The CREATIVE Leaders We Need: A Perspective from Women in IT

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To successfully navigate today's ever-changing environment while attracting and retaining the best employees, higher education leaders must be curious, resilient, empathetic, authentic, thoughtful, inclusive, vulnerable, and emotionally intelligent.

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Credit: Ground Picture / © 2024

Within the context of the now-abating great resignation and the ongoing phenomenon of quiet quitting, there have been many campuswide discussions about the type of leaders higher education needs to ensure organizational resilience and support employees' mental health and well-being. People are more likely to leave organizations with uncaring leaders; a lack of support, meaningful work, and advancement opportunities; and inadequate benefits.Footnote1 While constraints on benefits and advancement opportunities sometimes exist in organizations, there is no excuse for bad management and poor leadership.

More than ever, we need leaders who care for others, put people before processes, prioritize teams, and provide opportunities for meaningful work. Viewing leadership through a people-centric lens ensures that the individuals in an organization are seen as real people who are valued and appreciated. As women who work in IT roles at North Carolina State University, collaborate on many projects, and share leadership roles in the university's Women in Tech (WIT) interest group, we have spent time reflecting on the type of leaders we want to be and the type of leaders our organizations need to be successful, especially in a post-pandemic world.

The values that are the most important to us are rooted in several leadership philosophies, including adaptive/agile leadership, servant leadership, and caring leadership.Footnote2 What we want—and what we strive to be—are CREATIVE leaders who are curious, resilient, empathetic, authentic, thoughtful, inclusive, vulnerable, and emotionally intelligent.


"Powerful questions come from a place of curiosity, not judgment. And when leaders lead with curiosity, remarkable things happen." —Connie Whittaker DunlopFootnote3

CREATIVE leaders are curious. They help their teams imagine new possibilities and find innovative solutions to challenges because they know how to ask good questions. They understand that every question holds something interesting, so they also listen to questions with curiosity. They assume goodwill and good intent and ask additional questions when they wish to understand "why."

The best leaders understand that curiosity is a form of connection. They ask open-ended questions that help expand discussions, resulting in meaningful conversations that help them understand another person's talents and perspectives. Questions such as "Could you tell me more?" "Could you help me understand?" "What if you had the power to make it better?" and "Is this your passion?" move conversations forward and negate assumptions, leading to a shared understanding and appreciation for multiple perspectives. Leaders with a curiosity mindset try to learn how cultural differences and neurodiversity impact how we talk to, listen to, and understand each other. Curious leaders not only look for the value in every person, they find it.

Curious leaders help their teams approach frustrating obstacles as interesting puzzles. They encourage team members to exercise curiosity because they understand that intellect and passion build creativity and joy. They support the curiosity of team members by helping them pursue learning opportunities outside their current roles or by sending them to conferences. Exploration opens the potential for new connections and capabilities. Leaders who are curious and genuinely interested in other people can build trust and empower team members to be problem solvers and ask the questions needed to support organizational improvement.Footnote4


"Reality is just source material. All your background, your bad experiences and your good ones, are just what you decide to make of them day-to-day." —Leila JanahFootnote5

CREATIVE leaders are resilient and can withstand and adapt positively in the face of adversity—especially when they draw on the strength of their teams. To practice resilience, leaders must trust themselves, understand their strengths, and, perhaps most importantly, understand their "why."Footnote6 Leaders should understand and embrace who they are and what they care about. These ideals become the rocks of a leader's resilience and the beacons that guide them through tough decisions. Resilience requires leaders to be kind to themselves and handle setbacks with grace and composure. Leaders who invest in their own physical and mental health ensure that they have the support they need to be resilient.Footnote7

Leaders should also not be afraid to ask for help. They can only be resilient when they have strong support networks within and outside of their teams, as both the team's and the leader's network serve as safety nets. Leaders who nurture relationships are more resilient, as others can help them overcome personal and organizational challenges. CREATIVE leaders understand that in the face of adversity, they must keep moving forward—even if that movement is slow or incremental—and approach problems and solutions in novel ways.

