I recently had the opportunity to share my thoughts on engineering leadership with EngineerJobs.com, the most-visited engineering career site online.
It's a tricky and dare-I-say controversial topic, not the milquetoast subject you might imagine. The innate traits required to be a successful leader balanced against the learned ones, the nature vs the nurture, and the importance of technical skills in a role that traditionally is heavy on soft skills - I touch upon them all and more.
"...don’t be afraid of failure. Certainly there is a philosophy amongst entrepreneurs that is often lacking amongst gainfully employed engineers, and that is: You’re always failing until you are suddenly succeeding. The most prolific engineers in history such as Henry Ford were always failing but always learning from it. Safety is an illusion anyway – the economy could go sour, the company could have layoffs. So leaders will push their boundaries and be the first ones back on their feet after times of trouble."
Check out the rest of the story here, and as always, let me know what you think!
Hey Rich. I hope all is well. This is a great artical!
Hey Richard ... "Tell it to the Marines". :) The USMC has been creating leaders since forever. Any DI will argue leaders are created, not born. Yes, engineers too. You would think most engineers being analytical would know a person is the product of their environment. After they are born, the sum of life experiences make some appear to be 'born leaders', but they actually wasn't born with those attributes. :) At the same time, this logic explains why some are easier than others to shape into leaders.
Yes, I was hoping that message would come through in the context of the whole interview, but I like being controversial so cherry-picked that quote to use for posting. ;)
There are amazing training programs, and there is a level of experiential skill that can provide solid foundation, but I think we're in agreement that you have to want it. I see too many people pushed into middle management because it's what they should do, not what they want to do. My message was that a leader is usually born wanting to lead, even if somewhat reluctantly, rather than the desire to lead being something that can be learned or taught. That's the nature needed for the nurture to be successful.
And there is a place for everyone! For those unsure, they should skill up and try it and have a fallback plan if possible. For those not interested, just be amazing at what you already do and you'll probably be just fine!
Although I like many of the points you make, I believe it is a bad message to say the the best leaders are born and not made. I received my MS in Engineering Management from a program that taught leadership skills among many other things. I have seen first hand what happens when you take a group of introverted students that lack business acumen, and force them out of their comfort zones. We all learned how to present, lead and speak the language of business and strategy. Many engineers who want take the next step don't, simply because they don't believe they can be leaders. With the right training there could be many more great engineering and technical leaders, something that is severely lacking right now. To your point, there are definitely born leaders that people naturally gravitate towards, but they are few and far between. I just want to balance out your message by saying that if you want to lead but don't feel that you were born with the necessary skills, don't let that hold you back. A technical MBA or MSEM is all you might need to get over the hump and become a great engineering leader!!