The Leadership Role: Considerations

min read

To successfully prepare for and step into leadership roles as you move along your career path, you should consider several specific areas to improve your leadership toolkit and be prepared for that next opportunity.

Woman stepping up to leadership, on top of career staircase holding winning flag looking for future visionary.
Credit: eamesBot / © 2024

"A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way."

—John C. Maxwell, American author, coach, and speaker

Leaders are caretakers of organizational culture.Footnote1 They are also skilled experts who understand how to motivate and support others in advancing the vision and mission of an organization. Leaders craft plans, influence others in making progress on strategic goals, and cultivate an environment in which all are invited to contribute to success. The ability to lead an organization effectively is a skill that can be developed and improved over time. Understanding how to be an effective leader takes effort, however, and successfully moving into a leadership role requires intentionally building your leadership toolkit.Footnote2

As women in IT leadership roles, we are often asked by others, "What can I do to get where you are?" In response to this question, we thought about the advice we would give others on how to prepare for leadership roles as you move along your career path. Recognizing the difference between management and leadership, understanding yourself and your values, surrounding yourself with a personal board of directors, understanding the broader organization beyond your own context, actively seeking out professional development opportunities (including taking on stretch assignments), improving your durable skills, and letting go of operational duties are all important developmental tasks you can undertake on the pathway to a leadership role. Once you are there, embracing that leadership role, managing feelings of doubt, and continuing to seek support from your networks are key in maintaining the leadership mindset you will need to be successful.

On the Pathway to a Leadership Role

Recognize the Difference between Management and Leadership

To step into a leadership role, first consider the difference between management and leadership. Managers and leaders have different but equally necessary roles and responsibilities that are critical for the success of an organization.Footnote3 You can be both a manager and a leader, but you do not have to formally supervise others to be a leader.

Managers are individuals in the organization who others are expected to follow because of their designated supervisory roles. Managers ensure that key organizational tasks are completed, supervising both people and processes. They focus on day-to-day operations, reviewing policy and implementing procedures, managing incidents, and responding to requests. Managers have responsibilities for integrating change, implementing goals and plans, setting priorities, and ensuring business functions are effectively handled.

Leaders are not necessarily managers of people or processes, and they can reside in any area of the organization. Leaders are people in the organization who others want to follow. They are forward-looking and are oriented to empowering, motivating, inspiring, and helping others grow professionally. Leaders are skilled not only in pushing the organization along but also in bringing others with them. And while not all managers are leaders, we believe that the best managers are also leaders. Leadership is a privilege that can affect the trajectory of the careers of others as well as impact the well-being of the individuals in a leader's care.Footnote4

Understand Yourself and Your Values

If you aspire to a leadership role, want to help craft the vision for your organization, and wish to inspire others to support that vision, you must first understand your "why."Footnote5 Finding your own voice, understanding what matters to you, and knowing yourself are important for success as a leader. Self-serving leaders are not the kind of leaders we need; rather, we need leaders who enjoy coaching and supporting others, who feel strongly about creating and sustaining positive work environments, who are skilled at helping others work together collectively to achieve goals, and who are curious, resilient, empathetic, authentic, thoughtful, inclusive, vulnerable, and emotionally intelligent.Footnote6 If you aspire to bring out the best in others, want to have more impact in your organization, and enjoy supporting the work of the team, you should pursue a leadership role.

Having a clear understanding of your values will also help you build a firm foundation for leadership decision-making. Your organization may have vision, mission, and value statements—all of which you will draw from when you make decisions to ensure organizational alignment. However, your decision-making will also be shaped by your own personal values. For example, you might value transparency, collaboration, communication, people, and data. Any of these elements can shape how you approach making decisions, especially if you have time constraints around making those decisions. In preparing for a leadership role, spend some time jotting down and reflecting on your values, creating a tangible values framework from which you can draw on when making decisions. Your finished statement of what you value might look something like this: "I value transparency, collaboration, communication, people, and data." If these are your core values, then when you do make a decision, you will be willing to share with others why and how you made your decision (transparency), work with others to make that decision (collaboration), share that decision with others (communication), think about how all individuals will be impacted by that decision (people), and use information to help you make that decision (data). As a leader, you need to know and be able to share your values, and you need to draw on those values when making decisions. In addition to your values, you should also articulate your leadership philosophy—that is, the principles you will adhere to when approaching your role and when interacting with your team and others.Footnote7 Closely related to your values, your leadership philosophy will be a statement of what you believe about leadership. If you are interviewing for a leadership position, you should be able to discuss how you will approach your leadership role and your decision-making processes by drawing on your core values and leadership philosophy.

