A CIO's new vision for leaders

NASA CIO Linda Cureton, who has frequently mused about leadership issues on her blog over the years, is now the proud author of the book "The Leadership Muse," just published by Synergy Press. As she explains in her introduction, the book is intended to help people think about what it means to be a good leader and find the knowledge and inspiration to help them grow. Here are two excerpts from the book, which is available in print and electronic formats.

Introduction: A new vision for leaders

My career path has led me to a C-level executive position, one in which I am charged with inspiring an organization where rocket science is the order of the day. My calling is to innovate and advance IT so that the explorers, scientists and engineers may occupy their thoughts with reaching for the stars. I serve people whose mission is to plumb the depths of the known universe. So if anyone needs a Muse — some divine stroke of inspiration from sources unknown — it is me.

In January of 2010, while pondering my New Year’s resolutions, I first encountered what I now know to be the “Leadership Muse.” My resolutions usually reflect a desire to lead effectively, with authority and grace. I reflect on questions many leaders ask themselves: What does it take to be a good leader? Where do you learn “leadership”? To whom can leaders turn for knowledge? Or for inspiration?

But on this particular day, my musings were cut short. My grandmother, Corona — better known as Mama by her family and friends — was celebrating her 96th birthday, and the whole family was gathering for a traditional feast. I made her favorite sweet potato crescent rolls and “Baptist” pound cake. The evening was all about family, fried chicken, and macaroni and cheese. I would think more about leadership, learning, innovation and resolutions later. We had a wonderful birthday dinner for Mama. At the end of the evening, I kissed her goodnight, and she died the next morning.

In the midst of the whirlwind of emotions I experienced after she passed away, my resolutions were transformed into a new vision of leadership for the 21st century — a vision inspired by a woman whose lifetime spanned nearly a century and who had seen technology advance faster than the speed of light. As I thought about my grandmother, her life and what she meant to me, I realized that the answers to my questions about leadership, knowledge and inspiration were all around me. In fact, Mama had taught me much about what it takes to lead — for example, that great leaders must be good communicators, visionaries and creative problem solvers. They must also be courageous, caring and authentic.

Many excellent books have been written enumerating the qualities and skills necessary for good leadership, but Mama lived it. Books tell how to lead. Mama showed what it is to lead, and she is a fitting study with which to begin these a-musing leadership lessons.

Leaders are great communicators. Mama was an expert communicator who didn’t let language barriers get in her way. My grandfather served in the Army as a dentist and traveled extensively with my grandmother until he retired as a colonel in 1976. During his tenure with the Army, they were stationed in Germany twice, so Mama learned German. She was also fluent in sign language. My sisters and I used to joke that Mama didn’t let the fact that you couldn’t hear her stop her from talking! A masterful conversationalist, she rose above most communication barriers.

Likewise, great leaders speak to people in their own languages. As a technologist and an IT leader, I must be able to speak the language of IT and the language of business, depending on my audience. In the past, I might have said to a business leader, “We need an enterprise architecture that defines business and technical reference models that map the as-is state of our infrastructure and create an IT capital plan mapping out our to-be state.” And I would be met with slack-jawed, dumbfounded stares. Thankfully, my grandmother taught me how to translate quickly, without losing a beat. In “Mama-speak,” I transform the previous sentence to: “We need to know where we are, where we are going, why we want to go there and how we plan to make it happen.” Suddenly, their expressions change to reflect understanding and interest, and I can proceed to demonstrate how IT can help us get the information we need to move forward.

Leaders have courage. Mama was very brave. I saw her go up against a pit bull with just a broom and a water hose — and win. I was with her as she sped around Fort George G. Meade in my grandfather’s red Alfa Romeo convertible. She got pulled over by the military police — but still won. While in Germany, Mama was a minority in a foreign country yet became president of the Officer’s Wives Club — a first.

I found an old picture of Mama sitting with three other officers’ wives. She seemed somewhat out of place yet held her head high and gracefully, sporting handmade, lace gloves and just a tad more lipstick than a typical 1960s woman would wear. I could see fear in her eyes, but most of all, I could see courage and hesitant dignity on her pursed lips. Mama certainly felt both emotions, but courage won out. After all, what is courage if not learning to manage and persist despite fear? Without fear, there is no need for courage. Her fear inspired her courage, and her courage inspired me.

Leaders are innovative. They must be creative, versatile, resourceful and resilient because they will face unprecedented challenges throughout their careers that will force them to use these talents. Mama could crochet, knit, sew and do needlepoint. She taught me, a lefty, how to crochet left-handed and knit right-handed and how to use a pair of right-handed pinking shears. She could also do ceramics, masonry and plumbing. She could hang dry-wall or plaster walls, repair shoes, perform basic masonry work, and fix a car. She could heal any “boo-boo,” and I still believe that she could have done minor surgery if necessary. My sister, Lisa, and I cleaned out her closet and found a pair of spike-heeled, patent-leather shoes and a battlefield dental-repair kit. We knew these two things were somehow related, but we couldn’t quite figure out how — except that Mama knew exactly what to do with both.

