as an adviser to a group of Vietnamese and Cambodian soldiers who were carrying out mobile operations, raids and night missions are what make him a successful CIO today."I still deal with a great deal of uncertainty, just like I did back then," says Carrow."In industry, you have to have a great deal of self-confidence, you have to be able to lead and motivate not only your IT forces but the rest of the company, and you must have the right resources to support your mission."

Some military methods have shifted since Carrow was in the Army, yet there is a great deal of military leadership theory that's applicable outside the uniformed ranks. While command-and-control architecture remains the basis of any military organisation, the branches of the US armed forces have become much more flexible in recent years, pushing decision-making authority down to the lowest levels and trying to ensure that each soldier understands the larger mission. As a result, modern military leadership methods can provide valuable lessons for CIOs in any organisation.

More Than a Serial Number

Current and former military leaders will tell you it's a common misperception that the armed forces pay no attention to the individual. They say the chief lesson they learned in active duty was the importance of taking care of people - soldiers, sailors, airmen or civilians."The military suffers from a B-movie stereotype of hard-nosed military leaders. But in fact, they understand diversity and appreciate people for the talents that they bring to the table," says Colonel Thomas A Kolditz, head of the department of behavioural sciences and leadership at the US Military Academy in West Point, New York."More than anything, military leadership is about understanding human behaviour. It's about inspiring and influencing individuals."

Brigadier General Robert M Shea, director of command, control, computers and communications and CIO of the US Marine Corps, says that attitude of putting employees first should serve corporate CIOs as well as it has him during his 32-year military career."It's instilled in you the day you walk into boot camp. You take care of your Marines," says Shea."Despite all the technology that is available today, it's still about people. I see an awful lot of parallels between the Marines and industry. There isn't much that I'd do differently if I left for the corporate world tomorrow."

A tenet of military leadership is that learning about your people never stops. Lifelong leadership learning was drilled into Atlanta-based American Cancer Society CIO Zachary Patterson throughout the 26 years, 9 months, 13 hours and 6 seconds he spent in the Army. And it's a habit he finds equally useful in civilian life."My best advice to any CIO is to get schooled in the art of leadership. Study people," says Patterson."And never stop being a student."

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