Skip to content
MIT Better World

By Stephanie M. McPherson SM ’11


6.9280 / 16.9900 / 15.6740: Leading Creative Teams


David Niño
Senior Lecturer, Bernard M. Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program

From the catalog

This class prepares MIT graduate students for future leadership positions in engineering and technology environments by building a foundation of relevant capabilities. Grounded in research and theory, the class focuses on practical leadership skills and how they can be learned, developed, and applied to group situations in creative contexts. Examples of these contexts include project teams delivering new technologies, decision-making teams solving challenging problems, and research teams building new forms of knowledge. The course is offered through the newly named Daniel J. Riccio Graduate Engineering Leadership Program.

“A leader isn’t just somebody who stands alone at the top of a hill and delivers fire-breathing speeches,” says senior lecturer David Niño. “Leadership is something people do together. Anyone who has valuable insights into how to solve important problems can exercise leadership.”

Says the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science’s Rishabh Mittal SM ’20, PhD ’23: “I had a lot of preconceptions about what leadership, management, and negotiation is about. As we went through the class, I understood that these are skills that anyone can develop.”

Class motto: Know Thyself, Build Effective Teams

Leading Creative Teams develops each student’s potential to become an insightful leader of teams. A semester through line focusing on self-awareness elucidates how students can achieve that goal by better understanding themselves, their relationships, and their collective vision. “One of the most important parts of becoming a good leader is to know yourself first. If you cannot manage yourself, you cannot manage anyone else,” says Mittal.

The key self-discovery assignment is an autobiographical paper that asks students to discuss formative moments from their life and career histories and work through how these contributed to who they are today. They are required to solicit only positive feedback from 10 to 15 people to understand how others view them, and then describe in the paper how hearing those views affected their self-perception. Students also use this information to develop a vision of “who they can become. “I never believed that I was making an impact in people’s lives,” says Mittal. “It was quite empowering to hear how people felt about me.”

The exercise is backed by research indicating that a deeper understanding of our qualities improves team building and relations in the workplace. “We can learn about our strengths and our virtues and the unique talents that we have, which can help motivate us to seek out the kinds of problems we can solve and engage the people that can help us,” says Niño. “I was surprised about how my empathy, when it comes to my interactions with my former workers, has positively shaped their viewpoint of my work,” says Chiwon Lee, a second-year Integrated Design and Management master’s student.

Students collaborate on experiential learning activities. Photo: M. Scott Brauer

Dynamic and visionary thinkers should ensure that pragmatists are included in their teams, for example. Or, introverts should build teams with complimentary extroverts.

Students also learn that conflicts are almost inevitable in teams and can be resolved through skilled and honest dialogue.

“A lot of conflicts come from confusion and misunderstandings,” says Lee. “Ask open questions and use active listening and make sure that you’re focusing on the mutual gain from the conversation rather than assuming the intention. It’s a very logical way and a good framework to have when it comes to resolving conflict.”

From Action Learning projects in classes at the MIT Sloan School of Management to negotiating post-graduation salaries, these teachings are already helping students grow as confident leaders. “I’ve been able to apply my class learnings directly to conflict situations for team projects that are for almost all courses that I’ve been in,” says Lee.

“As a student with 10 years of industry experience, I have often reflected on how I could have applied the learnings from this class to situations and conflicts I experienced early in my career,” says geologist Warren Anderson, a fellow in the System Design and Management master’s program jointly offered by the MIT School of Engineering and MIT Sloan. “This course allows you to reflect on your personal leadership style and provides the tools to communicate effectively with your team.”

All this self-reflection helps students identify their ethical codes of conduct, and a series of class exercises encourages them to stand up for what they believe in within the workplace and to not compromise on issues that are important to them.

“When I say I hope our students will become good leaders in the future, I mean that in a very meaningful way—that they have a sense of what their ethical values are,” says Niño. “That’s valuable in the larger context of an engineering education, that students are mindful of how what they do impacts others and impacts society as well.”

$10M Gift Supports Mission to Develop Next-Generation Tech Leaders

In October 2022, MIT announced a $10 million gift from Daniel J. Riccio to expand and name the Graduate Engineering Leadership Program (GradEL) in the MIT School of Engineering.

The program aims to help develop engineers who will go on to inspire and guide teams throughout their careers. “Those types of skills are essential to successful engineers,” says Riccio, vice president of engineering at Apple, who also serves on the advisory board of the Bernard M. Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program (GEL).

“It is true not just of Apple but of many innovative companies that we are limited not by ideas or by money but by having enough effective engineering leadership to bring complex, innovative products to market,” Riccio says. “I want to do something about it.”

The success of GEL, which was established in 2007 and serves some 150 undergraduates each year, led the School of Engineering four years ago to launch GradEL—now the Daniel J. Riccio Graduate Engineering Leadership Program—a series of classes and workshops that culminates in a graduate certificate in technical leadership.

“The gift from Daniel Riccio will allow the graduate program to grow from a ‘scrappy startup’ to the type of sustainable program that characterizes the longer-running undergraduate program,” says Reza Rahaman SM ’85, PhD ’89, Bernard M. Gordon Managing Director of the School of Engineering Technical Leadership and Communication Programs.

Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, says, “I am extremely grateful for this gift and excited about the potential it provides to the future of the Daniel J. Riccio Graduate Engineering Leadership Program.”

A version of this story was originally published in MIT News.