A person must encounter adversity to develop resilience. Challenges are a part of life, and the ability to take away lessons from a failure or rejection—or from surviving a pandemic—is the definition of resilience.


"Leaders don't have to be experts in mental health in order to demonstrate they care and are paying attention. It's enough to check in, ask questions, and take cues from the employee about how much they want to share." —Tracy BrowerFootnote8

CREATIVE leaders demonstrate empathy. They can understand and share in someone else's feelings or experiences from the other person's point of view. Leading with empathy has been shown to have positive organizational effects, including increased innovation, engagement, retention, and work/life balance.Footnote9

Empathy is more than sympathy—although the two emotions are related. Practicing sympathy means that while someone is moved by another person's feelings, the person maintains an emotional distance. When leaders demonstrate empathy, they can sit within someone else's feelings with the aim of genuinely understanding the other person's situation. Leading with empathy means first reflecting on the question, "If I were in their position, what might I be thinking about right now?" and then asking the other person questions about their feelings. It means engaging with curiosity rather than assumptions.

Empathy is considered a critical skill that leaders must practice intentionally to support their teams and organizations. Practicing empathy helps leaders consider how to respond to people in a way that might be helpful to them, be a more thoughtful person in general, think about how words and actions affect others, and, most importantly, stand up for others when they see something unkind happening. Leading with empathy is critical for supporting an inclusive workplace where everyone feels welcome.


"True leadership stems from individuality that is honestly and sometimes imperfectly expressed. Leaders should strive for authenticity over perfection." —Sheryl SandbergFootnote10

CREATIVE leaders embrace their authentic selves and express their individuality unapologetically. Other people know who these leaders are, what they value, and what they stand for. Authentic leaders are true to themselves, lead with integrity, and align their actions with their values and beliefs. Authenticity and resilience are related. To be resilient, one must be self-aware and true to one's convictions.Footnote11

Authenticity is key to effective leadership. It helps leaders build trust and credibility, enhance communication, increase employee engagement, improve decision-making, and facilitate an empowered and empathetic culture in which team members are also allowed to be their authentic selves. Authentic leaders take responsibility for their actions and are genuine in all things. They bring their whole selves to work and are transparent and consistent in all contexts. Authentic leaders share stories and experiences and are relatable and vulnerable.Footnote12 CREATIVE leaders who embrace authenticity inspire faith in those around them and, as a result, help others embrace and commit to the organization's mission and vision.


"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." —Maya Angelou

Thought leaders are people others turn to for guidance because they have unique perspectives.Footnote13 While building thought leadership skills is important, CREATIVE leaders are more concerned about being thoughtful and using their skills toward the betterment of others. Drawing heavily on their empathy and care for others, thoughtful leaders embody servant leadership. They constantly ask themselves, "What am I doing for others?" and "How am I showing other mindedness?"

Thoughtful leaders consistently and intentionally consider others in everything they do. Being a leader who thinks through the lens of other mindedness has many benefits, including creating an environment that cultivates a shared vision, developing trust and a sense of team, and fostering innovation and employees' commitment to the organization.

When a leader exhibits thoughtfulness toward someone, the leader is supporting and empowering the growth of that individual. Thoughtful leaders have open and candid conversations with their colleagues because they want them to succeed. Thoughtful leadership is about finding opportunities to help others, actively committing to each team member's growth, and considering the best interest of each individual. Thoughtful leaders also include others in decision-making, especially those with different perspectives. Thoughtful leaders are powerful allies who actively examine and are aware of their own biases, recognize the contributions of others, show genuine concern for others, appreciate other people for their differences, and create an environment of well-being and inclusion that welcomes all people with an open mind and heart. These leaders empower others to speak up about their challenges and needs.


"A company will be no more inclusive than its leadership." —Sherie HaynieFootnote14

CREATIVE leaders are inclusive. They work to make sure everyone on their team feels valued, has agency, and is empowered to provide input to the organization.

