Wanted: The Machiavellian CIO

Wanted: The Machiavellian CIO

Mastering power, manipulation and warfare is an essential skill for today’s ICT leaders – and they can take their cue from the controversial Italian political philosopher, says Gartner analyst Tina Nunno.

CIOs face an environment full of change and conflict, some of which are beyond their control.

Leading through this landscape requires a new arsenal of skills.

CIOs can wade through management tomes by late 20th or early 21st century authors.

Or, they can reach out to the teachings of the 15th century Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli, advises Gartner research vice president Tina Nunno.

Machiavelli implied one is either a predator or prey and the animal the leader closely resembles determines his or her position in the food chain, writes Nunno in her new e-book, The Wolf in CIO’s Clothing: A Machiavellian Strategy for Successtul IT Leadership.

Related: The year of leading strategically

She points to the philosopher’s thinking that a leader is often embattled and should think like an animal.

With this metaphor, Nunno points out the CIO should aspire to be a wolf as it embodies the following characteristics – “an ideal balance of an intelligent, social creature that can inspire loyal followership and create group affinity; and the ruthless predator that can lead a pack of strong fighters, win in a competitive environment and command a large territory”.

Machiavellians know there is no safe middle ground in leadership

Tina Nunno, Gartner

"Machiavellians know there is no safe middle ground in leadership. By going to extremes, a wolf CIO can help bring a dark enterprise to the light side,” says Nunno.

Nunno explains her focus on the controversial philosopher’s teachings. A number of “particularly strong” CIOs she has met through her work at Gartner told her they had studied Machiavelli and practised his teachings.

But she says these “Machiavellian CIOs” are few. Yet, while most CIOs are not familiar with Machiavelli, most CEOs and their colleagues are and apply his tactics daily.

She thus believes political and moral philosophy should be standard reading in the courses associated with the IT profession – engineering, computer science or information management.

In her book, Nunno distils three Machiavellian disciplines CIOs need to master – power, manipulation and warfare.

Are you a wolf CIO?

“CIOs should get comfortable using power and growing it, manipulating and sometimes dealing with issues of honesty or stealth or lack thereof and running disciplined warfare-like campaigns that use every weapon in their arsenal to get large groups of people on board," says Nunno.

Power is often the most expedient way to get things done, but Machiavelli acknowledged its limitations, she says.

"The use of power often results in significant collateral damage or is often of little use in the face of a more powerful opponent, or in the case of an irrational or deceitful opponent," says Nunno.

In such cases, the leader must use craft, subterfuge and more subtle tactics to achieve success, ideally without alerting the other side of the countermeasures.

CIOs, she notes, also regularly confront more powerful opponents or those they would consider less than completely honest or rational. Nunno points out effective CIOs must anticipate manipulative behaviour and take steps to evade or defend against it.

Once they have mastered these two Machiavellian-inspired disciplines, they can master the third discipline: warfare.

Warfare, she says, is the ability to take power and manipulation and scale them up to mass proportions. She likens many CIO initiatives to warfare, and these include centralisation initiatives, business process changes, cost reduction programmes, and mergers and acquisitions.

Fight on multiple fronts – but not too many

All CIOs must fight on at least three fronts – topline growth, bottom line savings and risk mitigation. These represent the “most coveted victories” in an enterprise, she says.

A CIO who flights on only one of these fronts risks having nothing left to fall back on in case of failure, she writes. On the other hand, being successful in only one front may not be enough to protect the CIO or the enterprise should the other two fail due to an attack by a competitor, or back luck.

At the same time, Nunno cautions CIOs not to take on too many battles, underscoring the essentials of a deep leadership bench and great teamwork.

“Wolf CIOs are strong on at least one front, and marshal their forces to be good enough at the other two to protect themselves, the IT team and the enterprise.”

Follow Divina Paredes on Twitter: @divinap

Follow CIO New Zealand on Twitter: @cio_nz

Join the CIO New Zealand group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.

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