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The CEO’s Blind Spot: Subtle Biases and the Appointment of Lay Leaders in IT

Lay leaders in IT

Here I explore the phenomenon of CEOs appointing “lay leaders” – individuals lacking deep technical expertise – to head Information Technology (IT) departments. While overt bias is readily identifiable, this article argues for the significance of  subtle biases in CEO decision-making. Drawing on organisational behaviour theories, we examine how personal connections and implicit biases can influence CEO selections, potentially hindering  IT effectiveness and organisational success.


Middle management, particularly IT leadership, plays a critical role in navigating the ever-evolving technological landscape. Competent IT leadership ensures secure systems, efficient operations, and facilitates strategic use of technology to achieve organizational goals (Mithas et al., 2011). However, recent trends suggest an alarming rise in CEOs appointing individuals with limited technical expertise to lead IT departments (Harvard Business Review, 2020). This paper delves into the  underlying factors contributing to this phenomenon, focusing on the  subtly influential role of personal connections and implicit biases in CEO decision-making.

The Peril of Lay Leadership in IT

While the advantages of a CEO with a strong business acumen are undeniable, a lack of understanding of core IT functions can lead to  misguided priorities and  strategic misalignment (Luftman, 2009). Lay leaders in IT may struggle to grasp technical complexities, hindering their ability to effectively communicate with IT staff, evaluate risks, and make informed decisions regarding  infrastructure investments (Tallon et al., 2017). This knowledge gap can also lead to a dissonance between business objectives and IT strategies (Weill & Womack, 2005), potentially jeopardizing long-term organizational competitiveness (Bharadwaj et al., 2013).

The Influence of Implicit Bias

Beyond overt favoritism,  implicit biases can significantly influence CEO decision-making (Greenwald et al., 1998). These unconscious biases, shaped by personal experiences and societal norms, can manifest in subtle ways. For instance, a CEO who values leadership experience from a traditional business background might  unconsciously favor a candidate with a strong sales record over a technically skilled IT professional lacking similar experience (Bezrukova et al., 2016). Additionally,  homophily , the tendency to connect with similar others, can lead CEOs to prioritize  personal connectionsover technical expertise during the selection process (McPherson et al., 2001).

The CEO’s Blind Spot: A Case in Point

Consider the hypothetical case of  Acme Org (a hypothetical organisation) , a not for profit organisation. The CEO, Linda, prioritises  aggressive expansion and views technology as a tool to support this growth. Linda’s long-time golfing buddy, Mark, possesses a strong business background but limited IT knowledge. Despite availability of highly qualified IT professionals, Linda  unconsciously prioritises her personal connection with Mark, appointing him as the Head of IT. While Mark’s enthusiasm aligns with Linda’s vision, his lack of technical expertise leads to inappropriate technology investments and  security vulnerabilities. Acme Org eventually suffers a major data breach, highlighting the consequences of  subtly biased CEO decision-making.

Mitigating the Risks: Building a Balanced Leadership Team

Transparency and  rigorous selection processes can help mitigate the risks associated with lay leadership in IT. CEOs should utilize objective criteria and involve technical experts in the selection process to ensure a  data-driven approach (Cappelli & Mone, 2003). Furthermore, fostering a culture of  open communication within the organization can encourage CEOs to  acknowledge their own biases and seek diverse perspectives during the selection process (Ely & Thomas, 2001).


This paper highlights the potential pitfalls of CEOs appointing lay leaders to head IT departments. By recognizing the subtle influence of personal connections and implicit biases, organizations can navigate CEO decision-making towards a more  balanced leadership team combining business acumen with deep technical expertise. Ultimately, fostering a culture of  evidence-based selection and  self-awareness among CEOs is crucial for ensuring the  effectiveness and  long-term success of the IT function within any organization.


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