Home CTO/CIO The Lone Ranger CTO

The Lone Ranger CTO

by Miguel Guhlin
Lone Ranger with his horse, Silver. Public Domain image.

Are you a lone ranger CTO? The title comes to mind when I consider a conversation I had a few years ago. It also highlights a common problem in districts, the tyranny of competence.

The Lone Ranger CTO

“How many people are on your staff?” I’d struck up a conversation with a district technology director when we had run into each other at an annual TCEA Convention and Exposition. “I’m the only one,” she responded, “chief cook and bottle washer.” “You do the networking AND the instructional stuff,” I asked, “all by your lonesome?” Hard to hide, my shock was palpable. I had avoided those kinds of “demi-god” tech director jobs for years. They represented organizations who didn’t believe in appropriate staffing models. My opinion didn’t stop them, though.

“Yes,” she replied. Her hard smile spoke of grim determination and commitment to a job well done. No matter how wonderful she was, her organization had set themselves up for a difficult time. Let’s explore the role of the leader and a concept known as “tyranny of competence.” Those who embrace the tyranny of competence may be called “Lone Star” CTOs. They seek to dominate the heavens as the source of all knowledge, the star attraction in the Technology Department.

The Role of the Leader

If you’ve taken on the role of a Lone Ranger CTO, you have accepted mission-critical responsibilities. The ISTE Standards for Education Leaders define these responsibilities.

Did You Know?

You can get certified as an ISTE Certified Educator via TCEA. ISTE Certification is a new competency-based, vendor-agnostic educator certification based on the ISTE Standards for Educators. This digital credential recognizes educators who understand how to use ed tech for learning in meaningful and transformative ways. Learn more.

Leaders engage others as visionary planners. They set a vision and a strategic plan in place. They articulate an ongoing evaluation cycle for transforming learning with technology. As a director of technology, you learn how to build a strategic plan. You take an impartial measure of any project’s effectiveness. Then you are ruthless about pruning projects that deal with boxes and wires. You work to safeguard your most important investment, people.

Avoid the temptation to be a Lone Ranger CTO. Build a team that engages others. Once you decide to do that, the question arises: How do you lead teams whose joint work makes strategic plan implementation possible?

Avoid a Strategic Planning Pitfall

One way to lead teams is to assign key staff authority and oversight. This type of delegation works well. Yet empowerment can create a problem without the right relationship in place.

One challenge we face in limited numbers of staff filling many jobs is the “tyranny of competence.” In one district I served, paraprofessional educators filled the role of degreed staff. There, I encountered a challenge I have seen often. It arises in districts where funding is inadequate or not allocated well. Paraprofessionals are tasked with high demand jobs, yet are often not compensated or provided with requisite training.

In those all-too-common situations, one person becomes the problem solver, the doer. The organization comes to rely on the unique technical work that a person does. The more unique the work, the more powerful a person becomes. One symptom is that tyrannical technology staff block instructional goals. I’ve seen this happen in finance departments as well as technology.

When that person exits the district, the organization finds itself in a deep hole. “How did he configure the servers? Who knows the passwords?” are two questions I’ve heard after seeing a network engineer leave. Often, organizations compound the problem. They choose to replace from within. On the surface, this seems sound. Yet in districts with funding issues (many smaller districts), tyranny of competence increases; too much power and responsibility is given to someone who may be too young or worse, young and lacking the technical chops to innovate.

A Problem of Competence

Put experienced people of high technical competence in leadership roles. In this way, when you encounter inevitable problems that arise, they can innovate. That innovation moves the district forward rather than maintains the status quo.

For example, your network engineer is a high school student who began as a technician. Over the years, the technology adept student learned his or her trade on the job under a mentor. When the mentor with more experience or training leaves, the district faces a problem. With a mentor, the mentee could do the job. Alone, s/he lacks the skills and aptitude to research and solve new, complex problems that arise. The district continues with the mentee since it is unaware of the lack of depth or because it lacks funding.

In a few years, problems begin to arise. In no time, the district has assumed that the growth of the network has been commensurate with the needs. The truth is, the network is failing and big issues have grown expensive. A technology audit might catch this issue, but maintaining the status quo is top priority. A failure to cross train has made the district subject to the tyranny of competence.

Did You Know?

Earn TCEA’s coveted Technology/ IT Director Certification. It provides a venue for educators who wish to become, or already are, district-level technology or IT directors. Coursework includes sessions such as Building a Technology Vision and Plan, PLN for IT/Tech Directors, Creating a New Vision for Public Education in Texas, and/or Social Media in Schools. Register now.

Avoid the Tyranny of Competence

To avoid the tyranny of competence, take these steps when you discover a key team member is leaving.

  • Craft a transition plan
  • Schedule meetings to explore how this person did his job
  • Assign the how of the other person’s job to other staff
  • Adjust deadlines and expectations
  • Get all usernames/passwords for key technologies
  • Get a commitment for ongoing support for three months, at least, with an offer of compensation

Going forward, avoid tyranny of competence. Do this instead:

  • Hire new staff that can 1) work as a team and 2) have the requisite technical skills
  • Change the culture to focus on teamwork
  • Set your team up to avoid making any one person a tyrant of competency in a key area

Avoid Sudden Disasters

When you’re short-handed or key personnel are gone, you have to pick up the pieces. You learn to rely on technologies and teaming that differ from what you’ve done in the past. Avoid putting yourself as CTO under the thumb of tyrants, benevolent or not.

In my own work, I see cross-training as an absolute must. Have an important job assigned to one person? Rotate the job among available staff so each builds capacity. If you have a network gal who is the only one who can do network configuration, then you have to cross train. “No” is not an acceptable answer. We must teach each other what we know. That way, when we get hit by a truck at a gas station, the organization won’t have to struggle to figure out what to do.

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