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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?



I like what you said, I appreciate the heads up on the Tech Republic article, and I agree with your call-to-arms:

"CIOs [past, present, future, and their professional mgmt peers] have ... a huge opportunity to become visionary leaders for their organizations and for the healthcare industry as a whole."

Does that mean some of us have to learn to be more arrogant, since it so often comes with the territory? Well no and yes, IMHO. (What would you expect me to say after a question like that?)

Most of the readers of this publication are quite familiar with and probably admire the motif described by author Jim Collins, in his 'Good to Great' book, and elsewhere (see, where he describes "Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. ... their ambition is first ... for the institution, not themselves.") There's a distinct quality of humility, that is distinctly the opposite of what we think of as Arrogance.

Indeed, Collin's language for this leadership is "a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will". Level Five Leadership is described as a high and uncommon standard to aspire to. Maybe a call-to-arms to grow into.

All of the readers of this publication have experienced flaming Narcissists. The best place to understand Bill Gates and others, phenomenally successful visionaries, as well as a primer on executing on that vision may be the writings of Michael Maccoby.

Start here: "Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons," In this article, he outlines what constitutes a the strengths and weaknesses of these visionaries:

- Great Vision
- Scores of Followers

- Sensitive to Criticism
- Poor Listeners
- Lack of Empathy
- Distaste of Mentoring
- An Intense Desire to Compete

I'm out of space (self-imposed limit per post) if anyone is interested, I'll point you to the really good stuff on this topic.