Surround Yourself with a Personal Board of Directors

Another part of preparing yourself for a leadership role is to intentionally cultivate relationships with mentors, advisors, sponsors, and alliesFootnote8—a collection of individuals who have helped you along your career path. You can view these individuals collectively as your own personal board of directors.Footnote9 Sometimes, one individual is able to fill multiple roles; however, we advise you to find several individuals to fill these roles and thus collectively support your professional and personal growth.

During your career, a mentor will be someone who guides you, who serves as your coach, and who provides valuable advice. In finding a mentor, look for someone who has experience, is further along the career path than you are, and is in a role you aspire to achieve. A mentor should be willing to share experiences with you, advise you, and assist you in planning your career. A mentor should be willing to give you candid feedback, set aside time for you, support you, and focus on your needs.

While mentors are often advisors in that they provide guidance along your professional journey, you should also look for others who can fill the role of advisor outside of your mentor's area of expertise. These advisors have solid experience in an area of interest in which they can give you focused and specific feedback—be that policy, people, systems, processes, or technology. When you are seeking advisors, consider those with different subject matter expertise: someone who has experience in a specific technical area or with a given situation and who can help you learn things that may be outside of your wheelhouse. For example, find someone who is known for being skilled at handling sensitive personnel matters, find another with experience in writing strategic and implementation plans, and find still another who is an expert in artificial intelligence—if these areas are needed for your personal growth yet are outside of your subject matter knowledge base.

You should also know individuals who can fill the role of sponsor in your personal board of directors. When you are considering sponsors, identify people who have strong networks in place and who would be willing (and able) to facilitate your interactions with others in spaces where you might not be able to go without an introduction; in other words, choose people who can help you through that proverbial door. Sponsors take action and advocate for you. Sponsors bring you to events and meetings and introduce you to others. They are individuals who have both networks and authority and who are willing to share their assets freely with you to help you advance your career. Your mentor might also fill a sponsorship role; however, your mentor may not have access to all the networks that you are interested in being a part of or need to access for your own personal growth. As a result, you should consider sponsors in addition to your mentor.

On your personal board of directors, you also need allies, especially if you are a member of a marginalized group. In the context of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belongingness, allies are individuals who are not members of marginalized groups and who take action to help others. In the broader sense, allies are those who are willing to offer support and share opportunities. These individuals actively promote equity in the workplace through supportive personal relationships and public acts of sponsorship and advocacy. When you are looking for allies, take note of individuals in your organization who are invested in other people at work and who advocate for other people to be included and heard. Your mentor or sponsor might also fill an allyship role; however, allies don't necessarily have to have authority or networks. They may be your peers. In this space, you are looking to surround yourself with people who intentionally lift up, include, and cheer for others.

Understand the Broader Organization beyond Your Own Context

In addition to understanding your own values and surrounding yourself with an inspiring group of people who can help you reach that next level, preparing yourself for a leadership role means understanding your organization beyond your own team. Learning about the broader organization has an enormous benefit because this knowledge assists you in understanding how your team and your initiatives fit into the bigger picture. Understanding how your team can support the overall organization helps you network, build trust, and connect with colleagues in other groups. Looking at this bigger picture will also help identify strengths and weaknesses that can create opportunities for your group and help you prepare for and address any challenges. Within a technology context, looking beyond your team to the entire organization helps you see how technology is ingrained in everything and how knowing the value you and your team bring to the organization is critical for a leader to empower and motivate.

Several strategies can help you gain a better understanding of the broader context of your organization. Research your industry, and learn more about the context in which your organization operates by reviewing websites, newsletters, industry standards and trends, published articles, and TED Talks. Take the time to shadow and observe others by listening to what colleagues are doing outside of your team. Seek guidance from your mentors to learn more about the overall industry, and leverage your mentors and sponsors to connect with key people in your organization. Take them to lunch or coffee and ask them questions about their work and how they believe your team fits in with the broader organization. Network to gain an understanding of the industry, and broaden your perspective by attending conferences and professional meetings and by reaching out to similar groups at peer institutions.

