CIOs: Don’t Get Stuck in a Situational Leadership Trap

When I was a young, aspiring executive coming up through the ranks, I had to quickly learn how to evolve what I perceived to be my natural strengths in technology and engineering so I could make a bigger impact on my organization’s business goals. That meant pursuing my MBA and taking a number of management and mentoring programs, with the goal of becoming the kind of leader that I always wanted to work for.

My career accelerated as I learned some of the essential elements of leadership, such as Daniel Goleman’s six styles of leadership and the Situational Leadership Theory developed by Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey. 

While these ideas were invaluable in my efforts to learn how to expand my innate skills and become a more well-rounded business leader, I also learned a valuable lesson—about myself and the very nature of organizational teams. 

It’s very, very easy to get stuck in a particular situational leadership trap, and it is often very difficult to get out of it.

My revelation surfaced as I experienced—and as I watched others go through—the challenge of leading a team through dynamic, fast-paced and often-changing business conditions. In studying Goleman’s theory on leadership styles, I knew it was important that real leaders become comfortable in as many of Goleman’s styles—coaching, affiliative, democratic, commanding, pacesetting and visionary—as possible. 

As someone who came to the business world with a technology-centric background, this means I had to watch out so that I didn’t become too “commanding” in managing application development teams, or devote too much of my energy “coaching” my very experienced and highly motivated data center infrastructure team.

We’re all human, and very few of us are born with the skill to seamlessly skip from one management style to another when our career advancement has usually been driven by a deep, highly focused set of abilities in a particular skill. This is where CIOs—and, increasingly, CISOs—can get into trouble, falling back on what they know best and where they feel most comfortable when challenges or opportunities arise.

To use one of my favorite aphorisms, you can’t get into a trap where “every problem looks like a nail, and every solution is a hammer.”

Since CIOs now straddle the technical and business sides of their organizations, special care and attention must be paid to having a flexible, adaptive leadership style for whatever situation arises. Many of you undoubtedly learned about Blanchard’s and Hersey’s Situational Leadership Theory styles—telling, selling, participating and delegating. There are important issues to consider as to when, where, how and why to employ those different situational leadership styles, and you’ve undoubtedly been encouraged by your bosses and mentors along the way to determine the optimal approach for your own skills and experiences.

But what you need to keep in mind is that your situational leadership style also must reflect the makeup of your team, at a micro level, and your organization, at a macro level. 

Let’s say you are most comfortable in the “selling” style, encouraging and motivating your team to embrace your vision on how to embrace digital transformation and turn your organization into a digital-centric business operation. But what do you do when your teams are inexperienced in the emerging technologies like machine learning or the Internet of Things that are likely to be at the center of your vision? Or if they have a tendency to take inappropriate cybersecurity risks that speed time to market but open up unanticipated threat sources…and you’re cheering them on? 

As hybrid technology/business leaders, CIOs must adopt a mindset built around flexibility and situational awareness. People—even high-performance professionals with a lot of confidence—tend to become very dependent on approaches that fit into their historical comfort levels. Some leaders may feel that “adapting” their style to unique circumstances or the strengths and weaknesses of their team may be perceived as a sign of weakness—abandoning what has gotten them this far because you’re facing a new, unexpected development. 

But that’s not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of real strength and power. A real leader senses when a coaching style is better than a pacesetting style, and if a concurrent challenge or opportunity requires an altogether different approach. Consistency, in and of itself, is not necessarily an asset. Ralph Waldo Emerson may have said it best: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” 

One of the most important things I’ve learned, and that I’ve tried to convey to the young managers and future executives I’ve been fortunate to mentor, is that a great leader must strike the right balance of confidence (or, perhaps “ego”) and humility. That ability to have the confidence in your vision and the team’s ability must be tempered by the need to put the team’s welfare first. Very few successful executives get that way by hogging the credit and pushing off the blame on their team’s shortcomings. After all, what is your team if not something you have been responsible for building?

You can’t be taking too much credit for a successful outcome just because you are the titular leader. That kind of naked ambition is transparent to your team, C-suite colleagues and board members. As a leader you need to embrace humility as a key aspect of your situational leadership style. Your team needs to know—and hear—that “if we fail, we fail as a team. My job is to give you the vision, the guidance and the tools to get it done.” Leaders also have to give their teams the credit for a successful program, even highlighting specific individuals for unique contributions to the program’s success.

In order to do that, you will need to change your leadership style to adapt to different situations. You may need to be more strategic at times, connecting the dots for your team and helping them see the way to the goal. And then, perhaps with no warning, you may need to quickly transition into a more transactional and commanding role, taking charge and providing hands-on expertise to help them through a particularly tough task. 

As a leader, I have learned to adapt to the skills and weaknesses of my employees. I’m going to adapt to my team and give them what they need—not the other way around. I know each team member learns and grows differently, and I will need to step out of my own comfort zone to give my team members what they need to help achieve the group’s goals.

And your situational leadership style must also adapt to the needs of your business units. CIOs no longer manage only technical tasks, and a similar trend is happening with CISOs as organizations “shift left” on security. If the CIO or CISO continues to be seen as the “mad monk of technology,” he or she will continue to be trapped in a specific leadership style that might not be the right approach for the challenge or opportunity of the day.

Ryan Fay is global chief information officer and executive vice-president for strategy at ACI Specialty Benefits, a leading global supplier of employee benefits.

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