The list below is from over two decades of observations in first, second and third person. Before publishing I asked over 50 Fortune 1000 CIOs and CTOs to review and comment; their feedback is included.

At the core of everything below is going against the grain and the herd, and embracing counter intuition. Whether you embrace counter intuition systematically, or selectively, most of the items below are suggesting in their cognitive DNA counter-intuitive thinking.


  1. They do not try to define innovation - It's difficult to define innovation, and if you do define innovation it means that you will set up a single process to do or capture it the way you define it. Wrong -- most exceptional technology leaders learn that innovation comes in many flavors, inside-out, outside-in, evolutionary and revolutionary. If you define it you have one process, if you do not, you learn there are many processes needed to do or capture the many types of innovation.

  2. They never have secret projects - The knee-jerk reaction is to have little secret projects, or "black ops" type projects. Exceptional technology leaders will tell you that you need to do innovative projects in the open, allow folks to see, smell and marvel in its artistry. What you want is for everyone to copy the behavior of the few innovating. If you lock them in a secret room, no one knows, and no innovative behavior gets copied.

  3. They are never surprised by failure - Certain percentage of technology projects fail, it is the nature of the beast. Exceptional technology leaders set these expectations for failure with their operating committees, and investment governance stewards early in the process. When failure happens, it is never a surprise; it is usually "well that one falls in our failure bucket we prepared for".

  4. They never start projects themselves - Folks that want/try to build a prototype usually struggle to wow business stakeholders. This is because you have to get the business stakeholders involved before you can build anything. Some leaders I know do not even draw a project in PowerPoint before engaging the customer. Every project is started by the customer, whether on the customer's own conscious accord, or the customer unconsciously prompted (but technology leadership) to do so.

  5. They resist the need for PMO - Certain processes in large organizations do not thrive with the presence of the project police, while others do. Most exceptional leaders I consulted agreed that a PMO in the wrong place at the wrong time can be catastrophic. Some processes need low rigor, some mild, and only some the high rigor that comes with a PMO presence.

  6. They do not break projects into phases - Large phases (one, two and three) are logical "kill points" for projects. Most projects get killed after phase one, and very frequently this is because phase one is a minimally viable product that does the least that can be done, but does it well. Two things happen, the business stakeholders see no reason to fund phase two and/or three (I mean they already saw something that kind of works), and the technology leader never gets to build phase two which would deliver efficiency; and phase three, which would create business value. So large phases leave you always delivering phase one only which unfortunately only kinda works. Have 24 phases, not three.

  7. They never worry about a target state - We can barely predict what our families will do in a year, yet we try to predict what companies of thousands of employees should be like three to five years out with a target state. Worst once there is a targets state, the "target state police" start invalidate changes to the market place and new innovations by activating the "well it does not fit into the target state" card essentially locking the company away from the world for three to five years at a time. Exceptional technology leaders create a governance culture to enable an evolving model, not a target state.

  8. They do not try to build hero products - Very rarely can you build a single product that solves all of your customers ailments in a vacuum. You cannot build standalone solutions; you have to build a product that works with others. The days of platforms with stocks of information are over; exceptional technology leaders build ecosystems with flows of information. Most folks suggested that they build as little as possible, instead they orchestrate like a maestro of other products instead of a builder of a hero product.

  9. They never wait on innovation - Exceptional technology leaders do not wait to see what happens to new innovations, they disdain being a fast follower, they are habitually enterprise early adopters. They buy innovation commercially (and many times invest in the startups) early in the innovation cycle and way left of the theory of diffusion of innovation bell curve. Waiting to see what happens to an innovation means paying more for it, and being late to the party.

  10. They do not read leadership books - There are almost a million books on leadership available for purchase on Amazon.com. All noise, an echo chamber if I may. Exceptional leaders systematically and pragmatically go against the status quo. They thrive in counter intuition. As technology commoditizes, the herd gets larger and larger, go in the opposite direction.

Do you have others to add?

What are some of the traits you see in exceptional technology leaders?