Technical leadership styles - and why they must change over time

Charlie Bess Profile picture for user cebess April 26, 2015
Every organization needs technical leadership - but not every technical leader is right for every situation

There are numerous IT technical leadership styles in the world, but I’d like to use a simple quadrant chart to discuss one perspective.

There are two primary dimensions for the role of an organization’s information technology Chief Technologist, Senior Technical Leader or similar role. Those dimensions assess the individual’s focus on the hardware/infrastructure side versus the business and its supporting applications. With the lower left of the chart focused on doing things ‘right’ (at least from an IT perspective) and the upper right looking at doing the right things for the business and its future:


I broke the quadrants up into four major groups:

  • Sustain – Dealing with operational excellence: Technical Manager
  • Transform – Doing more with less: Chief Engineer
  • Modernize – Business Driven: Application or business architect
  • Innovate – Visionary: Enterprise evangelist or ideally an Enterprise Architect

Any good technologist needs to be able to move between these various quadrants as needed during their day. Additionally, there is a whole other dimension (not shown) enabling them to understand the state of the organization and the kind of leadership required at the moment. There is no sense being a visionary if the organization’s focus is on making the next quarter’s numbers at any cost. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs comes into play here, as well as the flexibility to adjust.

A good technical leader needs to be able to listen and identify the expectations of the business and communicate options. By giving options with guidance, they enable the team’s formal leaders to be leaders. All too often. I’ve seen technical leads give ‘one right answer’ and become befuddled when it is rejected – that may be because this behavior neuters their leaders. and they are the ones with the money.

If the organization's primary need is sustained performance, the key skills for the technical leader will be to ensure that the day-to-day service delivery is available and predictable. This kind of a role is not for a visionary thinker. An individual is needed who can concentrate on getting the delivery right.

The same can be said about the organization that needs someone who can create, articulate and evangelize a new vision for the business and its applications. Those driven by perfection and operational excellence will likely be very frustrated (and frustrating) as a visionary.

As the needs of the organization change, the role will change too. Either the person in the role will need to change, or they’ll need to be replaced. This pendulum swing is not unique to the technical leader, it is just the rapid changes within the industry will cause more frequent (and interesting) gyrations. Any technologist that doesn’t strive to keep up will have their vision atrophy and be drawn to the siren’s call of execution – where you feel the instantaneous gratification of results. That’s not a bad thing, but something to be aware of.

This perspective of changing needs over time should be an important component of how technical leaders are recruited and selected. Flexibility and an understanding of the organization’s needs today and in the foreseeable future, shape not only the needs, but the entire selection process. For the technologist, it means they need to have a pulse on their organizations use that insight to steer both the organization and their career.
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