The CIO as Quantum Leader

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The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the higher education landscape and forced CIOs to lead through chaos and ambiguity. In this new environment, CIOs must be adept at fostering technological change and transforming culture to achieve sustainable digital transformation while promoting inclusion and diversity in service delivery, building dynamic cross-functional teams, and creating institutional agility.

The CIO as Quantum Leader
Credit: eamesBot / © 2021

The past year has been challenging, even for the most seasoned higher education CIOs. Many of us were called upon to lead our institutions spontaneously through digital transformation (Dx). Institutional leaders face new hurdles as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and traverse the altered higher education landscape. Many institutions are on a slippery slope of demographic changes, an increasingly competitive market for students and faculty, a climate of political instability and civil unrest, and a time of fiscal uncertainty amid growing public doubt concerning the value of higher education.

In this environment, CIOs will confront increasing technological complexity, digital equity and transformation initiatives, and operational imperatives to ensure the efficiency and effectiveness of the institutions they serve. CIOs, along with other institutional leaders, will be drawn more often into rapidly evolving and fluid scenarios that require broad-based, authentic engagement, courageous and diverse thinking, and sensitivity to socio-techno environment changes. The pandemic was a catalyst for reevaluating our institutions, and CIOs will certainly contribute to both technological and organizational changes.

Because of our broad engagement around technology applications within our universities and colleges, CIOs know that higher education institutions are complex organizations that function as living, nonlinear, dynamic systems. Today, higher education professionals no longer see themselves as simply obedient agents of a hierarchical organization. Instead, they seek to be part of a diverse, interconnected, interactive team with a unified mission or purpose. Effective CIOs must be fully engaged in clarifying digital strategies to everyone—from executives to individual contributors. They must be adept at fostering technological change and transforming culture to achieve sustainable digital transformation while promoting inclusion and diversity in service delivery, building dynamic cross-functional teams, and creating institutional agility in the new higher education landscape.

The range of challenges that CIOs face today requires us to employ new dimensions of leadership. Such frameworks should address a rapidly changing, complex, and often chaotic climate while intrinsically connecting individual contributors and teams to greater purposes, a dynamic mission, and meaningful work.

Traditional leadership frameworks are founded on linear thinking, hierarchical structures, rigid top-down controls, imposed plans and solutions, and an over-obsession with efficiency. As a result, CIOs and other institutional leaders cannot just iterate, recalibrate, reconfigure, or reorganize their way to prosperity. Higher education requires new thinking, metaphors, assumptions, and values to lead during dynamic and chaotic times. Leaders must introduce new strategies for increasing engagement and motivation and developing emotional and spiritual intelligence so that all members of the institution are empowered to think and act in ways that transcend themselves and their institutions. Simply put, the leadership methods that got us here won't get us there.

Quantum leadership (QL) introduces new leadership dimensions that involve holistic and dynamic management aspects of our institutions. Max Planck introduced the quantum theory of modern physics in the early 1900s. A century later, Danah Zohar introduced QL thinking, borrowing heavily from quantum physics concepts and evoking the wisdom of ancient philosophical teachings such as those of Lao Tzu. Zohar, a physicist by training, extrapolates that most contemporary leadership philosophies resemble physical science rules espoused by Isaac Newton and Industrial Revolution principles that emphasize certainty, predictability, and control.Footnote1

Newtonian leadership thinking assumes that organizations and markets, like machines, are predictable, stable, and controllable. Newtonian organizations are structured into separate areas of expertise, with distinct divisions that are often in competition. Newtonian leaders hold that organizations are best managed by establishing control, eliminating risk, and avoiding outliers to ensure equilibrium of thought. Zohar suggested that Newtonian leaders establish control over organizations by planning meticulously; establishing hierarchical role systems; articulating specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely (SMART) goals; quantifying productivity expectations, performance appraisals, and incentives to induce compliance with organizational goals; and deriving efficiencies and effectiveness through hierarchical decisions.Footnote2

The attributes of organizations influenced by QL differ significantly from the attributes of those following the Newtonian model. Quantum organizations are holistic, flexible, self-organizing, diverse, naturally inquisitive, deeply networked, vision-centered, value-driven, and conscientious. Such organizations thrive at the edge of chaos. Quantum organizations operate on the principle that human beings are, by their very nature, internally motivated. Because quantum organizations are holistic rather than fragmented, work processes and individuals are deeply connected. While it may be challenging to find a pure quantum organization today, QL is increasingly evident in many institutions. In the wake of the pandemic, some organizations are adopting quantum thinking principles and evolving their ethos toward a more conscientious organization.Footnote3

