CIO Leadership

Avoiding The Savior Complex: How CIOs Help Leaders Of Business Face Reality With Three Powerful Questions

Leaders look to IT as a Savior. CIOs know better than to live in that shadow, and they ask three powerful questions to help business leaders face reality and effectively allocate technology resources.

Joe Woodruff


May 25, 2022

Photo credit:
Sarah Dorweiler

Jack Welch was once named by Fortune magazine as Manager of the Century. His first rule of business as Chair and CEO of GE was “Face reality.”

CIOs work with leaders. Those leaders generate a lot of activity: departments, strategies, plans, and actions. IT plays a role in every aspect of a business line’s activity. 

Business generates more business; action produces more action. Inevitably, unless consciously addressed, a business becomes top-heavy. 

Leaders are often tough and optimistic, able to bear great loads and to continue to inspire work. Until they can’t. Not everything can be reasonably sustained. Eventually, they realize something must be done. And usually that something that must be done is to turn to you.

The good news is that leaders believe that technology can help them be more efficient. The bad news is the same. And it’s bad news because they believe that being efficient will help them be more effective. And that’s where they get it wrong.

The greatest gifts a leader has is hope and hopelessness. Leaders excel in hope; they rarely embrace hopeless. You are there to help leaders be hopeless, to face reality. Reality is, some things must go for the rest to be sustained.

Leaders operate with a false belief that technology can pick up the slack of methodology; they live with the false notion that a problem within the business can be solved by an IT solution to the business. 

You know that is not true. They look at IT as the Savior. As in “If only we had the technology that could…” etc. 

But you know better. IT can work miracles, but it doesn’t make you the Savior. 

Leaders are often trying to solve for one of three areas: what is good but not great, what is dysfunctional and unlikely to be turned, and what is dead and taking up space (I recommend the book Necessary Endings by Dr. Henry Cloud for more on this).

For any number of reasons, leaders avoid bringing these areas to an end. So they turn to you. Instead of facing reality, they are trying to redefine reality with you as the shining knight, etc. (And who gets blamed when the battle is finally lost)?

Getting Leaders To Embrace Healthy Hopelessness

It’s not that IT doesn’t want to save the day. It’s that you only have so many days you can save. That’s the key: Help leaders discern what in their business needs more resources versus what in their business is draining resources.

Three Questions To Ask Every Leader 

  1. What in your business is good but not great?
  • Some things underperform, not because they are bad, but because they are not right.
  • If IT solves for it, factors may still remain that will still keep it underperforming: personnel, design, etc.
  • Help leaders identify what deserves more resources because they are great or close to great.
  1. What in your business is dysfunctional and unlikely to be fixed?
  • Negative realities are allowed to exist for too long.
  • Help leaders utilize great diagnostics.
  • IT maximizes what is already effective; it rarely breathes life into what is already ineffective. IT is inherently weighty; if the foundation upon which it is built is weak, the collapse is sure.
  1. What is dead and taking up space?
  • Some things live in business by tradition and needs to be questioned.
  • People live with frustration when the easy answer is the best answer: be done with it.
  • Help identify the money pits, and never let technology cost fall into that pit.

You are a CIO. Of all people, you know the power of technology. You are a leader. Of all people, you know the limitations of technology. 

You don’t have a Savior Complex. But people regard you as a Savior. Those are two drastically different things, and both spell disaster for you.

Get ahead of it by being actively involved with leaders of the business you serve. Simple, powerful questions will help them determine what and what not to bring to you. 

Then work your miracle.

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