By following these strategies to expand your understanding and gain a broader perspective, you will also identify opportunities and challenges your team can address as part of the efforts of the broader organization. This will ultimately add value to your team.

Actively Seek Out Professional Development Opportunities

As part of developing yourself as a leader, intentionally pursue relevant professional development opportunities that will support your career aspirations and help you develop leadership skills. First, spend some time considering your career aspirations. Think about the different types of leadership roles that you are interested in, and as a first step, talk to people who are in those positions. How did they get there? What additional degrees, certifications, and training do they feel truly helped them achieve their goals? Additional formal education may be required (or strongly preferred) for some leadership roles within certain organizational contexts. However, other roles may be better served by professional certifications and experience. Consider your ideal role(s), and then learn more about the professional credentials held by the individuals who are currently in those roles. This can help you identify additional training or education you might pursue, whether that be another degree (e.g., an MBA in IT management or a doctorate in higher education), a for-credit certification, or a program that enhances your subject matter expertise.

In addition to professional development that supports the technical expertise you need to advance your career, seek out leadership learning opportunities. Find programs that will help you improve your communication and decision-making skills, your ability to lead teams, and your expertise in mentoring and coaching others. You also need to find programs that will help you improve your strategic thinking, visioning, and change management skills, since all of these are must-haves in the leadership toolkit. Tap into the wealth of knowledge and experience in your industry. EDUCAUSE has a wonderful range of management and leadership programs that can help you develop leadership skills. Seek out additional professional development (e.g., workshops, seminars, courses, mentoring, coaching, leadership lounges) through local and industry-specific programs and experiences as well. You can also find a wealth of leadership and management learning opportunities on LinkedIn Learning.

Every professional development path is different, and that is okay. The key is to envision where you want to be, find out how others got to that place, and put together your own professional development plan that matches your career aspirations. Choose a plan that is unique to you, that improves your technical competence, and that hones your leadership skills.

Another part of leadership professional development is to take on stretch assignments. Stretch assignments are projects that are a bit beyond your current knowledge, skill, and experiences but that will help you grow personally and professionally.Footnote10 These assignments will also help you learn about the broader organization within which you operate and will challenge you to build new skills. Taking on a stretch assignment can feel uncomfortable. However, you should view these as positive opportunities to take risks that allow you to grow and be seen as a leader.

To prepare yourself for a leadership role, seek out stretch assignments that are "leader-type" projects at every opportunity. Offer to take on a leadership role for a new project or investigate a potential new technology. Shoehorn yourself into new projects or technology explorations with an eye toward innovation and process improvement; offer ideas to make projects more effective. Participate in a task force or serve on an institution-wide committee. When a new task force or committee service opportunity arises, take it, even if it feels out of your comfort zone. Importantly, if the opportunity emerges, lead or co-lead the work. In venturing into these spaces, you might first need to step in as a participant; however, once you engage in a new space, look for opportunities to chair or lead in whatever way you can. When participating in these opportunities, look for solutions and show a sincere interest in learning more.Footnote11 Be open, flexible, and willing to see challenges and opportunities from other perspectives. Do the work with heart and vigor—don't pass the work on to someone else.

Since stretch assignments often involve moving beyond the work of your regular team, they are a great way to learn more about the broader organization and overall organizational goals and strategies. They are an excellent opportunity to discuss the role digital transformation plays across every function in the institution. Use stretch assignments as an opportunity to ask strategic questions and learn more about how different teams work together to meet organizational goals, and consider how you and your team can be an asset in the bigger picture.

Improve Your Durable Skills

Effective leadership development requires crafting a number of durable skills, including improving your emotional intelligence, working on your ability to listen to and empathize with others, and practicing your negotiation skills.Footnote12 While these are all necessary durable skills in succeeding as a leader, we emphasize the significance of developing your communication skills, since outstanding communication skills are critical to leaders' ability to convey their ideas, successfully connect with others, and inspire confidence in their leadership.Footnote13

Leaders must be able to communicate at both the strategic and the personal level. At an organizational level, leaders need to be able to articulate their ideas and inspire others to move toward a shared vision. Leaders must be able to have candid conversations with others in order to support the work of the organization and the dignity and growth of individuals. Getting comfortable with uncomfortable conversations is a necessary skill that can be developed with practice and experience. Tact and diplomacy are important communication skills to assist leaders in being sensitive to others' opinions, beliefs, ideas, and feelings, as well as to ensure the success of the organization.