Understanding QL can be challenging because it is radically different from traditional Newtonian methods and theories (see Table 1). QL is based on "whole-brain" thinking, encompassing three concurrent states: cognitive intelligence (IQ), emotional intelligence (EQ), and spiritual intelligence (SQ).Footnote4 Quantum leaders build on a familiar foundation of linear, first-order Newtonian thinking that gives us our IQ. Robert Sternberg defined cognitive intelligence as combining verbal, numerical, and spatial abilities, including visualization, memory, word fluency, verbal relations, perceptual speed, induction, and deduction.Footnote5 Zohar referred to this first-order thinking as serial thinking. Serial thinking does not promote subtle nuances or ambiguity and strives to resolve things clearly and logically. It is based on the assumption that institutions can be manipulated successfully through rules, strategies, and five-year plans because their behaviors are predictable—just as fixed laws of nature govern the Newtonian universe.Footnote6

Quantum leaders must also possess the ability to understand and manage relationships, including their emotional dimensions. This second level of thinking, referred to as EQ, describes the "ability, capacity, skill, or self-perceived ability to identify, assess, and manage the emotions of one's self, of others, and of groups."Footnote7 Unfortunately, EQ has not been a common attribute in boardroom discussions where control and execution dominate conversations.

However, EQ is emerging as a competitive advantage for those who lead with empathy and is a critical predictor of success for any Dx project. For example, leaders must emphasize improvements around human and technology interactions to ensure the technology is readily adopted at speed and scale.Footnote8 The quantum leaders who exhibit EQ can simultaneously think about issues, have feelings, and acknowledge others' feelings. They can also be present physically and mentally, attend to conversations with authenticity, and listen to and ask team members questions with sensitivity to their emotions. Thus, quantum leaders replace traditional leadership methods with humble and appreciative inquiry, authentic relationship building, coaching and mentoring, and patient education and facilitation.

Quantum leaders also draw on their SQ to nurture a higher quantum intelligence. SQ is rooted in meaning, vision, and value. It allows leaders to use their whole selves in their leadership. SQ is exemplified by quantum leaders who exhibit a strong sense of self-awareness, know what they believe in and value, understand what profoundly motivates them, embrace their vulnerabilities and limitations, and are conscious of their strengths. QL is also compassionate and demonstrates caring for others and a deep desire to alleviate human struggle and suffering. Quantum leaders utilize their SQ to create new dimensions of interconnectedness and a shared collective purpose, which becomes the foundation for acting, a source of motivation, and a sense of responsibility to the greater good.

Table 1. Comparison of Quantum and Newtonian Leadership Characteristics

Quantum Leadership Newtonian Leadership

Facilitates relationships between work and workers in all areas and at every organizational level.

Manages individual activities, functions, and work/job obligations.

Takes a panoramic view of intersections, relationships, and evolving themes.

Employs myopic, narrow, singular, and linear thinking.

Builds intrinsic motivations.

Manages extrinsic motivations.

Facilitates the decision-making process.

Is concerned only about the outcomes of decision-making.

Understands the thematic trajectory of change and embraces complexity and chaos as integral aspects of change in the context of an anticipated future state.

Plans to the greatest detail, and controls execution to elicit planned outcomes.

Describes change with language that connects workers to the value and meaningfulness of their efforts.

Invokes change to create itemized plans and steps that are independent of individual contributors.

Understands that all human dynamics, transformation, change, and sustainability are intrinsically intertwined.

Emphasizes rational and operational science skills and functions at the expense of insight, intuition, and feeling.

Thinks about teams as intrinsically motivated individuals with a shared purpose to a meaningful outcome.

Thinks about humans as resources to execute a determined process and as a means to an end.

Understands that too much structure is an enemy of work and effectiveness.

Is over-dependent on organization, rules, and structures to control work and effectiveness.

Knows the limits of data/information and incorporates intuition and SQ to make decisions.

Is over-dependent on information to make decisions.

Formulates many scenarios for what the future might hold, encourages questions and experiments, and embraces appropriate risk.

Formulates against a known future scenario or presumed outcome, seeks data that supports the current view, and avoids risk.

Embraces legitimate risk to expand the boundaries of agreement and understanding.

Mitigates risk and keeps within existing boundaries.

Recognizes the power of informal networks of people and uses them in conjunction with other formal constructs.

Relies exclusively on formal networks and organizational constructs as sources of information and action.

The principles of quantum science, chaos, and complexity theory warn that failure to incorporate these behaviors into the operations of an organization reduces leaders' effectiveness, viability, and sensitivity to their environment. Too much rational, hard-driving, and objectified behavior can alienate people and distance them from the work process, reducing their energy, creativity, and commitment to the organization, as well as their ability to perform their jobs effectively.

