CIO Power Politics Executive Summary

Published: 01 October 2011 ID: G00226257

Analyst(s): |

  Free preview of Gartner research


Mastery of power politics, a vital part of CIO leadership, is about resolving conflicts, and making things happen, with appropriate decisions. CIOs who succeed in power politics embrace it, leverage enterprise power, gain personal power and use their power wisely.


Leadership and power go hand in hand. CIOs often have significant positional power, yet typically they must deal with an array of enterprise stakeholders with equal or superior power. Many CIOs view power as inherently negative, rather than as an asset essential to strong leadership.

This report addresses the question, How can CIOs grow their power and wield it to become stronger business leaders?

“Special Report: CIO Power Politics” was written by members of the CIO & executive leadership research group, led by Tina Nunno (vice president and Distinguished Analyst), assisted by Heather Colella (research director).

We would like to thank the many organizations and individuals that generously contributed their insights and experiences to the research, including:

  • The contributors to our interviews and case studies: More than 30 CIOs from the Americas, Europe and the Asia/Pacific region participated in case study interviews for this report. Due to the sensitive nature of the topic, we have kept almost all interviewees anonymous when we quote or otherwise refer to them. We are grateful to these CIOs and to the other IT executives we cite for sharing their considerable wisdom. Special thanks to Major General Dale Meyerrose, U.S. Air Force, Ret., of the Harris Corporation (U.S.).

  • Other Gartner colleagues: Marc Andonian, Judi Edwards, Poh-Ling Lee, Maureen Stratton, Graham Waller and Steve Weber.

  • Other members of the CIO & executive leadership research group: Richard Hunter and Andrew Rowsell-Jones.

Executive Summary

Power is an ethically neutral construct—a tool that CIOs can use for good or ill. Clearly, CIOs without power cannot enjoy the benefits that would otherwise accrue to themselves, their staff or the enterprise. As leaders, CIOs must understand power in all its complexity.

The premise for this report’s research is that strong leadership requires a thoughtful and constructive relationship with power. Power and the use of power cannot be reduced to a simple binary equation. Leading CIOs agree that, contrary to popular belief, the use of power is not a matter of extreme avoidance versus dictatorial abuse. Power comes in many forms, ranging from coercion to credibility, and each form has both negative and positive impacts—for the one who wields the power and for those on the receiving end.

Table 1.   Definition

Power: The ability to make something happen.

Source: Gartner

The case studies reveal four essential steps for success in CIO power politics, which is about deciding appropriately to resolve conflicts and make something happen (see figure below).

Figure 1. CIO power politics framework
Research image courtesy of Gartner, Inc.

Source: Gartner.

Embrace power to become a strong business leader

To master power, as with any complex skill, a leader must first embrace it unapologetically and recognize that wielding it is both an opportunity and a threat. CIOs should approach the opportunity with enthusiasm for the good they can do once they gain power, and approach the threat of the damage power can do with the respect it deserves.

Understand the power dynamics of the enterprise

While it may be lonely at the top, leadership is far from a solitary pursuit. Enterprises have specific power dynamics and patterns that can be functional or dysfunctional, and that can change rapidly. CIOs must, therefore, continually monitor these dynamics and patterns and adapt their strategies accordingly whenever changes occur.

Begin to understand power dynamics by characterizing the enterprise. Case study CIOs indicated that a number of variables influence the degree of enterprise politics, the most important ones being size, industry, ownership and executive leadership culture.

Build your personal CIO power

CIO personal power and self-interest are not one and the same. Though CIOs can certainly use personal power in their own best interests, those lacking power and the ability to gain it will never see themselves or others derive the benefits. Successful CIOs monitor their power levels and develop techniques to grow power ethically.

A CIO’s power is rarely an accident. Strong CIOs have beliefs and practices that help them understand their current power level and actively increase it over time. They grow their power in a variety of ways.

Use your power wisely

There is often an inverse relationship between power and wisdom. Those who have the most power are sometimes the least open to the ideas and feelings of others. This can be detrimental both to the powerful and to those around them. Experienced CIOs avoid this by wielding power with great care. They choose their battles wisely. They know when to lead from the front, and when to lead from behind. And the wisest know when to put all their power on the line.

© 2011 Gartner, Inc. and/or its Affiliates. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction and distribution of this publication in any form without prior written permission is forbidden. The information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable. Gartner disclaims all warranties as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of such information. Although Gartners research may discuss legal issues related to the information technology business, Gartner does not provide legal advice or services and its research should not be construed or used as such. Gartner shall have no liability for errors, omissions or inadequacies in the information contained herein or for interpretations thereof. The opinions expressed herein are subject to change without notice.

Why Gartner

Gartner delivers the technology-related insight you need to make the right decisions, every day.

Find out more

Call +1 855-515-4486 or contact us

to become a Gartner client.