7 Qualities of the Best Engineering Leaders
In my career as an engineer, I’ve encountered both extremes of engineering leadership. I have worked for some excellent people, and I have worked for others who, despite their technical chops, were effectively well-paid dictators.
Looking back, I can point to seven important qualities that separate the leadership wheat from the chaff. These are the qualities that I’ve seen in every true leader I’ve come across and that I aspire to exhibit as an engineering leader myself.
They can develop and communicate a strong mission and vision
First and foremost, strong engineering leaders need to be able to develop and communicate a mission and vision for their teams. This as important for first-line managers as it is for senior executives. A team’s mission is its raison d’ être – it’s why the team exists. A vision is how the world will look in the future if the team accomplishes its mission. Leadership is fundamentally about change, while management is about control. Change is inevitable for any team, and strong leadership is all about guiding that change in a positive, productive direction.
They have a plan
The best engineering leaders don’t just set the team’s direction; they also establish a practical plan for bridging the gap between the as-is and the to-be. If a leader’s team can’t see a path to get from where they are to where they need to be, lofty goals can seem unrealistic and unattainable, and it can be tough to get the sense that progress is being made toward those goals. Being able to break big, hairy, audacious goals into actionable steps is one of the hallmarks of a strong leader.
They thrive in dynamic situations
As I mentioned above, leadership is about change. For many, organizational change is a stressful, chaotic situation to be in. Leaders in engineering organizations thrive on it. The uncertainty and dynamism is exciting for them. This is important, because leaders are meant to guide teams through change. If they weren’t comfortable with it, a leader could never thrive.
They care about you as a person
In my career, the very best engineering leaders knew how I took my coffee, what my wife’s name was, and consoled me when my favourite soccer team lost. They really and truly cared about me as a person. Looking back, these are the people who got the very best work out of me. When times got tough and there were late nights and weekends at the office, I was happy to do the overtime because there was a real relationship between my leader and I, and I knew that if I needed my leader to go the extra mile for me that they would.
They are servants of the team
There’s a model of leadership known as servant leadership that I find particularly compelling. In servant leadership, the leader exists to serve the needs of the team. This is the antithesis of the traditional view of leadership where the team exists to serve the leader. The very best engineering leaders are able to not only provide vision and direction to the team, but are also able to humble themselves to focus their energy and effort on helping the team. One of my own axioms as a leader is that I am paid to identify and eliminate roadblocks that are keeping my team from performing at their very best. This is the essence of servant leadership.
They are role models
John C. Maxwell said that leaders “Know the way, go the way, and show the way.” In other words, leaders are role models for their teams. They act the way they want their team members to act. They walk the talk. Poor leaders, on the other hand, are quick to tell you to do one thing and then do the opposite themselves.
They are humble
The engineering leaders I have most admired in my career were humble people. Despite their brilliance, they never assumed they had all the answers. If they didn’t know how to answer a question, they were happy to defer to someone else or to find the answers and get back to you. To them, giving an accurate answer was more important that looking good in the moment.
Leadership is as important in an engineering context as in any other – perhaps more important given the technical complexity and rapid change that characterizes our work. If you can work to develop even one of these traits, you’ll be well on your way to becoming an engineering leader yourself.
Patrick helps engineering teams do great work — his blog here.