11 Dimensions of Quantum Thinking

The following eleven dimensions further characterize specific aspects of quantum thinking in the context of QL.

Recognize that the Whole Is Greater Than the Sum of the Parts

Quantum leaders believe that collective wisdom is most likely to emerge when all members are treated as internally motivated contributors acting in the best interests of the organization. QL practitioners also understand that thriving individuals create a synergistic cooperative that produces new energy to bind and drive the organization around a shared ethos. Hence, quantum leaders evolve their practice from the inside out through the balanced application of IQ, EQ, and SQ. Quantum leaders tap into broader thinking and sources of information by fostering diverse engagement and bringing their whole selves to their leadership roles.

Move beyond Servant Leadership

Quantum leaders extend the Newtonian servant-leader mindset toward a much deeper sense of the interconnectedness of life, engagement, and responsibility. A sense of service is based on humility, love, and a deep, abiding passion for and commitment to service. Quantum CIOs in higher education feel called upon to serve a greater purpose: to improve humanity through education, performance, and discovery as a means of creating prosperity for all living things. They work to instill others in the organization with this same sense of intrinsic alignment and passion.

Develop Multidimensional Vision

Quantum leaders cast a vision based on values that are appreciated and felt spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally. They evoke human potential by directing all individuals to shared goals. Quantum leaders connect a sense of purpose and passion to their vision and introduce intuitive practices that can provide the opportunity to build a more engaged and innovative workforce both internally and in partnership with external stakeholders.

Build Leadership at All Levels

A cornerstone of quantum physics is a theory known as wave-particle duality. This theory suggests that light energy exists simultaneously as both a wave and a particle. Quantum leaders recognize that individuals behave as part of the wave-particle duality, manifesting as both a leader and a follower at any given moment. The characteristics of an organization are also dynamic and can be perceived differently by the observer. Quantum leaders strive to develop the leadership and followership skills among organizational members at all levels, thereby enhancing diversity, inclusiveness, engagement, decision-making, collaboration, resilience, and agility, among other transformative organizational characteristics.

Create Multidimensional Engagement

QL is based on communication, dialogue, and interaction, which produce the invisible energy that binds the organization in unpredictable and powerful ways through shared knowledge, empathy, and spiritual bonds. There is a direct correlation between sharing these principles and accelerating organizational success. Quantum leaders strive for fully informed decisions by extending data collection and synthesizing knowledge by listening to and empowering team members.

Seek Opportunity in Chaos

Quantum leaders thrive at the edge of chaos and embrace the potential outcomes of uncertainty. They understand that increasing complexity and rapid transformation are related to dynamic and unstable processes. Creative disorder brings out valuable opportunities for improving performance, learning, adapting, and innovating. Quantum leaders cultivate agility and the ability to adjust quickly to changing situations, push the edges of boundaries, and reinvent the rules.

Anticipate Change

Quantum leaders must be creative and strategic, possess curiosity and open-mindedness, lead and manage change proactively, stay ahead of the market, and compete. QL requires the ability to carry out insightful analyses to anticipate change, develop innovative strategies and business models, and be capable of strategic integration to execute those strategies. Quantum leaders must be proactive and capable of driving strategic thinking while remaining prudent. They also need to have a "hands-on" frontline presence.

Value the Journey

In QL, processes are indeterministic. Answers only qualify the ways to reach reality. The real meaning and value of QL are in the search for answers, rather than just finding answers. The journey itself is a meaningful outcome.

Help Others Embrace Change

Quantum leaders inspire others to not only survive but thrive during periods of great change and uncertainty. They help organizations to deal effectively with disruptive change and cultivate the ability to recognize and adapt to it in ways that create positive economic, social, and environmental value. They facilitate education that increases intellectual energy and encourages experimentation, fostering the courage to fail. Personal growth through learning and courage allows teams to build across organizational boundaries and consider alternate realities.

Embrace the Power of Diversity

Complex adaptive systems in nature thrive on diversity, and quantum leaders are adept at unleashing the power of diversity. Recent research has revealed that bringing together people with cognitive and identity diversity can lead to better performance on complex tasks or difficult problems.Footnote9 In the context of QL, diversity builds on cognitive and identity diversity to consider many other dimensions. Quantum leaders celebrate differences illuminated through diversity interactions that broaden their situational awareness, challenge assumptions, and embrace humility. They learn to appreciate that diversity results in a rich chorus of inner voices, intuition, creativity, and growth. In nature, homogeneous systems are very stable but slow to adapt. Quantum leaders poised at the edge of chaos hold homogeneity and diversity in a critical balance.

