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CIOs Must Be Leaders, Not Mere Technocrats

Technical competence is never enough, at least not for inspiring excellence in execution in others, helping them to be better than the teams you're competing against.

In the insurance industry, as in others, we tend to emphasize the technical and organizational prowess of senior technology officers, and that's all very well. However, these qualities are subordinate to a more basic quality that is necessary for competitive victory: leadership.

Technical competence is the baseline for any activity with a technical dimension, and for insurance CIOs that means understanding of technology, insurance and business administration. If you don't possess that competence, you're not qualified for the job. But that kind of competence is never enough, at least not for inspiring excellence in execution in others, helping them to be better than the teams you're competing against. It goes double for the creative dimension of technology competence that Frank Wander, CEO, IT Excellence Institute, talks about in Transforming IT Culture, which I've reviewed and otherwise commented on at Insurance & Technology.

[Check out my review of Frank Wander's book: What’s Driving IT’s Record of Failure — And What Can Fix It? .]

Everyone can admire technical competence, but nobody's going to follow a bureaucrat into battle. Nobody is going to go the extra mile, nobody's going to persistently do what's necessary to beat motivated competitors without some fundamental inspiration from a genuine leader. Leadership isn't about technical competence, it's about being able to drive morale.

Because leadership is essentially about emotion, but that doesn't mean leadership is theatrical in any way. Leadership isn't achieved by wearing one's heart on one's sleeve. That's especially the case when immediate subordinates are themselves highly qualified and experienced executives. But it does come down to being able to secure emotional commitment to the endeavor for which the leader is responsible.

It's certainly possible to enjoy merely formal commitment whereby subordinates get in line out of a sense of professionalism or simple self-preservation. But in the absence of genuine leadership, the result will be mediocrity. An organization may be able to muddle along through a kind of loosely aggregated technical competence, but no team achieves excellence without leadership.

Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek Financial Services of TechWeb he has written on all areas of information ... View Full Bio

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