My grandmother was, and continues to be, my inspiration. But this isn’t a book about my grandmother, nor is it a book about being a CIO. This is a book about the inspirational leadership lessons waiting to reveal themselves in every area of our lives — if we would only open our eyes to the Muses disguised as everyday moments and ordinary people.

Odysseus had Athena, Superman had Lois, and John Smith had Pocahontas. These women (or goddesses, in one case) were Muses who inspired their heroes to do the impossible, the divine and the magical. They inspired their heroes to communicate flawlessly and rallied courage and innovation in these men, even when they were ready to give up. Likewise, there is a Leadership Muse flirting just outside the pages of this book. I’m hoping my pen will lure her in so that she can inspire any modest reader who secretly wants to be a hero, too.

As leaders, each of us must seek and find our own Muses — those people or lessons that inspire us to do the difficult, heroic things. Inspiration parades around as clear as day, but unless you are careful, you might not recognize your Muse. She might be disguised as your grandmother, your father, an old television show, music, nature or even your hairdresser. So listen carefully, lest you miss the moment she reveals herself.

Leadership lessons in the desert

The Leadership Muse has often delivered messages to me in the form of winged flight and strange, brave creatures. I have also found her living in what at first appears to be inhospitable and seemingly forsaken corners of the world. I, like many leaders before me, met up with her one night in the desert.

During my first week on the job as an IT leader of a federal agency with nearly 20,000 civil servants and intense technological demands, I was sent on a whirlwind tour of the organization’s three field sites in California — one near the innovation and hope of Silicon Valley, one in beautiful Southern California nestled just below the smog, and the third in the bleak desert near the San Andreas fault. During all this travel, I de-stressed by looking out the car window. The week before, I was in my safe, warm office, working on known problems with clear resolutions at a nice desk. Now I was in a desert, listening to my two deputies discuss the previous night’s meal and subsequent flatulence.

The terrain of the California desert was infinitely more interesting than their locker-room conversation. Sitting in the back seat, in artificial solitude, I was grateful for the distracting scenery — the sight of snow-capped mountains in the distance, juxtaposed with the dry, hot weather around us. But the arid bleakness of the desert could not discourage the life that broke through, peppering the sand with freckles of green. As I watched for these patches of growth in the seemingly barren desert, the Leadership Muse whispered to me about hardship and the growth that comes during trying times.

What or who are the giants in your life? What are the grand challenges you are afraid to face or conquer? What have these ogres stopped you from doing?

Consider the plight of Caleb, one of two Israelites allowed into the Promised Land after 40 years of wandering the desert. In the biblical story, Moses was called to free the Hebrews from slavery under the Egyptian pharaoh and lead them to a land promised by God. Moses sent 12 men out to scout the land. The faithful and fearless Caleb and Joshua were the only ones to bring back optimistic reports. The other 10 men returned from the mission insistent that the quest was impossible; the land was full of giants. Caleb returned proclaiming hope, saying that sure, the land was full of giants, but they were no match for the God of the Israelites, who had seen them this far. But everyone gave up — everyone except Caleb and Joshua. For their disobedience and lack of faith, God caused the Hebrews, including Joshua and Caleb by association, to wander the Egyptian deserts for four long decades. Eventually, Joshua and Caleb were the only surviving adults from that generation of wanderers to see the Promised Land.

Caleb suffered the same punishment as everyone else — 40 years of hard labor in the desert. But during this time, his faith did not suffer and die; rather, it was sharpened and hardened into a thing of true power, earning him a place among inspired leaders. Theologian Rowland Croucher explains, “All the great leaders in the Bible had their leadership skills honed in deserts (or in prisons). Neither Caleb nor we are exempt from that rule.” Indeed, Caleb’s faith, wisdom and determination in dire circumstances are qualities necessary for any leader to succeed — both in times of crisis (which will come) and in times of plenty.

What did Caleb learn about leadership from the Muse of the Desert, from the sandy, inhospitable place of bright stars and rare beauty? Deserts are hot, dry, barren places. There’s the occasional sand dune or patch of greenery that appears on the landscape, but overall, we see very little evidence of life and few of the things needed to sustain what little life there is. Yet in deserts as in leadership, the naked eye can’t always see the miracles and lessons just below the surface. But if we focus on the distant horizon, we will find an oasis of leadership lessons to inspire and strengthen us. Desolation teaches us the meaning and purpose of our connections, and the absence of the things we think we need to sustain us teaches us resilience during the toughest of times. “Every leader,” continues Croucher, writing of Caleb’s eventual triumph as a leader among his people, “has to find a desert somewhere for retreat and reflection and renewal.” Indeed, the nothingness of a desert is merely a mirage.


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