Leaders need to develop skills that will help them communicate comfortably for different purposes to serve informational, operational, and strategic needs. Leaders should also actively work on adapting their communication styles for the many situations they will encounter, tailoring their comments to account for the audience, the setting, and the size of the communication venue and ensuring their messages are clear and easily understood by neurodiverse audiences.

As part of aspiring to a leadership role, seek out every opportunity to improve your communication skills so that as a leader, you will be able to communicate with others confidently and clearly, in a way that builds trust and positivity for your team. You can strengthen your communication techniques and skills through many avenues, including intentional practice, professional development courses, improv (which requires you to think on your feet), team-building activities (e.g., escape rooms) that require out-of-the-box thinking and creative communication, and feedback from peers, coaches, mentors, and role models.

Let Go of Operational Duties

Stepping into a leadership role means you will need to let go of day-to-day operational tasks, in part because you will not have the time to be involved in the minutiae of daily work, but more importantly because, as a leader, you need to trust your employees to do the work, knowing that they can be both "self-directing and self-correcting."Footnote14 The best leaders, after all, empower others to make decisions about the hands-on operation of the business, respecting that not everyone will complete a task in the same way you might.

In entrusting others with operational tasks, learn to delegate work and resist the temptation to think, "I can do this in thirty minutes rather than taking hours to show someone else." Spend time walking others through work that you previously completed on your own so you are not the bottleneck or the single point of failure. You must delegate and empower others; it is good to pass the baton to someone else, as letting go both creates better business continuity on your team and frees you to focus on higher-level leadership responsibilities. After all, the role of a good leader is to create more leaders.

Do not underestimate the time it will take to learn your new role as a leader, even if you have been at the organization a long time. While your previous operational experience will help you step into this role and you will continue to find yourself serving as a resource for others, you will need to find time to be a visionary and strategic thinker as well. This is difficult to do if you stay in the weeds of the work. Stepping into a leadership role, you will need to spend a lot of your time talking to and, more importantly, listening to many other people as you learn how to lead your team. You must make the time and space for these leadership tasks, which are now your new operational tasks.

Maintaining the Leadership Mindset

Embrace the Leadership Role

Once you step into a leadership role, owning that role, continuing to develop as a leader, and learning to manage imposter syndromeFootnote15 are important elements of success. Stepping into a leadership role with confidence (but not arrogance) and understanding your "strengths, weaknesses, values, and aspirations"Footnote16 will be important in handling the role.

Owning your new leadership role includes ensuring you and your team have a vision and that you set strategies, goals, and objectives that are clearly communicated and embraced by the team. To help create a compelling vision and shared ownership for accomplishing your goals, spend time focusing on establishing relationships with others by listening for understanding and showing that you care about learning all aspects of the team, especially in areas where you do not have prior experience.

Communicate and collaborate with everyone in an open, curious, and reflective manner and work hard to cultivate relationships as the top priority in your new leadership role. Ensure that you are proactive in making decisions and addressing any conflict in a thoughtful and timely manner. New leaders must make certain they do not let challenges fester. Even if problems cannot be completely resolved at the start, leaders must at a minimum acknowledge any challenges and commit to a timeline for addressing them.

In helping set the tone in your new leadership role, demonstrate good work/life balance for your team. We acknowledge that this is not always easy to do when you are tackling a new role and expanded responsibilities; however, your approach to work will set the tone and expectations for your team. Your staff needs to see that you are able to take time for yourself and your other obligations so they will feel empowered to do the same.

