What Presidents Bush and Obama can teach IT leaders

What lessons can we learn from the trials and tribulations of the last two American Presidents that can be applied to the CIO's office?

With mid-term election season reaching its crescendo in the United States, one cannot help but reflect on our current and recent leaders, looking for parallels and lessons that would be applicable to general management. While many may recoil in partisan horror, I find the parallels between the current U.S. President, Barak Obama, and his predecessor, George W. Bush, very interesting. Both Presidents claimed a "mandate" after enjoying an electoral victory and popular support, only to see their approval ratings erode and their personal popularity rapidly decline, to the point that their associated political parties were largely swept out of power.

The two men have glaringly different personal styles, Mr. Obama being hailed by some as the "World's Greatest Orator," and Mr. Bush generally receiving far less praise for his speechmaking abilities. Yet despite these superficial differences, both men focused their leadership energy on areas that were not the most pressing concerns of their constituents, in a manner that could charitably be described as bullheaded. So, what lessons can we learn from the trials and tribulations of these men that can be applied to the CIO's office?

You need the sizzle and the steak

Both leaders regaled us with talk of an end to a partisan era and other high-minded ideas, and each was taken by the public at face value. As the saying goes, each had plenty of sizzle, seemingly pitching the right message at the right time. However, when the rubber started meeting the road, neither President made good on his high-minded promises and quickly returned to politics as usual. When voters tasted the metaphorical steak, many found it not to their liking.

While fast talk and big promises may get you into the C-suite, soon after you unload the last box in your new office people are going to start holding you to account for the various promises you have made. As a C-level executive or the leader of a nation, there is nowhere to hide, and blaming your predecessor, opposition elements, or economic conditions buy time measured in days and weeks, not months or years. While many in IT advocate an "under promise and over deliver" mantra, a true leader promises and delivers, neither over- nor under-selling his abilities.

Implement the company agenda, not just your agenda

Both Presidents vigorously attacked what they considered the most important problem of the day. For President Bush that was fighting terrorism, and for President Obama it has been launching sweeping social programs. While both of these are laudable goals, each man's "employers" were telling them that they had other priorities at the time. On a leadership level, both Presidents lost significant political capital pursuing what seemed like a single-minded agenda to voters, which was also not the agenda they were demanding at the time.

As a new CIO, you may be ready to implement a favorite technology, rip out an old system, or make some other grand change that you have dreamed of for years. While this may be personally fulfilling, like a political leader you hold your position in order to implement the will of those who pay your salary. Try to identify the most pressing problems facing your company and come to the table with those solutions first and foremost each time you speak with your peers, rather than appearing out of touch by constantly pitching your personal agenda. Similarly, change your agenda to suit the times. Showing up in an economic recession with a plan penned in headier days is a sure way to appear out of touch.

Let the people thrive

Perhaps the undoing of both Presidents was the way they seemed to inject government more deeply into peoples' lives. While a broad generalization, most people in the United States seem to prefer a government that provides needed services, without restricting our ability to travel, grow ourselves and our families, and engage in a reasonably free economic life. President Bush's antiterrorism policies crossed a line with many, controlling everything from how much toothpaste you could bring on an airplane to expanding government's ability to monitor citizens. Similarly, President Obama's healthcare bill seemed to expand government's reach too far, mandating insurance purchases, increasing paperwork and central control, and placing new burdens on citizens with little perceived benefit.

In most companies, people have a similar set of expectations from IT as they do from government. Technology should enable you to work more effectively, not dictate and control too many aspects of our working lives. While we all know that IT security challenges are very real, you will quickly alienate your constituents should IT be perceived as heaping layer upon layer of rules, policies, and procedures atop them. Similarly, regaling people with tales of all the miraculous benefits they'll receive from these draconian measures (which by the way we can't show you, demonstrate, or physically measure) will win little sympathy. Adults expect their government and their IT department to treat them as adults, meting out punishment only when appropriate.

While many may be growing tired of the unending political coverage during an election season, it is certainly worthwhile to evaluate each of these two leaders for the lessons that we can apply to our own work. Clearly, it is easy to make the same mistakes regardless of political affiliation, speaking ability, or a perceived mandate. If two very different men can fall victim to the same circumstances when holding the highest "C-level" position in the United States, clearly a "lowly" CIO can succumb to the same fate.