Inclusive leaders implement several important practices. Foremost, their commitment to diversity and inclusion is visible. They hold others accountable for being inclusive and practice inclusion in their own lives. Inclusive leaders show humility, give credit to others, admit their mistakes, and are not braggarts. Inclusive leaders also work intentionally to understand their own biases and create environments where everyone can reach their full potential. These leaders focus much of their time on collaboration and teamwork.Footnote15

In practice, leaders have to walk the talk. Leaders can give lip service to the value of inclusion and quote articles all day about how diversity and inclusion can increase productivity and sow innovation. However, the real question is whether they are actually doing work that shows their commitment to inclusion. Leaders who are committed to the betterment of others are naturally inclusive.


"Why do we feel more comfortable around someone who is authentic and vulnerable? Because we are particularly sensitive to signs of trustworthiness in our leaders." —Emma SeppäläFootnote16

Recalling that authenticity is a core part of being a CREATIVE leader, a leader with this quality is also willing to be vulnerable. Leaders show vulnerability when they put their egos aside and open themselves to feedback and criticism.

Because some leaders fear that being vulnerable equates to being weak, they do not feel comfortable sharing their emotions. In order to create workspaces where others feel psychologically safe, leaders need to be open and willing to share their struggles.Footnote17 This is not a call for leaders to overshare. Rather, it is a call for leaders to be human. It is okay for leaders to let others know they are having a bad day, a rough week, or that they have some personal challenges or work worries on their minds without divulging every detail.

In addition, leaders may not always be able to share all of the organizational concerns they carry as a leader; however, their honesty, humanity, and vulnerability will go a long way in helping teams build the trust needed to nurture open and creative environments where innovation can flourish.

Emotionally Intelligent

"Seventy-five percent of careers are derailed for reasons related to emotional competencies, including inability to handle interpersonal problems; unsatisfactory team leadership during times of difficulty or conflict; or inability to adapt to change or elicit trust." —The Center for Creative LeadershipFootnote18

Leadership roles come with pay, power, and the privilege of setting the tone of the organization. But they also come with responsibility. Good leaders must understand that their role requires significant emotional labor. In recent years, leaders have faced extraordinary challenges that have increased the importance of emotional labor and the application of empathy and understanding at work. Emotional intelligence (EI), also referred to as emotional quotient (EQ), is at the heart of CREATIVE leadership. EI describes a leader's capacity to be self-aware and manage their emotions while also recognizing the influence of emotions on others.

Emotionally intelligent leaders demonstrate thoughtfulness, authenticity, and, most importantly, empathy. Leaders with a high EQ are focused on relationships and are very self-aware. In practice, they can accept criticism and responsibility and have excellent listening skills. Drawing on their other mindedness, they work intentionally not to judge others. They are savvy about finding solutions for organizational and personal challenges and seek ways to address issues that work for everyone when possible. They use their EQ to manage challenging situations and resolve conflicts effectively before disagreements or problems escalate. Leaders who lack EQ might be able to do the technical work of their organization but cannot effectively communicate and collaborate with others.Footnote19 A leader's lack of EQ can have negative and far-reaching impacts.


The coronavirus pandemic was a tectonic shift for all of us in higher education. We are in an era where mental health and wellness are regularly discussed at work. Flexibility, job satisfaction, and engagement are critical to employee retention and the success of our organizations. To successfully navigate today's ever-changing environment while attracting and retaining the best employees, leaders must be curious, resilient, empathetic, authentic, thoughtful, inclusive, vulnerable, and emotionally intelligent (CREATIVE). CREATIVE leaders can generate and nurture new ideas, possibilities, and alternatives to respond to today's challenges and communicate the possibility of an optimistic future through stories. These are the leaders we need.


