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.


No, be Aloof, there are enough lerts as it is. Seriously, be Alert, there's safety in numbers. This advice is as practical as what I wrote above. How do you solve the problem that the PHBs constantly remove the required resources, decide to buy the Cisco or MS solution because that's what they know, or they play golf with the regional VP, etc? We all KNOW not to be either kind of lemming. How do you avoid being the Disney movie kind, which is typical of IT?


Okay - I really didn't know the truth about the lemmings - that really ruined my morning :( It's also a good analogy, well done. I have some thoughts though on IT Techies in the business environment. By their nature Techies want to fix things and they have the tools to do it. This is what I love about them. The trouble is they're also a bit short-sighted. As an IT process improvement consultant, my job is to get IT departments to align with business objectives. It constantly amazes me how many Techies don't really understand the nature of the business that their employer is in, and I know this is true because I was short-sighted techie myself many moons ago. This could cause some problems in the Project Mgt example you use: If you're thrust into a position like that then be very, very sure to understand the business drivers that prompted the project and the organization's appetite for risk. Techies often want to be thorough, use the latest technology and want to make it 'generic', which is fantastic in a technology driven world. However, your employer is driven by cash flow, market competitiveness and product launches. So be smart, when you have to limit scope or squeeze into ridiculous deadlines, be heard to talk about things like 'marketing message' or 'value to customer' instead of "that's not a technically sound way of doing it". Know who the actual project sponsor is i.e. the guy paying for the project and schmooze up to him (okay, /her) & his priorities. Go to Project Management Office meetings or Stakeholder Business meetings to get your voice heard (Do you know that there is a PMO?). Have other tools at your disposal such as the Quality Triangle. No one can argue much with an industry standard diagram like that when it comes to trying to keep ridiculous deadlines and the original scope. And it also points out the way out - more money. If it's that important to them, then start talking about money (but do this early, no amount of money can make miracles happen at the eleventh hour). Basically, the move from a regular IT techie to IT leader involves a bit of business education. Scoff if you want, but mundane details like market presence and cash flow is what pays your salary. Don't be the guy who is still complaining bitterly about "business management" not appreciating the artistry involved in delivering a technologically sound IT system while they throw you off the cliff because you don't add value to the company's bottom line...

John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro
John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro

Leaders influence events and set the directions and agendas the best they can. Lemmings wind up going off the cliff. As I point out in Decision Central however, lemmings don't go off the cliff voluntarily - they get tossed: People who are true lemmings run around on the whim of others, are thrown off of a cliff, and then blamed for their own failures. This is the worst possible thing that can happen. Have you been a lemming at work? What happened and what can you do to avoid it?


[i]..., and then blamed for their own failures. This is the worst possible thing that can happen.[/i] Someone else should be blamed for their failures?

John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro
John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro

Well, in this case, what I meant was the failures weren't necessarily the result of anything that the lemming did. And that the 'facts' that lead to the supposed failure were made up. IE... Lemmings dont really run off of cliffs due to instinct or population pressure. They're thrown off of cliffs by overeager Disney movie producers. IT Professionals don't necessarily screw up IT projects because of any innate incompetence. Instead the projects get screwed up by overpromising, misunderstanding, and IT illiteracy by upper management folks who have crazy ideas and need a scapegoat. You're right with the wording of the quibble... but, go with what I mean, not with what I say. :)


Reminiscent of what the Russians did in sensitive (areas of the country) -- switch street signs, then say, "So what?"

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