Technology Leaders! Time to Excel!

Donald J. Welch, Ph.D., Vice President and CIO, Penn State University

Donald J. Welch, Ph.D., Vice President and CIO, Penn State University

During the past year many have found it very easy to not only criticize, but to tell leaders what they should do.  Leaders of our government, businesses and public institutions have faced difficult decisions and no lack of people willing to tell them what they should do. 

Earlier in my career I was working for a great leader.  He reported to the head of the institution. I thought that the head was a poor leader at best.  One day I asked my boss how he could work for someone as incompetent as the head.  His reply has stuck with me and is relevant today.  He said that the head had perspective that we did not and that we should respect that.  The head of the institution was privy to information that we were not and so we had to give him the benefit of the doubt.  His words gave me a better and more mature outlook on that and other situations I’ve found myself in over the years. 

I have looked in dismay at decisions that our society’s leaders have made.  Sometimes it turns out that our leaders get it wrong.  It is good that we live in a society where many of our leaders are willing to listen.  However, in most cases I think we are too quick to judge.  In the last year I have seen demands that are contradictory, unrealistic, and even illegal.  I’ve seen criticisms that are ill informed.  I’ve seen demands that we do what we are already doing.  In these cases, I believe that those people don’t have all the information, or experience.  To them the decision is asinine and the leader must be incompetent or even malicious.

"We tend to elevate leaders into key roles based on a combination of talent and experience"

Leaders are not perfect.  We tend to elevate leaders into key roles based on a combination of talent and experience.  This means that in many cases there are smarter people than the leader.  However, by the nature of the leader’s role they have better perspective.  When I was a CEO I would say only half in jest that I knew the least about what was going on in the company. I didn’t have the perspective to know everything that everyone in the company was doing and how well they were doing it.  They also did not know everything that I knew, and they had to trust that I was making the right choices as I had to trust them to do the same.

What does this mean for us as technology leaders? 

First, whenever possible we should provide the “why” along with our decisions.  It will help others to get behind the decision.  It will also help your team to grow.  The more insight they have into your thought processes, the more they will grow in their own leadership ability.  The better the leaders on your team, the easier your job.  

Second, giving others the benefit of the doubt will make you a better leader.  Should a peer business leader make a decision that looks poor from your perspective, give her the benefit of the doubt.  Rather than confronting them by telling them they are wrong or worse saying nothing and complaining to others, go to that leader and ask them to explain their perspective so that you can learn.  Don’ttry to do a “gotcha,” but truly strive for understanding.  You may discover that person has good reasons for their position.  You’ll also build some trust that will help you in the future.

Think about the times you have come under fire for a decision you have made.  Chances are that when your critics learned more the criticisms softened.  Try to keep in mind that you don’t always have the complete picture when another’s decision seems poor.  Also try to provide as much context to others as you can when you are telling others about positions that you have taken.  You’ll build more trust which will make you a better leader.

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