Foster a Culture of Connectedness

The principles of duality lead quantum leaders to focus on relationships among individuals in the broader organization, taking steps to ensure opportunities for interaction and collaboration and being less concerned with organizational hierarchies and role definitions. QL builds an organizational culture that values connectedness as part of the "way of doing things" at an institution. At its most fundamental level, this requires quantum leaders to see the world from a broad, relational, and compassionate perspective. They pay attention to facilitating ways the organization can be successful while preserving and guarding individual members' personal interests, and their leadership is an extension of the human goodness that is part of the fabric of the universe.


CIOs are increasingly challenged to lead Dx efforts in their institutions. While the pandemic introduced chaos, it also introduced CIOs and institutional leaders to new ways of thinking and acting that helped institutions to transform quickly around digitally enabled strategies. Indeed, the pandemic triggered a "quantum leap" to new paradigms, worldviews, and dimensions of reality. The evolving new normal in higher education requires CIOs to reconsider mechanistic and reductionist Newtonian leadership models in favor of multidimensional QL.

QL is particularly applicable to situations that arise during turbulent times. There are intense pressures on institutions to change when events seem chaotic, objectives have become ambiguous, and order seems to emerge of its own accord and in its own time.Footnote10 These concepts are becoming more familiar to those higher education leaders, particularly CIOs, who attempt to navigate the growing technological complexities and leadership paradoxes confronting them today.

Making the leap to QL is a natural evolution to new ways of leading higher education institutions. By introducing holistic thinking, avoiding bias, and embracing uncertainty, QL provides a more profound and diverse basis for modern leadership.Footnote11 It incorporates the whole self—IQ, EQ, and SQ—to elicit an organization based on intrinsic motivations and a collective sense of purpose.

Quantum leaders drive leadership as far down into the organization as possible and rely on trust-based relationships, connectedness, diversity, and spontaneous team building to solve complex problems. Those who pursue QL find greater purpose and meaning by seeking positive social impact.Footnote12 The quantum CIO acts as an institutional strategist and avoids delving into the details of the future actions of an organization and instead analyzes the relationship between the organization-as-a-system and its external environment. QL also means determining the institution's ability to respond and adapt sustainably and demonstrating how relationships and aptitudes are meaningful to the community members who do the organization's work. Translating the strategic and tactical signposts of the institution into understandable and inspiring language is more critical than almost any other strategic task of the quantum leader.

While the work of CIOs as technology leaders is very personal, many of us in higher education naturally embrace quantum thinking. We share a deep, intrinsic connectedness to our work and strive to achieve a higher purpose to realize a greater good. QL underscores and ensures that technology enhances our humanity. While moving to QL may be a giant leap or only a small personal step out of our comfort zone, doing so is nevertheless a significant evolution and a new way of transforming ourselves, our teams, our institutions, and our world—for the betterment of all.


  1. Danah Zohar, The Quantum Leader: A Revolution in Business Thinking and Practice (New York: Prometheus Books, 2016). Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. Ibid. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. Gemma D'Auria, Aaron De Smet, Chris Gagnon, Julie Goran, Dana Maor, and Richard Steele, "Reimagining the Post-Pandemic Organization," McKinsey Quarterly, May 2020. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. Zohar, The Quantum Leader. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
  5. Robert J. Sternberg, "Styles of Thinking," in Interactive Minds: Life-span Perspectives on the Social Foundation of Cognition, ed. Paul B. Baltes and Ursula Staudinger (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 347–365. Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
  6. Zohar, The Quantum Leader. Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.
  7. Olivier Serrat, "Understanding and Developing Emotional Intelligence," in Knowledge Solutions: Tools, Methods, and Approaches to Drive Organizational Performance, (Singapore: Springer, 2019), 329–339. Jump back to footnote 7 in the text.
  8. Jesus Mantas and Rafael Sweary, "Digital Transformation: 4 Ways to Build Empathy into Your Processes," The Enterprise Project, February 22, 2021. Jump back to footnote 8 in the text.
  9. Scott E. Page, The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy, ed. Earl Lewis and Nancy Cantor (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017). Jump back to footnote 9 in the text.
  10. Leah Curtin, "Quantum Leadership: Upside Down," American Nurse Journal, March 11, 2013. Jump back to footnote 10 in the text.
  11. Kashyap Vyas, "Decoding Quantum Thinking: What It Feels Like to Think Free," Interesting Engineering, July 20, 2019. Jump back to footnote 11 in the text.
  12. Chris Laszlo, "The Quantum Leadership Project: Accelerating Globally Responsible Business," Global Responsibility: The GRLI Partner Magazine, no. 15 (2016): 21–23. Jump back to footnote 12 in the text.

Steve Burrell is Vice President for IT and CIO at Northern Arizona University.

© 2021 Steve Burrell. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.