MIT summer course to address leadership for engineering professionals

Dec. 12, 2016

Leadership is a valuable skill for engineers, who can supplement their individual contributions with the ability to motivate others to cooperate in bringing complex products to market. The field—related to but distinct from management—is sufficiently important that it is taught at the undergraduate level. The Bernard M. Gordon MIT Engineering Leadership Program (GELP), for example, complements MIT’s technical program to help undergraduates develop leadership skills.

If you are past the undergraduate level and employed as an individually contributing engineer, you can still acquire leadership skills through programs such as MIT Professional Education’s “Engineering Leadership for Emerging Leaders.” This summer short course is scheduled for July 17-21, 2017, at the MIT campus in Cambridge, MA.

David Niño, Ph.D., is senior lecturer in GELP and an instructor in the summer short course. In a phone interview, he spoke about engineering leadership in general and about engineering leadership education in particular.

He described engineering leadership education as a new, emerging field with programs like GELP embedded in 15 or more engineering schools in the United States and Canada. Penn State offered one of the first, he said, with others at institutions including Rice, Texas A&M, SMU, and the University of Toronto.

In addition, he said, organizations including NASA and private-sector firms including Caterpillar and Boeing have their own leadership programs for their engineers. He noted that engineering management (a related but different field) has been a legitimate academic discipline for a number of years, whereas engineering leadership is just emerging as an academic subject.

Management and leadership have a yin and yang relationship, he said; they are interrelated and equally positive. Management is a set of skills that foster stability and predictability. Leadership helps us cope with change and align competing interests.

He cited the professional codes of conduct in many engineering disciplines as the foundations of cultures from which leadership can arise—preserving shared values among team members. Leaders, he said, help bring to bear team members’ expertise to ensure favorable work outcomes. Engineering leaders can galvanize teams to collaborate across disciplines, with competent team leaders bringing together expertise.

He noted that leadership structures can vary, with leaders assigned or emerging organically. A major civil engineering project, for example, may have one project leader. Conversely, in other disciplines, there may be a shift in leadership from design to execution. Another possibility is distributed leadership—there may be formal leadership roles, but other team members may emerge as leaders as a project progresses. He also cited followership—a leader may become a follower (and vice versa) at points during a project to better align with project goals.

Niño said the summer program at MIT attracts a global audience of engineers, scientists, and researchers, with successive years increasingly seeing leadership evolving as desired skill.

Challenges in leading multidisciplinary teams involve communication, appreciating different perspectives, and reminding team members of common goals from an epistemological perspective, leading to a meaningful vision. At the summer class, he said, “We spend a lot of time on how to understand multiple stakeholders and find common interests among competing stakeholders through conflict management.” The goal is to achieve breakthroughs by bringing together disparate teams to foster interdisciplinary achievements.

When asked if leadership is innate, Niño said, “I’ve been teaching leadership for 18 years, and I think the research is inconclusive. I don’t know if it’s innate or if people can learn to be great leaders. My opinion is that leadership is a set of behaviors and skills that anybody can learn.”

That said, he added that  some may be more motivated than others to become leaders, perhaps through unique life experiences—having parents who were executives, for example, and who saw leadership happen in their homes or schools. In addition, they may have had an early experience in a professional context that might have accelerated the acquisition of leadership skills.

“In my classes I really try to demystify leadership as something that only a few people are capable of doing,” he said. It’s not necessary to have a formal leadership role. There are a few variables, but many people can become effective leaders and have a beneficial impact.

He commented on how leadership is evolving. “In the knowledge economy today, the capacity to process information and make effective decisions is different than in the past,” he said. “People argue that we need organizations today that are less hierarchical and more fluid and capable of change, and that requires different leadership.” He added that researchers have argued the need for empowering people, with less command and control and with leadership becoming more distributed. And another trend, he said, is that companies are accommodating more diverse workers across time zones and cultures.

The summer program will include a case study based on the real-life example of a 31-year-old engineer MIT engineering graduate, struggling to lead his team for the first time. He finds that just because he tells people to do something, they don’t necessarily do it, so he’s questioning his own authority. Further, people on his staff don’t get along well with each other, and conflicts arise among his team members. And finally, he has a boss who lacks the expertise to provide adequate support. “Unfortunately, these are pretty common struggles for first time leaders,” Niño said. Program participants will put themselves into the role of the MIT graduate and will practice creating and delivering a common sense of purpose of the team, energizing members to commit to a common sense of direction.

Niño elaborates on the case study and more in a brief video at the course’s landing page. To view the video, to learn more about the program, and to register, visit MIT Professional Education.

And finally, when asked what succinct argument a prospective student can present to management to get approval to attend this course, Niño said, “One simple answer is, ask the boss if the future of our company rest on the effectiveness of our leadership.”

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