Dan Stroot

The Adaptive CIO: Peacetime vs. Wartime Leadership

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3 min read

Peacetime in business means those times when a company has a large advantage vs. the competition in its core market, and its market is growing. In times of peace, the company can focus on expanding the market and reinforcing the company’s strengths.

In wartime, a company is fending off an imminent existential threat. Such a threat can come from a wide range of sources including competition, dramatic macro economic change, market change, supply chain change, and so forth.

— Ben Horowitz, Peacetime CEO/Wartime CEO

The concept of a "peacetime" and "wartime" CEO was popularized by Ben Horowitz, cofounder of Andreessen Horowitz. Ben's key message is that peacetime and wartime require radically different management styles. I believe this concept can be applied to CIOs as well. As an effective CIO, you never just take a job. You are accepting a mission. You need to know from the outset if the mission is to take the hill (growth work) or to stop the slide (turnaround work). There are some questions you must explore to get a sense of the mission.

How is the current technology organization viewed by the wider company, and especially other leaders? How much shadow technology is happening in business areas? What changes do the CEO and other leaders want to see? How is technology effectiveness measured? How is morale in the technology organization and what does turnover look like?

If you are fortunate the company is facing growth challenges and you have a realtively healthy technology organization. You have an opportunity to reinforce it's strengths, unleash it's talent, and use modern technology and methods. Congratulations, you get to be a peacetime CIO.

If you come into a troubled organization you will not last if your strategy is simple change leadership. The organization will need more than just change, and you need to set different expectations with the company when they hire you. You are not coming in to make changes, you are coming in to do a turnaround. In short, you need to be a wartime CIO.

Of course, the reality is often more complex and nuanced. Organizations rarely experience pure "peacetime" or "wartime" situations; instead, they often face a combination of challenges and opportunities that require a flexible and adaptive leadership approach. For instance, even during periods of growth and stability, a CIO may need to exhibit decisiveness and a focus on execution to address specific critical projects or initiatives. Conversely, in times of crisis, fostering innovation and creativity within the team can be crucial for finding sustainable solutions.

Even so, it's interesting to compare and contrast the different styles:

AspectPeacetime CIOWartime CIO
FocusStrategic planning, long-term goalsRapid response, short-term objectives
Risk ToleranceHigher tolerance for experimentation and innovationLower tolerance, prioritizing stability and security
Resource AllocationInvestment in long-term projects and innovation initiativesAllocation towards immediate needs and critical infrastructure
Leadership StyleCollaborative, fostering innovation and creativity among teamsAuthoritative, decisive, focused on execution and crisis management
Decision MakingData-driven, based on comprehensive analysisQuick, based on available information and immediate needs
Technology AdoptionEmphasis on emerging technologies and future trendsFocus on leveraging existing technologies for immediate impact
CommunicationTransparent, focusing on long-term vision and goalsClear and concise, prioritizing urgent messages and directives
ResilienceAdaptive to change and market fluctuationsAgile and responsive to unforeseen challenges and disruptions
Stakeholder RelationsBuilding relationships for long-term partnerships and collaborationsEngaging stakeholders for immediate support and alignment
FundingEngages stakeholders for additional fundingMakes due with what they have
PersonnelFocuses on developing people and cultureFocuses on minimizing casualties and maintaining morale
ValuesCreativity, InnovationEfficiency, Effectiveness, proven solutions
Innovation ApproachEncourages experimentation and risk-takingPragmatic, prioritizing solutions with immediate impact
Performance MetricsFocuses on long-term growth and ROIEmphasizes short-term results and operational efficiency
FlexibilityAdapts to changes gradually, with a focus on sustainabilityQuickly adapts to evolving circumstances, prioritizing survival
Learning CultureEmbraces continuous learning and improvementLearns from past experiences, quickly applies lessons learned

If you are faced with a turnaround it means that you also must address the following challenges first:

  • Systemic Issues (roots of failure, key points of fear)
  • Political Issues (undue influencers, excused behaviors, entrenched battles, shadow IT)
  • Embedded Dysfunctions (culture, tradition, beliefs, habits)
  • Strategic Errors (or lack of a coherent strategy)
  • Personnel Issues (talent gaps, morale issues, retention, and risk aversion)

If you can't transform the environment itself, nothing you do will be sustainable. When I have led turnarounds, I made it clear that I wasn’t coming to just make changes. I was coming to address the core issues that all change requires to be effective. And that takes a different mindset and management approach.


Image Credit: General Douglas MacArthur

Douglas MacArthur received 13 awards for bravery, including the Medal of Honor. Perhaps the most gifted wartime soldier America ever produced, he orchestrated remarkable victories in France, New Guinea, the Philippines, and Korea. He often led from the front, sharing the dangers of the battlefield with his men, which earned him accolades for bravery and the loyalty of his soldiers. His tenure was marked by the challenge of leading the Army during the Great Depression, a period of limited resources and low morale. Despite this, he advocated for a modern, mechanized army, foreseeing the changing nature of warfare.

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