  1. Ben Caselman, "The Great Resignation Is Over. Can Workers' Power Endure?" The New York Times, July 6, 2023; Jay Zenger and Joseph Folkman, "Quiet Quitting Is About Bad Bosses, Not Bad Employees," Harvard Business Review, August 31, 2022; Aaron De Smet, Bonnie Dowling, Bryan Hancock, and Bill Schaninger, "The Great Attrition Is Making Hiring Harder. Are You Searching the Right Talent Pools?" McKinsey Quarterly, July 13, 2022. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. Erick Masgo, "What Is Agile Leadership, and Why Is It Important?" Management 3.0 Blog (blog), Management 3.0, August 19, 2021; Sarah K. White, "What Is Servant Leadership? A Philosophy for People-First Leadership," CIO, February 3, 2022; "Why Caring Leadership Is the Right Way to Lead," Ivy Partners, January 4, 2022. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. Connie Whittaker Dunlop, "Be Curious, Not Judgmental: A Leadership Lesson From Ted Lasso," Forbes, April 8, 2022. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. Ann Hogan, "Building a Sense of Agency," LinkedIn, November 6, 2016. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
  5. Adam Bryant, "The Leap to Leader," Harvard Business Review 101, no. 4 (July/August 2023): 96–105. Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
  6. For more information, see Simon Sinek, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action (New York: Portfolio, 2011). Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.
  7. Brent Gleeson, "Resilience In Leadership: How to Lead and Win Despite Change and Obstacles," Forbes, April 13, 2021. Jump back to footnote 7 in the text.
  8. Tracy Brower, "Empathy Is the Most Important Leadership Skill According to Research," Forbes, September 19, 2021. Jump back to footnote 8 in the text.
  9. Authentic Empathy: The Key to Your Organization's Business Success, research report (New York, NY: Ernst & Young LLP, March 2023). Jump back to footnote 9 in the text.
  10. Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013). Jump back to footnote 10 in the text.
  11. Aisha Allen, "Self-Awareness as a Path to Authentic Leadership," Lead Read Today (blog), Fisher College of Business, The Ohio State University, March 1, 2021. Jump back to footnote 11 in the text.
  12. Matt Gavin, "Authentic Leadership: What It Is and Why It's Important," Business Insights (blog), Harvard Business School Online, December 10, 2019. Jump back to footnote 12 in the text.
  13. Fran-Biderman Gross, "What It Really Means (and Takes) to Become a Thought Leader," Forbes, April 19, 2023. Jump back to footnote 13 in the text.
  14. Sherie Haynie, "Inclusion Is a Priority, But How Do Leaders Actually Become Inclusive?" Forbes, July 31, 2021. Jump back to footnote 14 in the text.
  15. Juliet Bourke and Andrea Titus, "The Key to Inclusive Leadership," Harvard Business Review, March 6, 2020. Jump back to footnote 15 in the text.
  16. Emma Seppälä, "What Bosses Gain by Being Vulnerable," Harvard Business Review, December 11, 2014. Jump back to footnote 16 in the text.
  17. Janice Omadeke, "The Best Leaders Aren't Afraid to Be Vulnerable," Harvard Business Review, July 22, 2022. Jump back to footnote 17 in the text.
  18. J.D. Meier, "Greatest Quotes on Emotional Intelligence," Sources of Insight, 2023. Jump back to footnote 18 in the text.
  19. Lauren Landry, "Why Emotional Intelligence is Important in Leadership," Business Insights (blog), Harvard Business School Online, April 3, 2019. Jump back to footnote 19 in the text.

Donna Petherbridge is Vice Provost for Digital Education and Learning Technology Applications at North Carolina State University.

Saras Grandhi is a Business Analyst at North Carolina State University.

Debbie Carraway is Director of IT, College of Sciences, at North Carolina State University.

Jennifer Domnick is ServiceNow Service Manager at North Carolina State University.

Gwen Hazlehurst is Assistant Vice Chancellor, Enterprise Application Services, at North Carolina State University.

Jill Sexton is Associate Director for Digital and Organizational Strategy at North Carolina State University.

Mardecia Bell is Chief Information Security Officer at North Carolina State University.


© 2024 Donna Petherbridge, Saras Grandhi, Debbie Carraway, Jennifer Domnick, Gwen Hazlehurst, Jill Sexton, and Mardecia Bell.

The content of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.