IT Leadership: Art or Science? (Opinion)

Hard and soft skills are required for public-sector IT leadership.

by / July 22, 2010
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While discussing possible topics for this column with my husband, who is also an IT executive and former public-sector CIO, I was struck by how I began by throwing out soft-skill topics, while he suggested a few hard-skill ones - topics that were more technology related. What resulted was a discussion of how IT leadership, especially in government, is both an art and a science. While many technology leaders are comfortable with the science part of their role, ignoring the art of IT leadership can quickly lead to problems.

The Science of IT Leadership

First, there's the science aspect of public-sector technology leadership. I'm often heard saying that good IT leadership requires discipline. This discipline begins with understanding and following the standard business cycle - plan, budget, implement and measure. It goes beyond that though to include best practices. Thankfully it's easier to achieve discipline these days due to well documented best practices-based models. Leading scholars like Peter Weill, chairman of the Center for Information Systems Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management, have documented their research regarding IT governance and established models that facilitate setting up and managing effective IT governance.

IT leadership's operational side is well covered by disciplined approaches. The Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) provides guidelines for operational and support excellence. The Project Management Institute (PMI) produces and updates a body of knowledge to support implementation of comprehensive project management processes. Both ITIL and the PMI have become pervasive, and a variety of resources are available to train IT leaders and staff. Models such as the Capability Maturity Model Integration assist organizations with evaluating and determining their ability to integrate and improve business processes.

IT leaders who embrace these models, get educated or even certified in their use and deploy them throughout their organizations, meet the science requirements of good IT leadership and reap the benefits of these disciplined best practices. The art aspect of IT leadership, however, is not so well defined or documented.

The Art of IT Leadership

The art of IT leadership requires development of soft skills, those needed by good managers in any field. Although these skills may not lend themselves to step-by-step processes and procedures, best practices do exist. IT leaders should take advantage of every professional development opportunity that comes their way for soft skills, such as effective communication, leadership, customer service, collaboration, people development and negotiating. Other soft skills, such as strategic thinking and political-savvy, are also necessary for IT leaders to succeed.

These soft skills are so important to an IT leader's success, that six of the top 10 critical IT leadership competencies cited by IT leaders from around the world are soft-skill competencies, according to CIO magazine's 2010 State of the CIO Survey released in January. While the other four are more technical in nature, only one was specifically related to technology competency. The other three were related to general business competency.

The message here is that IT leadership requires professional development for both skill sets; an emphasis on one to the detriment of the other results in less effective IT leadership. Although hard skills may be easier to obtain and implement, soft skills should be pursued with equal enthusiasm and discipline.


Liza Lowery Massey
Liza Lowery Massey served as a public-sector IT executive for nearly 20 years, including as CIO of Los Angeles. She then established the CIO Collaborative to provide public-sector research, benchmarking and consulting services. She also teaches at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas