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Leadership lessons for IT from the White House

What leadership lessons can IT learn from the recent scandals in the White House?

Regardless of political leanings, it's inarguable that this has been a tough week for the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama. The White House has been beset by a triple play of scandals that's somewhere between what the right is calling "another Watergate," and partisans on the left are passing off as business as usual. For the uninitiated, the scandals involve excessive spin-doctoring of an embassy tragedy in Libya, interception of AP reporters' phone records, and IRS targeting of conservative groups and individuals for special attention.

While there are differing opinions as to the magnitude of these scandals, and the politics behind these incidents is beyond the scope of this article, the White House response to each of these scandals has been instructive for IT leaders.

Spinning your way to lost credibility

The first scandal involved the killing of a State Department official in Benghazi, Libya and the subsequent White House handling of the response. Assuming no nefarious actions, the White House played a game of spin-doctoring, sending administration representatives on a full press tour to play down aspects of the incident that might be unpopular.

In essence, the spin to avoid the loss of a few political points has now blossomed into a major scandal, and the spinning efforts have cost the President more than any fallout from the initial incident had the administration been more forthright.

In IT leadership, we often receive bad news. Whether it's a budget overrun on a highly visible project or a massive outage, technology is a fickle beast that's far from 100% predictable. While it might seem like a good idea to throw some spin on the bad news of the moment, too much massaging and masking of the truth is often far worse than taking the heat for the initial incident and moving on. Long-term damage to credibility will likely take months or years to restore, a far higher price than the momentary pain of conveying bad news.

The buck stops elsewhere

Past President Harry Truman famously stated that "the buck stops here," meaning he was personally accountable for the actions of the government. In the other two scandals to plague the President, the US' tax collection authority, the IRS, singled out conservative groups for special scrutiny, and the Justice Department gathered phone records of AP reporters in an attempt to identify their sources and squash potentially unpopular news.

The President immediately condemned these actions, and the administration followed by noting that the government was essentially too big for the President to be aware of nefarious activity a few levels down from his position. Again assuming nothing nefarious on the part of the administration, there's still an instructive leadership lesson.

The President's political party, the Democrats, generally advocates larger government as the solution to problems too big for individuals or the private sector to solve, and implied in this advocacy is the assumption that government is an impartial and even-handed player in the lives of citizens. That advocates of a larger, more active government would suggest that, in the case of scandal, the government is simply too big to effectively manage, is laughable. Imagine walking into your CEO's office or a board meeting after a major scandal.

In response to the scandal, you quip that IT is essentially too large for anyone to effectively manage and oversee, and in the next sentence demand that IT budgets be increased since the organization simply isn't large enough to do everything it needs to accomplish.

If you're going to create a highly active and visible IT organization, ensure that management structures are in place to prevent poorly considered action and, should it occur, take immediate responsibility and launch corrective action. Even if actors well outside your purview took unsavory actions, as leader of the organization you cannot merely suggest that the buck stops elsewhere and expect to move on.

Like most second term scandals, the President will likely serve out the rest of his term. However, passing the buck, combined with a dose of hypocrisy and spin-doctoring, has weakened his administration to the point that the career of most IT leaders would be ended for similar offenses. Regardless of your political leanings, it's worth observing how the administration continues to lead (or abdicate leadership) through these crises and applying the lessons to our own leadership positions.

About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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