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Geek Leadership and the Future of Healthcare

July 30, 2008
by Mark Hagland
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Anyone who hasn’t been living in a cave lately knows that Bill Gates, with rather a good deal of fanfare, finally officially retired earlier this month as chairman of Microsoft (though he’ll still retain some affiliations with the company). Of course, a lot of virtual ink has been spilled over questions such as what Gates’ legacy (both positive and possibly negative) might be on the IT industry and in the larger world.

I was particularly intrigued, though, by an article I found in the online publication Tech Republic, entitled “Sanity check: Five things we have learned from Gill Gates.” In order of importance from fifth to first most important, the magazine cited the following lessons:

Ø Geeks can be businessmen, too

Ø You don’t have to be first to win

Ø Computing will spread everywhere

Ø Arrogance breeds failure

Ø Software matters

Some of these lessons are “positive,” some “negative.” On the negative side, The publication cited Microsoft’s “success and arrogance [which] led to its anti-trust defeat to the U.S. government.” Conversely, the publication gave Gates considerable credit for being among the earlier visionaries to conceive of the day when personal computing would be a universalized phenomenon, something that is now easy to see in hindsight but which was far from self-evident in the mid-1970s when Gates was starting out.

What I think was interesting about Tech Republic’s list is this: how might it resonate with healthcare CIOs? They need to be visionaries—if not on a scale of a Bill Gates, then certainly to the extent that they can help lead their organizations forward into a murky, challenging future. Just as many of the things we can now see were “inevitable” did not appear so 30 years ago, I can’t imagine anyone foolish enough to claim that they can predict every IT twist and turn that will take place in the next 30 years.

But CIOs, who are increasingly being pushed towards the strategic both by their own organizations and by the demands of the healthcare system, have a huge opportunity to become visionary leaders for their organizations and for the healthcare industry as a whole. They have the talent, smarts, and technical understanding to be far more than operational managers (though they’ll always be expected to be that, too). Might it seem far-fetched to think of CIOs as a group as potential visionary leaders for the industry? Perhaps. But who would have thought that some geeky college kid who dropped out of Harvard in 1975 and who then moved to start up some kind of computer company out of his garage with some buddies would end up transforming the way people live and work, as well as becoming one of the richest and most famous people in the world?

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