Manage Feelings of Doubt

Stepping into a leadership role, you might find yourself doubting your abilities and feeling inadequate about your preparation. Many in leadership roles experience imposter syndrome at one time or another, or even multiple times during their career. A KPMG study found 75 percent of female executives have experienced imposter syndrome at some point in their careers.Footnote17 Some level of questioning yourself is not unusual. However, it is good to be aware of imposter syndrome, where you may be performing well in reality but are continuing to second-guess yourself and doubt your own capabilities internally.Footnote18

Continue to Seek Support from Your Networks

While it is healthy for you to reflect on your decisions in your new leadership role and to recognize that additional professional development and personal growth are constantly needed, if you feel like a fraud, seek support and implement strategies to address this feeling. Surround yourself with those in your network who know you and care about you, and talk your concerns out with your personal board of directors. Move on from your mistakes, knowing that you will grow from them, and accept that no one knows everything. Always fail forward. Also, make sure you change your internal self-talk so that you are not too tough on yourself. Take some time to thank yourself for all that you do, be mindful of exhaustion, and take care of yourself.


Preparing yourself for a leadership role is an intentional undertaking that involves both self-reflection and purposeful skill development to increase your technical subject matter expertise and your ability to successfully lead. Reflecting on who you are, what you value, and what leadership means to you, and being attuned to the needs of others, you can successfully prepare for and step into a leadership role. Building and sustaining supportive networks, cultivating relationships with your own personal board of directors, understanding the broader organization, and pursuing professional development while entrusting others with operational tasks as you step into more strategic roles will help you develop (and keep) the leadership mindset you need for success.


  1. Catherine Cote, "How Does Leadership Influence Organizational Culture?" Harvard Business School Online Business Insights (blog), March 2, 2023. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. Monique Valcour, "Anyone Can Learn to Be a Better Leader," Harvard Business Review, November 4, 2020. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. Terina Allen, "What Is the Difference Between Management and Leadership?" Forbes, October 9, 2018. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. Natalie Ruiz, "Leadership Is a Privilege," Medium, April 17, 2023. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
  5. Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013). Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
  6. Donna Petherbridge et al., "The CREATIVE Leaders We Need: A Perspective from Women in IT," EDUCAUSE Review, January 16, 2024. Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.
  7. Rachel Dalrymple, "Leading with Purpose: How a Strong Leadership Philosophy Will Transform Your Team," Leaders, June 29, 2023. Jump back to footnote 7 in the text.
  8. Jeff Weber, "The Roles of Allies, Mentors and Sponsors in Employee Development," Forbes, September 27, 2019. Jump back to footnote 8 in the text.
  9. Susan Stelter, "Want to Advance in Your Career? Build Your Own Board of Directors," Harvard Business Review, May 9, 2022. Jump back to footnote 9 in the text.
  10. Jo Miller, "4 Rules for Accepting a Stretch Assignment," Forbes, February 19, 2019. Jump back to footnote 10 in the text.
  11. Jahna Berry, "Why You Should Take on More Stretch Assignments," Harvard Business Review, April 7, 2023. Jump back to footnote 11 in the text.
  12. Gordon Pelosse, "What Are Durable Skills and Why Is There a Shortage?" Forbes, March 11, 2022; Robert Logemann, "How Strong Are Your Leadership Soft Skills?" Forbes, January 10, 2023. Jump back to footnote 12 in the text.
  13. Lauren Landry, "8 Essential Leadership Communication Skills," Harvard Business School Online Business Insights (blog), November 14, 2019. Jump back to footnote 13 in the text.
  14. Rob Markey, "Leading by Letting Go," Harvard Business Review, December 25, 2013. Jump back to footnote 14 in the text.
  15. Tracy Brower, "Imposter Syndrome Is Real: 5 Ways to Cope," Forbes, June 12, 2022. Jump back to footnote 15 in the text.
  16. Arun Jain, "Defining, Understanding, and Embracing Leadership," Leadership Accelerator (newsletter), August 31, 2023. Jump back to footnote 16 in the text.
  17. "KPMG Study Finds 75% of Female Executives across Industries Have Experienced Imposter Syndrome in Their Careers," KPMG LLP news release, October 7, 2020. Jump back to footnote 17 in the text.
  18. Brower, "Imposter Syndrome Is Real." Jump back to footnote 18 in the text.

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

Kelly Brown is Deputy Chief Information Officer, School of Medicine IT, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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

© 2024 Donna Petherbridge, Kelly Brown, and Mardecia Bell. The content of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.