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Leadership Challenges Engineers Face

By December 6, 2022December 10th, 2022No Comments
image of gears with leadership words around them

Acknowledging Miles Law (where you stand depends on where you sit), I believe engineers face a particular set of leadership challenges. Although there are exceptions, generally engineers are analytical, conservative, controlled, logical, technical, and perfectionists. I leave it to psychologists to determine the role an engineering education plays in establishing the traits versus the role the traits play in causing people to pursue an engineering education.

Although engineers tend to be problem solvers, leaders shouldn’t be; instead, they should let the team solve the problems. After all, if the leader is THE problem solver, why do you need a team? Likewise, because engineers tend to be analytical perfectionists, they’re prone to paralysis of analysis, striving for the perfect solution to a problem. Because of their perfectionist tendency, leaders who are engineers are often unwilling to accept solutions from others that aren’t as good as ones they can develop. They also can fall into the trap of believing they’re smarter than everyone else in the room.

As problem solvers, leaders who are engineers can become satisfied when a perfect solution is obtained and fail to recognize no solution is perfect if it isn’t accepted by those affected by it and it’s not implemented correctly. The attention span of leaders must be lengthy, not short. They mustn’t only be satisfied with a solution for today, but also for tomorrow, next month, next year and so forth. They must be aware of the second bounce of the ball, as Walmart’s Judith McKenna put it. They must be prepared for the Law of Unintended Consequences to manifest itself.

Another leadership challenge engineers face is the need to make decisions without all of the facts. Experience has taught us an important lesson: you’ll never have all of the facts. There’ll come a time when you must make a decision based on the facts you have.

In considering leadership challenges engineers face, let’s not forget challenges arising from the scarcity of data. Because engineers tend to be data-driven decision makers, if reams and reams of data aren’t available, they can be stopped in their tracks. Even worse, they might believe they can rely on data from the past in making perfect decisions for the future. Because decisions are being made for the future, leaders must develop the ability to see around corners or anticipate things to come. Doing so requires leaders to rely more on their intuition than their analysis, their conceptual skills than their technical skills.

Leaders who are engineers must guard against characterizing every change as a technical problem to be solved. They must realize what they considered in college to be “soft stuff” studied by other majors is, in fact, the “tough stuff” to be dealt with. What they considered “hard stuff” in their engineering courses is “easy stuff” to solve when compared with the “soft stuff” confronting them. In Leadership Without Easy Answers, Ronald Heifetz does a masterful job addressing how leaders should approach the “soft stuff,” which he calls adaptive challenges. Basically, when faced with adaptive challenges, leaders should have the people who’ll be impacted by the change develop the solution.

Leadership challenges engineers face aren’t limited to engineers. Accountants, mathematicians, and scientists face similar challenges. How, then, can leaders who tend to be analytical, conservative, controlled, logical, technical, and perfectionists be more effective? First, they must acknowledge they possess these traits and recognize they can adversely affect a leader’s effectiveness. Second, they should include individuals on the team who possess traits and strengths the leaders don’t possess.

As noted on page 178 of Why It Matters, in assembling teams, J. B. Hunt’s Shelly Simpson used StrengthsFinder and General Marty Steele used Myers-Briggs personality assessments to ensure their teams were diverse. Follow the advice the world’s number-one-ranked handball player gave me, noted on page 256, and play to your strengths, but surround yourself with people who are strong where you are weak. (If you say you have no weaknesses, you’ve just identified your greatest weaknesses—you cannot be objective and truthful with yourself and you cannot see yourself as others see you.)

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