Do you have what it takes to be a data leader?

It seems that everyone today aspires to be a leader in whatever activity or organisation that they are involved in, no matter their background, capabilities or experience.

Many endeavor to pursue the mantle of leadership by engaging in ‘soft activities’ – such as writing articles and blogs, social media participation, and conference presentations – to demonstrate their abilities and potential, but few are successful it seems.

Conventional wisdom says that being promoted to manager is a pathway to leadership as well. I disagree with all of these approaches.

Over the course of my career I have come to this belief: leadership is earned, not learned. You can educate anyone on the principles of leadership, but that does not make them a leader.

>See also: The UK’s top 50 data leaders and influencers

Leadership only comes from experience, character, fortitude under fire and other key behavioral and cognitive attributes. Given all this, it brings me to the question: do you have what it takes to be a data leader?

Recently, Information Age announced its selections for the Data 50, a group of the top data leaders and influencers in the UK. The list represents an interesting cross-section of data folks in the UK from all sectors and I am familiar with a number of them.

Independent of the Data 50, I have been writing over the course of this year about the eight CEOs whom I have chosen for my series ‘Profiles in Data Leadership’. Not surprisingly, there is no overlap between these two groups as they represent completely different ends of what I refer to as the data leadership spectrum. Let me explain why.

At one end we have the notion of what I call the ‘data leadership nexus’, a strategic framework for becoming a predictive enterprise. Central to this concept is the role of top-down leadership by the CEO and board in guiding the successful exploitation of data and analytics by everyone across their organisation in order to make it pervasive, and ultimately to create sustainable sources of competitive advantage.

The nexus presumes that you have a highly functioning leadership structure in place already, which is fully accountable for strategic, tactical and operational performance in the classic sense, but has also undergone a transformation over time to be highly competent in areas of data and analytics.

This data leadership nexus is transformational in approach and encompasses executive leadership, core strategy, organisational culture and technology to achieve its desired outcomes.

At the other end of the data leadership spectrum, we have the traditional technology-focused data management activity within the IT organisation. Leadership here drives functional responsibilities and is focused on how to best deliver data and analytics as a service to users and executives.

This is a very critical role in every organisation today and is often referred to as that of the chief data officer. In many of these same organisations, this role may also be responsible for data governance activities as well as liaison with business units to establish SLAs, functional requirements, etc. The emphasis for this role is to provide technology services and expertise in support of the organisation’s strategic, tactical and operational objectives.

In order for any organisation to be successful in its quest to become a predictive enterprise, the entire data leadership spectrum (both ends, much less the middle) must have inherently strong leaders in all roles that intersect with data, analytics and information governance.

>See also: Want to be a data leader? Here are 8 attributes you'll need

Whether top-down, bottom-up or middle-out in respect to the location of these roles or their span of responsibilities, every data leader must work from a position of strength and experience in respect to knowledge, acumen and abilities. This is a much deeper set of requirements that almost all other managerial or executive positions.

If you want to become a data leader – or a better one if you already are – you must be a true leader at your core – one who understands not just the technology, but the why and how of making it a core competency for your organisation in its pursuit of strategic excellence.

You must be fully accountable for those who work within your span of responsibilities and lead from the heart. Finally, you must steel yourself each and every day to be more worthy and capable of the challenge you have been tasked with.


The article is written by Richard Lee, Information Age columnist and managing partner of executive consulting firm IMECS

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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Data Leaders