Be an IT leader, not a lemming

You're supposed to be an IT leader - using your knowledge about technology to help improve the organization. But are you a lemming instead? Forget the stereotype, being a lemming might be worse that you think.

You're supposed to be an IT leader — using your knowledge about technology to help improve the organization. But are you a lemming instead? Forget the stereotype; being a lemming might be worse than you think.


Being an IT leader sometimes means being in charge. Sometimes it means merely exercising influence over technology in an organization. In either case, it means using your knowledge and talents to help the organization get ahead. Unfortunately, that's not always the way it works in business.

More often than not, and especially in this economy, you're like a small, little rodent running around trying not to get eaten. The key, however, is to remember that you ARE an IT leader and that you should resist being a lemming if you want to be happy and successful in your overall IT career.

But, you may be a lemming without knowing it. Being a true lemming is actually probably worse than you imagine.

The classic lemming

You've probably familiar with what it means to be called a lemming. It means following others mindlessly and in a herd mentality, even if it leads to your ultimate demise.  Lemmings are supposed to be these cute, furry, little creatures who are inexorably driven to mass migrations that lead them to jumping off cliffs and into the ocean. Their basic instincts are supposed to overcome the natural survival instinct.

From an IT perspective, being a lemming means picking a technology because it's what everyone else does. Lemmings are the ones who say "Nobody got fired for buying IBM."  Linux and Mac users like to call Windows users lemmings.

It's dangerous to be viewed as a classic lemming because you're not viewed as an original thinker. Your views can be dismissed as being shallow and coming only from a herd mentality. If you're viewed as a lemming, you may be viewed as leading the organization over a cliff because you'll follow popularity and trends rather than what's best for the company.

What it really means to be a lemming

The problem with that definition of a lemming is that running off cliffs is not what lemmings do. The mindless suicidal view of lemmings is nothing more than an urban legend.

Lemmings got a bad wrap from a 1958 Disney movie called White Wilderness. This was pseudo-documentary showing what life is like in the Arctic. The clip linked above showed poor, little lemmings, driven by instinct and overpopulation, throwing themselves over a cliff.

The sad part is that the lemmings were actually thrown over the cliff by filmmakers more interested in gripping drama and a good story rather than the truth. Disney filmmakers bought the animals from Inuit children, chased them across the tundra filming them, and then ultimately took them hundreds of miles to a scenic cliff and tossed them over. Along the way, they earned an Oscar and appeared in hundreds of schools as an educational film.

You may wish you were only a classic lemming, but being an actual lemming is worse.  From an IT perspective, when you're a true lemming you're merely trying to get your work done and do the best you can for the organization, but outside forces conspire to use you to their ends.

You wound up being run all over the place and thrown over a cliff when it's convenient. In the end, someone else gains the glory while you get blamed for causing your own problems and whatever other career/business suicide occurs, because of your own stupidity.

Think of the situation where you're asked to be the project leader for some new technology. The department chair issues the goals and objectives and puts you on the case. Eventually scope creep seeps in. Deadlines change. Budgets get cut. But still the project must be completed. When you finally deliver, if you're lucky, the project actually succeeds. The department manager complains about the delays, cost overruns, and problems, but quickly grabs the glory for the original concept if it works.

Sounds like a typical day in IT, doesn't it? But that's what it means to be a real lemming.

You may not have many savory alternatives in such a scenario, but there are things you can do to minimize it. Strongly defining the scope and deliverables can help. Making sure the customer understands the limitations and is constantly updated about progress can help as well. This is a case where going beyond buy-in is important. You need to make sure the people you're serving are also running around with you.

Depending on the corporate culture you're in, you may want to be more assertive and not perform on demand. And at all times, you should keep your employment options open, so you'll have some type of exit strategy. It's not easy to do in this economy, but something you should always try to be prepared for.

The bottom line for IT leaders

It's bad enough to be the stereotypical lemming who follows the crowd over the cliff. It's another thing entirely to be the Disney lemming — someone who gets tossed over the cliff for the benefit of others and then gets blamed for doing it themselves. Avoid being either at all costs.

As an IT leader you need to control your destiny the best you can. Even if you're a furry, little rodent from an organizational chart perspective, don't forget that even mice have sharp teeth and can run fast. If someone's going to throw you off the cliff, bite back and run away as fast as you can. At the very least, pack a parachute and learn how to swim so you minimize the damage to yourself when you hit the water.

At least be like the lemming from Far Side.

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