The FBI’s Former CIO Shares What He Learned About Leadership

SIM
Darwin John shares his leadership approaches with RLF participants during a recent session in Dallas.

There’s a mantra Darwin John came by early in his career as a CIO and decided to let it define his approach to leadership: “Soft is hard and hard is easy.”

“The essence of the quote is that in any leadership role, particularly in IT, managing the technology side of it, the hardware, is the easy part,” John explained in an interview. “The hard part is the soft side, the human side.”

This observation comes after more than four decades of experience in the IT space. In the 1970s, John worked as the second-highest ranked IT leader at General Mills. Then, starting in 1979, he went on to serve as CIO at the Scott Paper Company in Philadelphia followed by 12 years as the IT leader for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Then, in the early 2000s, he agreed to sign on as CIO of the FBI. “My job there was different in that it was an organization in which I came in from the outside and reported directly to the director of the FBI, whereas most people came in as an agent and worked their way up,” he recalled. “So there was even more of a need for the soft skills to not only gain credibility with the director, per se, but with the whole organization.”

Throughout the entirety of his career, John has come to believe that IT leaders must have the hard skills required for the position, but success will be found mostly in the soft skills. “About 15 percent of a leader’s success is a function of the power base and technical skills, yet ultimately about 80 to 85 percent of a leader’s success is a function of soft skills,” he said. “This is a stat that’s always been true, but I think it’s only recently that a lot of IT leaders are starting to realize it.”

“There was a point of time when the average tenure for a CIO was less than two years,” John continued, “and I think a lot of the CIOs who didn’t last very long weren’t successful because they saw themselves as just leading technology. For me, I never thought of myself as being head of information technology. I always thought of myself as being a member of the leadership team and I just happened to specialize in information technology.”

Even as John found his career of CIO work immensely satisfying, he has also found enormous reward in simultaneously leading and facilitating the RLF (Regional Leadership Forum) program under the auspices of SIM (Society for Information Management). For more than two decades, hundreds of top national and global companies have relied on RLF programs to transform thousands of rising, high-potential professionals into quality leaders with strongly improved soft skills. In addition to being one of the founding leaders of RLF, John also served as a longtime facilitator for several of the programs and has been speaking for 25 years to many other RLF forums. Today, he is also a program leader for the Executive RLF program.

Throughout his many roles related to RLF, John has always led group discussions about soft skills and imparted his own wisdom to attendees, returning again and again to three main themes:

Socrates vs Aristotle: Why not both?

John notes there have long been two competing philosophies about how one attains knowledge. The Socratic method frames knowledge as coming from within oneself, and the way to draw it out is by asking questions of oneself. Aristotle, on the other hand, believed that knowledge came from outside sources. “Our approach with RLF is to adopt both of these philosophies,” said John. “We have guest speakers and require the students to read books, which results in input. But we also engage them in highly introspective discussions and activities so that they can discover things that they already know but they may not be conscious of.”

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For instance, John has found that people have difficulty determining their own strengths. So rather than asking someone to list their personal values, he asks the person to talk about a grandparent they admire and why they admire them. “There is always one grandparent that they resonate with more than any other,” he said. “So if you ask them to talk about their grandparent, they’ll list the attributes they truly admire. If they reply with, ‘My grandfather was very bright,’ then that means they place high value on intellectual power. If they reply with, ‘They worked hard,’ that is a signal that they value work ethic.”

Be conscious of biases

John also shares that one of the attributes of a great leader is recognizing one’s own biases whenever making decisions. By drawing out RLF participants’ values, John also enables them to acknowledge their biases. “It is a very human condition that people need to get conscious of and then ask themselves, ‘Is that a value I really want to hang onto?’” he explained. “Or is it one to get rid of and add something positive in its place? I have a very simple model which talks about this idea of ‘leverage your strengths, decide the ones that you need to let go of, and get really clear on those that you want to add.’”

Life goals and career goals should be the same thing

One of John’s favorite books to assign to RLF participants is called Leadership Is an Art, by Max Depree. “That book is written about an experience in North Carolina at a furniture manufacturing business,” he explained. “A new plant manager comes in and, shortly after he starts the job, one of his employees dies. The manager decides to visit the home of the deceased person to pay respects to his family. When the deceased employee’s wife opens the door she invites the manager in, saying, ‘We were about to read some poetry, would you like to stay?’ The manager agrees, so she pulls a bound book from the bookshelf and reads some beautiful poems. After she finishes, the factory manager asks, ‘Who was the poet?’ And she says it was her husband. So this plant manager departs from the home wondering whether the deceased man was a mill worker who wrote poetry on the side, or was this a poet who happened to work in a mill to provide for his family? And for me that is a huge question that each of us needs to figure out for himself.”

Too often, said John, employees attempt to make decisions about what’s “right” for their careers without considering what their overall goals are. Do you want to have children? Then why would you take a job in a city where housing is expensive and the school districts are inadequate? Do you value walking and public transportation? Then don’t take a job in a suburb where there are few sidewalks and you’re forced to drive a car.

“One time a company asked me to help them select their next CIO from among three candidates. In my first round of interviews I asked each finalist to tell me about their career plans, and in all three cases the individuals were very articulate. The second question I asked was ‘Why don’t you tell me about your life plan?’ And in all three cases I got blank stares. So I told them, ‘Wouldn’t it make sense that you had a life plan and that your career plan fit in the context of your life plan rather than having a career plan that sort of drove your life and your family along with it?’ The most powerful learning out of that conversation came when I went back to the second round of interviews and one of the candidates said, ‘I’ve decided to take my hat out of the ring. When I got into my life planning with my wife, we decided we don’t want to relocate to Chicago. We realized that what we want most in our lives is to retire early and do different things that really matter to us.’ The whole point of telling this story.” John concluded, “is to stress that most people aren’t all that clear on what their life plan is, and if they get clear on that then they can be in a much more powerful place to know what their career plan ought to be. And that, ultimately, will make them better leaders.”

And helping make people better leaders is what Darwin John is all about. In addition to improving the capabilities and lives of his direct reports and dozens of teams during his impressive career as CIO of the FBI and other major organizations, he has also positively impacted thousands of RLF graduates who have listened to and learned from his philosophies, stories and experiences.

Quite a lasting legacy from a man who even today continues to share and proactively exemplify his approach to leadership that “Soft is hard and hard is easy.”

The Society for Information Management (SIM) is the world’s premier organization for IT leaders. Follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn. Visit us at simnet.org.

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The Society for Information Management is the premier network for CIOs, senior IT executives, prominent academicians, and foremost consultants.

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