Lead Like the Godmother of Silicon Alley

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The technology industry learned a lot from Red Burns’ leadership. So can you.

It doesn’t matter whether your company is tech-focused or not. If you’re looking for examples of inspirational leadership, look to Red Burns, the former chairwoman of the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at New York University. For 28 years Burns, an educator who died last month at age 88, led the innovative, tech-based master’s program. She was affectionately known as the Godmother of Silicon Alley.

You’ll find graduates of ITP working at Apple, Disney, Google, and Microsoft, as well as small companies and startups. For example, ITP counts Dennis Crowley, the founder of FourSquare, among its more than 3,000 graduates.

In his article on CIO Insight, Jack Rosenberger discusses the lessons he learned from reading the many articles and obituaries extolling Burns’ abilities as a leader. The values Burns and the program instilled in her students can inform the way any leader conducts his or her business.

Just Another Tool in the Shed

Although ITP is a technology-driven program, Burns was not technically adept, as current ITP chairman Daniel B. O’Sullivan noted in her New York Times obituary. “She really had zero technical aptitude.” Rather, she believed that technology was a means to an end; a tool to enrich peoples’ lives. She once summed it up in an interview by saying that, “the computer is just another tool. It’s like a pen. You have to have a pen, and to know penmanship, but neither will write the book for you.”

Technology is simply a vehicle for your business creativity. Use it to deliver products and services that delight customers, improve people’s circumstances and bring meaning to their lives.

Cultivate Collaboration

Burns fostered a collaborative environment at ITP, which continues today. She eschewed competition because she believed that competitive people—while energetic and interesting—were so intent on competing that they missed more opportunities than they found. “They just want ‘better, bigger, stronger, longer,’ and they miss the periphery,” Burns said during a New York Times interview in 2007. “And that is where you find things you don’t even know are there.”

Create a working environment that encourages and supports collaboration over competition among employees. It could give rise to possibilities you can’t even imagine yet.

Innovation Requires Diversity

Burns believed that diversity spurs innovation, especially when combined with a collaborative environment. By all reports, ITP specifically designed a program to include both a diverse student body and faculty. Women make up 50 percent of the ITP student body, something you don’t typically see in tech programs, and foreign countries are well represented. The program’s adjunct faculty can respond quickly to changes in technology and create new courses much more efficiently than could a full-time faculty

Hire people with diverse viewpoints and experiences. It will provide a bigger picture for your business and result in new and better ideas.

Expect and Adapt to Change

Burns understood the constantly changing nature of technology. She taught her students to think about technology differently, so that their approach to technology could change along with it. In a 1994 interview, Burns said, “People come here for one purpose—to understand the possibilities of this new form [of technology]. These technologies are going to change all the time. They’re really going to have to understand the fundamental nature of the technologies and the possibilities. And we look for ways for the technology to be applied in very human ways.”

Cultivate your ability to change and adapt, and hire people who can, too. Markets, customer needs, technology; everything can change, and business survival depends on you recognizing the changing trends and how quickly you can pivot.

Lauren Simonds is the managing editor of Small Business Computing. Follow Lauren on Twitter.

Adapted from How to Lead Like Red Burns, by Jack Rosenbergerat CIO InsightFollow CIO Insight on Twitter.