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How to become “The Machiavellian CIO”

17 Oct 2013

CIOs are often under attack due to IT system failures or other circumstances that are beyond their control, and if they cannot prevent and fight off attacks successfully, they can face serious repercussions.

That's according to analyst firm Gartner, who have revealed how CIOs and IT leaders can adapt their leadership styles in extreme situations for their own success and that of their teams.

In the e-book "The Wolf in CIO's Clothing: A Machiavellian Strategy for Successful IT Leadership" launched this week, Tina Nunno, vice president and Gartner fellow discusses with CIOs their mutual admiration for Niccolo Machiavelli, a fifteenth-century Italian political philosopher.

"Business is a hotbed for conflict, and CIOs often find themselves at the center," Nunno says.

"As Machiavelli implied, you're either predator or prey, and the animal you most resemble determines your position on the food chain."

When a CIO is in a "dark-side" enterprise or in a situation where a colleague is using dark-side tactics, then normal management techniques will not work.

In these situations, Nunno suggests CIOs consider using dark-side Machiavellian tactics to defend themselves and then succeed.

"The career of a CIO has many analogies to the life of Machiavelli. CIOs are often in favour with senior leadership, and at other times they are not," Nunno says.

"While falling out of favour is, at times, deserved due to failure to deliver IT solutions, at other times CIOs are falsely accused of failure or targeted for other reasons.

"The Wolf — a social animal with strong predatory instincts — is an ideal example of how a CIO, or any leader, can adapt and thrive."

Nunno took Machiavelli's lessons and boiled them down into three disciplines she believes matter most to CIOs.

"CIOs have to master power, manipulation and warfare," Nunno adds.

"They should get comfortable using power and growing it, manipulating and sometimes dealing with issues of honesty or stealth or lack thereof and running disciplined warfare like campaigns that use every weapon in their arsenal to get large groups of people on board."

Machiavellian CIO novices often focus exclusively on Machiavelli's much-publicised power tactics to gain and maintain their positions.

"CIOs must become comfortable with the idea of power, gathering it, and using it wisely as it is an essential leadership tool," Nunno says.

"Power is often the most expedient way to get things done, but Machiavelli acknowledged its limitations.

"The use of power often results in significant collateral damage or is often of little use in the face of a more powerful opponent, or in the case of an irrational or deceitful opponent.

"In such cases, the leader must resort to craft, subterfuge and more subtle tactics to achieve success, ideally without alerting the opponent of the countermeasures.

"CIOs are regularly confronted with opponents more powerful than they, or those who they would consider less than completely honest or rational."

As a result, CIOs must also master the discipline of manipulation according to Nunno.

When CIOs follow traditional IT management advice and best practices, they often become more vulnerable to the manipulation of others, rather than less vulnerable.

At a minimum, Gartner says that effective CIOs must anticipate manipulative behaviour, and take appropriate steps to evade or defend against it.

Ideally, leading CIOs should consider manipulation techniques to help advance the IT agenda and increase their contribution to the enterprise.

Once CIOs have mastered these two Machiavellian-inspired disciplines, then they can master warfare. Warfare is the ability to take power and manipulation and scale them up to mass proportions.

Many CIO initiatives resemble warfare, including centralisation initiatives, business process changes, cost reduction programs, and mergers and acquisitions.

The CIO's ability to succeed is directly related to the ability to get large groups of people to go in the same direction at the same time in conflict-ridden situations.

"I tend to think it is always a good time for Machiavelli, but now is a particularly good time considering the tremendous pressure on CIOs, with opportunities and threats coming from so many different parts of the organisation," Nunno says.

"Machiavellians know there is no safe middle ground in leadership. By going to extremes, a wolf CIO can help bring a dark enterprise to the light side."