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Qualities of a great leader from Jim Collins

We’ve written a lot lately about what leads to IT project failures and what causes CIOs to get fired. Today I heard about business failure — and its flip side, how companies go from good to great. Yes, this was a talk by Jim Collins, author of the book by that name. And though he’s probably given this talk hundreds of times, his speech during the CIO lunch at Gartner’s Symposium ITxpo was a rousing testimonial to leadership — from what makes a great leader to what distinguishes him or her from a mediocre one, and the causes (almost all self-inflicted) of business failure.

The talk was full of useful insights, especially for all of us looking ahead to 2010 and trying to figure out what to do and what’s going to happen (beyond Gartner’s prediction of 3.3% IT spending growth).

Some of it was even CIO-specific. But more on that in a moment.

First, some things he said about who leaders of “great” organizations are:

  • Most (more than 90% of the CEOs) have been promoted from within.
  • They start out creating a pocket of excellence in their domain, wherever in the organization it is. Not because they want the recognition but because they care about the organization and the work.
  • Their drive and passion isn’t about themselves. It’s about the work, the organization, the purpose.
  • Their purpose isn’t just making money or increasing shareholder value. “You have to have a reason to struggle, a reason to endure,” he said.
  • They are willing to do whatever it takes for the organization, within the bounds of their values.
  • And here are some of the things they do:

  • They have the discipline to be consistent.
  • They make decisions based on data. “The great look to data, empirical evidence,” he said. “Insight flows from empirics, not genius.”
  • They have an ability to anticipate and build what an enterprise needs before it knows it needs it.
  • They know how incredibly important people are. Growth that exceeds your capacity to get the right people in the right jobs leads to failure. They “get the right people in the right seats and then figure out where to drive the bus.”
  • They also have a plan in case a key person leaves.
  • As for CIOs, Collins talked to a dozen or so of them before his speech, and reported having a lively conversation on what makes a “great” CIO. (His use of great generally refers to consistency of strong results.) The outcome: “They agreed that the truly great CIOs have the leadership capacity that they could be CEOs.” In order words, all of the characteristics above apply.

    Are you a “great” CIO or “great” IT leader? Do you want to be? Try Collins’ free diagnostic tool for going from good to great.

    p.s. For those interested in the business failure side of his talk, another attendee blogged on Collins’ stages of decline.

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