Growing a Leader

Why is it that within the Information Technology industry, people generally complain about a dearth of management and leadership skills? What is the difference between management and leadership? And is there anything we can do as an industry to grow these qualities in our IT practitioners?

Anecdotally, we often talk of the difference between managing and leading. Within popular business culture, "leadership" is valued and esteemed; "management" is somehow seen as necessary yet trivial and common. Neither term has a concise meaning widely adopted in business use.

I'm going to suggest the following definitions to use in the present discussion:

  • Leadership: A role or trait of an individual in which he or she is able to analyze an environment, context, or situation and identify potential changes which would improve the functioning, efficiency or purpose of the organization and its members and the ability to influence others including peers and superiors to adopt these changes.
  • Management: A role or trait of an individual in which he or she is tasked with motivating and influencing subordinates to ensure that work is performed according to defined standards, processes and qualities, and to improve the quality or quantity of the work.

There are a couple of key differences between these two definitions:

  1. Leadership tend to look strategically outwards to the future ("How can I make structural or seismic change to ensure the viability of this organization into the future) while management is concerned with doing the work required today.
  2. Leadership tends to be focused towards influencing peers and superiors, while management is concerned with influencing direct reports and to a lesser extent, peers.
  3. Leadership can come across as entrepreneurial but also as a rebel or "loose cannon". Management can come across as a "team player" but also lacking in innovation.

I'm not using the terms "leader" or "managers" because most people aren't these things; they only serve these roles. Sometimes they serve one role or another; sometimes they serve both roles but at different times or with different groups; occasionally they serve both roles simultaneously.

The shortage of IT-skilled managers and leaders is a point of some debate. ManpowerGroup lists IT Staff as #4 and Management roles as #8 on its list of hard to fill occupations in the United States (2013, p. 40)  (Canada is not included in the survey).

I suspect the reason is partly due to the fact that management and leadership are "human relationship centric" roles. To date, a large percentage of IT practitioners, technicians, analysts, and programmers were attracted to the IT profession in large part because they could work with technology and not people. If we are looking for managers and leaders who also understand technology, the pool of available candidates is a smaller percentage than it would be in other industries.

Some organizations have tried to remedy this by hiring managers who have the human relationship skills but not the understanding of the technology domain. These organizations face other challenges.

Growing a person's management skills isn't that hard. Most managers manage the way they themselves were managed. If you're a manager, think of the three managers you've ever had that you most admire and respect. Then think of your philosophy and practice of management. Where did you get these ideas? Why did you choose to adopt these when you became a manager? Exactly!

Take a competent practitioner with a good work ethic, an ability to follow process, and a good spectrum of inter-personal skills such as empathy and communication, and you have all the ingredients for someone who can serve a management role. And there are paths to allow people to try out this role before they get to put "Manager" on their business card: practice leads, team leads, supervisors, or senior consultant or analyst.

Growing a person's leadership skills shouldn't be that hard either; there's so much overlap with the skills of a manager. So why is leadership so hard to inculcate in an organization?

But many of our organizational structures do not have any roadmap to encourage leadership skills. Within IT we are becoming increasingly bound to frameworks adopted by our organizations which force us into a defined flowchart of delivery.

Suppose a user makes a suggestion or request to a mid-level manager that will require substantive structural change to the IT department before it can be fulfilled. What can that mid-level manager do with that request? Unless he or she owns the entire process change to fulfill that request, he will need to work with other managers to alter the entire process or workflow. How likely is that to happen? Unless he or she is empowered to own the relationship with the user and be rewarded for satisfying user expectations, how likely is that manager to even risk suggesting the necessary changes? And how likely are other managers to agree to change their own processes unless they have some "skin in the game" and see a payoff for them?

Our corporate practice of enforcing frameworks and standards at the same time as we fracture workflows so that there is no single point of accountability for the entire change of fulfillment makes it difficult to allow individuals to practice their skills and prove themselves as leaders. There are very few meaningful ways for people to propose, analyze and implement structural change in the modern corporate environment and very few rewards for even trying to do so.


ManpowerGroup (2013).
2013 Talent Shortage Survey: Research Results. Accessed April 2, 2014.