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Lenses On Leadership

By Paul Glen

Before the days of Photoshop, it was common to say that photographs don't lie. But even way back when, during the dark ages of chemical film, photographers used different lenses and filters to change colors, highlight some details over others and bring some subjects into sharp focus while blurring others. Pictures lie and tell the truth all at once.

Managers use mental lenses and filters for many of the same reasons. They look at the world through them to color facts, highlight some more than others and bring some subjects into sharp focus while blurring others. A manager's picture of reality lies and tells the truth all at once too.

In fact, most of us learn to use one filter quite well; we call it our point of view. After first joining the workforce, we typically try out a few viewpoints, figuring out which ones bring useful insights, praise and career rewards. Eventually, we settle on the one that seems to work best and start to use it almost exclusively. Before long, we forget that there ever were other perspectives at all.

This isn't such a bad thing. Filters help us make sense of the complexity of daily life. They simplify the confusion and help us to make meaning of the disparate facts and feelings that relentlessly assault us.

But as our responsibilities expand and we change jobs and take on supervisory, managerial and leadership roles, it becomes easy to keep using the same old perspectives that have served us so well in the past. Unless we examine the lessons we learned as junior programmers, we continue to apply them to the responsibilities now confronting us as CIOs. That doesn't always work so well.

I've noticed that for IT managers, there are a few lenses that tend to be common.

The accountant's green eyeshade: Through the green shade, every question looks like a budget issue. Schedule problems are primarily viewed as budget problems. Quality is seen only dimly, and human resource concerns are barely visible at all.

The conductor's watch: Through the conductor's lens, every issue looks like a schedule challenge. For the conductor, time is a constant, urgent threat. If we're ahead of or just on schedule, we're OK, but anything that comes up can knock us off the precious and unforgiving timetable.

The mogul's ambition: For the Trump in training, all things look like confirmation of, or threats to, the manager's power and span of control. Every event and fact is inspected for its effect on the authority and personal success of the mogul. Through this lens, human relationships are highlighted, since power is exercised only on others, and people are separated into opposing camps of friends and enemies. Budgets are symbols of power, and schedules are weapons to wield.

The aesthete's frame: For the aesthete, everything either enhances or detracts from the elegance of the world. Technology is a beautiful thing. Building beautiful things is the highest good to which one can aspire. Time and money are petty concerns that pale in comparison to the advancement of human expression. IT people are the artists who give birth to the creative work.

The hero's journey: From the hero's perspective, everything seems like part of a courageous narrative starring the manager as Odysseus. The arc of the narrative guides the interpretation of the facts. The clash between good and evil is ultimately resolved through a climactic conclusion. Supporting characters populate projects, and events either serve as twists and turns in the story or are disregarded as part of another narrative.

The samurai's quest: In this view, everything looks like part of a grand battle strategy, and the opportunity to serve is the great honor of the staff. The manager is the loyal samurai, faithfully serving his master.

Managers are most effective when they:

1. Know which lenses come naturally to them.

2. Can recognize when others are looking through different lenses.

3. Can adopt whichever lens is most informative and useful at a given moment. Leaders with flexible perspectives are able to adjust to reality rather than trying to adjust reality themselves.

The manager or photographer who is willing to use only one lens filters out the complexity of reality and limits his effectiveness.

(This article originally appeared in Computerworld USA.)

About the Author:
Paul Glen is an IT management consultant and the author of the award-winning book "Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver Technology" (Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer,2003). He regularly speaks for corporations and national associations across North America. For more information go to: http://www.paulglen.com. He can be reached at info@paulglen.com.

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