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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Alchemy: Turning Common Into Precious

"Alchemy neither composes nor mixes: it increases and activates that which already exists in a latent state."—Franz Hartmann, late 19th Century alchemy historian, from his book, The Life of Paracelsus and the Substance of his Teachings.

As we completed this book, the United States is swept up in mystical mania with huge box office success for Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings. In such a time of uncertainty, it seems natural to long for magic and mysticism. When it's clear that we cannot control the external events around us, we wish for a spell or potion to give us power. In the book by Peter Sacks, Generation SX Goes to College: An Eye-Opening Account of Teaching in Postmodern America, the author notes that our current cultural fascination with mysticism parallels the prevailing situation in the Middle Ages, when alchemy was at its peak.

You may think of alchemy as turning common metals into gold. That is the best-known part of it, although many other chemical reactions were also attempted. In a broader sense, alchemy was a philosophy that attempted to leverage what was already within common metals to activate something valuable. IT leadership is the same thing, and all IT managers have the innate capacity to be leaders. This book is designed to be the start of a process to activate that innate capacity through additional skills, knowledge, and motivation. Like IT leadership, alchemy was more about ongoing questions than about definitive answers. And, like all things of value, alchemy was really about the journey, rather than the destination. You'll find that IT leadership is very much the same.

We've divided the IT leadership competencies into three sections:

  • Self-alignment—Who am I? What do I believe? What are my strengths and challenges?

  • Working with others—How are we all different? How can I motivate and influence others?

  • Integration—Given each leadership situation as unique, how do I customize to the need?

Figure 1.1 summarizes alchemy's three principles. Salt symbolizes crystallization, condensation, slow growth from within, and independence. We use this principle to detail the self-alignment of the leader. Unless you are clear about who you are, what you believe, and how you judge effectiveness, leadership will be purely an academic exercise. Self-alignment is the basis for a leader's prioritization, making it both the operating system that all leadership runs on, and the criterion for measuring success as a leader. While measuring leadership growth is difficult, we've included tools for setting measurable goals and tracking them. "SALT" appears next to the chapters addressing this topic.

Sulphur is the expansive force. When combined with other things, sulphur creates new results. Similarly, an IT leader cannot be a leader by herself; leadership is a collaborative effort. The chapters with "SULPHUR" focus on competencies involving the external expression of leadership to others. Like alchemy, the results will always be surprising. After all, as most IT managers have learned, people are not as predictable as technology.

Figure 1.1Figure 1.1 The three principles of alchemy. (Modified from Illustrations from John French—The Art of Distillation, Book III. http://www.levity.com/alchemy/jfren_3.html-39K-2001-02-14.)

Finally, mercury represents integration. It tempers the extremes of salt and sulphur, creating a unique result for each specific time and place. Similarly, IT leadership requires a unique reaction to each opportunity, depending upon the people involved, the history, the culture, the processes, the moods, and even the time of day. It is critical that IT leaders realize that what worked yesterday will not necessarily work today. Like mercury, IT leadership must transform itself and flow into the places available right now—but when misapplied, it can be a disaster. You'll see "MERCURY" with the competencies geared toward integration.

Exercise: Ranking Your Strengths

Take a moment and think about the three principles of alchemy: Salt/self-alignment, Sulphur/work with others, Mercury/integration. Rank these based on the strength of your competency in each area.

Many IT managers attend leadership workshops or devour best-selling leadership books only to return to work completely unchanged. Too often the experiences gained in a workshop with "the right answers" don't reflect the realities of the chaotic IT world. More worrisome are the learners who return with "the right answers," but are unable to practice the agility and flexibility needed for difficult situations.

We believe that the seed of leadership is in everyone. Each person has a unique ability to be the leader they were meant to be—something that's as true in IT as it is anywhere. Forcing yourself to look like somebody's ideal is stress-inducing and ignores your own natural leadership talents. Instead, we created this book to help you identify and leverage your natural leadership strengths while minimizing your weaknesses. One caution, though: If your primary attraction is power, technical reputation, prestige, or salary, and not the value of truly helping others, leadership may not be the right role for you.

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