Note: This is one in a series of blog entries exploring the role of the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) or Director of Technology. Please be sure toread the whole series! 

“It’s the Economy, stupid!” is an exhortation that caught my ear. As one considers how leadership is done in some school districts–which involves bull-dogging a problem, someone who won’t do what you tell them because you haven’t involved them in the decision-making–in regards to technology, it’s not an exaggeration to say to myself [the “stupid” in this new exhortation], a little slow to realize this, “It’s the Leadership, stupid!”


Dr. Scott McLeod (Dangerously Irrelevant) makes a point that has finally come home for me in the last few months, and, at a deeper level than I understood it before.

most of the leadership problems we run into regarding school technology implementation and integration have less to do with the technologies and more to do with failure to enact good leadership practices. It’s likely that if school leaders aren’t facilitating appropriate training or time or funding or support or policy for technology initiatives, they probably aren’t for most other, non-technology initiatives either. [emphasis mine]

As a young technologist, I often found myself bemoaning how technology implementations were being planned, put into place, etc. If we only followed best practices, I thought, things would work out for the best. But then, everything would get bogged down in “politics.” You know what I mean right? The leader responsible for advocating for the initiative would micro-manage the implementation or planning, often killing the initiative before it was done. Or, if through stealth planning and leadership, the team could get something done, it would die in the rarified atmosphere of superintendent’s cabinet, where new initiatives are lined up and shot periodically. Ok, I’m engaging a bit of hyperbole (no I’m not and you know it) at the prompt executions of expensive, technology implementations.

The problem is, I was looking at best practices from a technologist’s perspective. The truth of the matter is that managing a Technology Department isn’t about knowing the technology, but rather, better leadership on the part of the CTO/CIO/Director of Technology or whatever the position is titled. It’s not just a little about leadership…it’s ALL leadership.

Core leadership competencies matter more than subject matter expertise. An ignorant person with leadership skills goes further than an expert who can’t lead. (Read more wisdom here)

That has profound implications for those of us who are technology advocates in schools. Could quality leadership that has an inkling about technology be sufficient for us in schools? The leadership & technology challenge also has an interesting implication–if someone is skilled in leadership, then is it possible their ignorance of technology skills might NOT matter so much? If you have someone who can get people to the table, set measurable goals and expectations, is that worth more than a technology expert?

Leadership is about inexperience – doing things you haven’t already done – and learning as you go. (Read more wisdom here)

The answer is a resounding YES! I’ve been in situations where you have leadership that is completely ignorant of technology, but, willing to learn. In these situations, you have a leader that is constantly learning about areas they are ignorant in, but can actually get farther than someone else…because the objections that arise do NOT stop the conversation.

“What instructional goals do we want to accomplish with this iPad or netbooks running Linux implementation?” someone might ask, unbalked by the fact that the District doesn’t currently have the infrastructure it needs. “Ok, so what do we need to do to get the infrastructure and filtering that we need to be ready?” If the leader is willing to listen, research, learn, and can bring people to the table to set goals, objectives, answer the “who will do what by when” and flesh out the six sources of insight (shown below in a convenient table), then progress can be made.


Scott lists several common problems in his blog entry about the issues we encounter, but here are a few more scenarios:

  • Your district needs to video-tape and broadcast an important event with state, or even, national, media. How you approach this in a way that will reflect well on your district? Do you and one other person handle it, or do you call together an executive team that makes sure you’re “unleashing” the knowledge and skills of the entire support team? This is fundamentally a leadership opportunity because you need to bring people together that can solve technology problems you may be completely oblivious to.
  • Your district finds itself encountering spyware/malware attacks on every campus, and bandwidth is wiped out so that no one can use the web-based instructional assessment tools. You’ve already spent your technical budget on filtering software but it’s languishing in the server room because you’re firewall configuration guru is on vacation. How can you as leader address this situation now and in the future so you’re not stuck implementing a major initiative without your key player?
  • Your school district leadership–trying to respond quickly to a problem–needs to implement an enterprise level solution to a problem, but sets the full implementation deadline 5 months out. Unfortunately, no one has told them that 1) hardware is not in place; 2) human infrastructure is lacking and you can’t get there from here with the staff you do have; 3) end-user implementation is likely to be slow because they are committed to an old, archaic system but are unaware of the problems. 
  • Your district just launched ZohoWorks but you notice no one is using the cloud-based productivity suite. Apparently, the higher-ups expect the training to happen all face to face but there’s only one person to do the training (maybe, it’s you). How can you change the conversation so that you can require staff to complete training online, leveraging natural consequences of a situation so that folks are motivated?
What other scenarios can you think of that affect technology that are primarily about our failure to have crucial conversations/confrontations and consider the sources of insight when trying to encourage others what needs to be done to the benefit of the organization?
Often, when one criticizes leadership, no solutions are available. That’s why I like the Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations books so much…they provide practical suggestions and processes for helping you and stakeholders figure out what you want, what you don’t want, how to move forward without alienating, and identifying sources of insight so that you can figure out and rely on the natural consequences of a situation to motivate people.

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Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin’s blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure