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Engineering Leadership

  • 1.  Engineering Leadership

    Posted 03-10-2017 10:05 PM

    Perhaps some of you know about the book The Leadership Mystique – a User’s Manual for the Human Enterprise by Manfred K de Vries. I came across it recently and totally enjoying reading it. It was written in an amazingly attractive and funny way, and the author knew how best to communicate to his readers. This book is unlike any other materials I have read. In one chapter he began by asking: what does leadership imply? what does it consist of? what are the leaders supposed to do? As one answer he writes: He doesn’t do a thing, but all the other parrots call him chairman! Then the author turns to serious stuff and goes on to quoting Margaret Thatcher – the so-called Iron Lady who famously said: I don’t mind how much my ministers talk as long as they do what I say. Leaders do nothing yet they do everything – an organization is meaningless without a leader.

    Engineering leadership is nowhere mentioned. Is there any such term that catches public attention? Most engineers work behind public eye; perhaps people see some here and there supervising some work with a hard hat on. Do political, economic and social leaders know whether or not engineering leadership matters? If they have an engineer in the board room, they may ask him or her: what the engineers think? Before even answers come out of the engineer’s mouth, they would perhaps turn to other topics. Perhaps they would think that the engineer will begin talking in a language they would not understand. Or perhaps that the engineers will be there when there is a problem and that their opinions do not matter because they would do whatever is told.

    Yet engineers run their own organization. As the organization becomes large and large, the influence of engineers is overwhelmed by corporate lawyers, accountants and administrators. Or do they really overwhelm the engineer? One hears complains like: engineers have tunnel vision; they cannot communicate etc. Are these complains real? Where do business and technical leaderships stand in engineering? Are engineers well equipped with the various intricacies required for navigating through complicated social interactions? Or may they remain solely focused on perfecting details of technical pursuits?

    Well I leave it at this and invite all to put forward thoughts.        

    Dr. Dilip Barua, Ph.D, P.Eng, M. ASCE
    Consultant - Coastal, Port and Marine Engineering
    Vancouver, Canada

  • 2.  RE: Engineering Leadership

    Posted 03-13-2017 10:59 AM
    With the recent release of ASCE grade on infrastructure of D+ and the proposed Infrastructure spending by the US Government, we Civil Engineers need to be proactive and help this massive undertaking get off the ground. It will take a lot of coordination between the Federal Agencies and state governments and state DOT's. Every aspect of this will require Engineering support. 

    Robert Haag P.E., M.ASCE
    Naples FL

  • 3.  RE: Engineering Leadership

    Posted 03-14-2017 10:28 AM
    It is much into it than just coordination Mr. Hagg.

    Soussan Bathaee

    Soussan Bathaee A.M.ASCE
    Temecula CA
    (909) 626-4652

  • 4.  RE: Engineering Leadership

    Posted 03-22-2017 12:21 PM
    Engineering leadership is all over and permeates our society...Public Works Directors, Chief Engineers, Directors of Transportation, District Engineers and you can list many positions in engineering consulting firms too. Highly technical folks are leaders too.  

    When it comes to attorneys, accountants, and administrators you have it backwards. They are support staff and part of the team that helps the engineers achieve their goals in planning, designing, constructing, operating and maintaining projects and systems.

    Allen Masuda P.E., M.ASCE
    Plainfield IL

  • 5.  RE: Engineering Leadership

    Posted 03-22-2017 12:23 PM

    I have not read Leadership Mystique, but I will add it to my list! I think it is important for everyone, regardless of their field of work (but especially those in highly-technical fields that impact the public), to be able to communicate the details of their work in appropriate language to the respective audience. A doctor must be able to explain a patient's prognosis without the patient having been to Medical School; an airplane pilot will summarize the details of the upcoming flight to passengers on board; a civil servant must be able to interpret the processes and results of legislation that impacts their constituents, taking public opinion and scientific data into account when influencing policy decisions; and the list goes on. I've even been impressed by those in less 'glamorous' jobs who are able to describe what, how, and why they do what they do, from restaurant staff managers to septic maintenance truck operators.

    The first fundamental canon of the ASCE Code of Ethics is that "Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties." This doesn't just mean that the infrastructure we build should be built correctly & safely; to me, it also means that the public should be informed in the process of planning, funding, designing, and building things so that they can help hold us accountable for our work as engineers. I think we have a duty as engineers to take leadership roles within and outside of our organizations - we have the knowledge and expertise to make the world a better place (and, I'd like to think, the passion for it too!), so we shouldn't reserve it only for hammering out plans and technical details. There is certainly a stereotype that engineers like math and not writing, or that they don't communicate well, but I assure you I've met plenty of professionals in other fields that fit these stereotypes, and plenty of engineers that do not (guilty as charged!)

    Carla Kenyon P.E., M.ASCE
    Austin TX

  • 6.  RE: Engineering Leadership

    Posted 03-25-2017 02:48 PM

    It is fascinating to read the comments of Allen and Carla – some thoughtful remarks. On Allen’s comment: there is no denying that lawyers, accountants and administrators are in supportive roles in many organizations including engineering – that are not one of their own. But by nature of their works in such organizations – in especially the large ones, they remain close to the power source enabling them to influence leadership decisions. The influencing role (not necessarily bad, to be clear!) may or may not reach the overwhelming level – the extent of such influences depends on the leadership personality and competence.

    In a sense we are all leaders because we play such roles in family matters and in our professional responsibilities – if not always but certainly sometime. But on a greater context leaders are understood to be the persons who have the ability to lead and direct to make a difference to cause significant impact. One simple example – the example of three masons – is often cited: three masons were asked what they had been doing. The first replied that he was placing bricks. The second replied that he was placing bricks to feed family. The third replied that he was placing bricks to build a cathedral. It is only the third who has a vision, and the difference in replies indicates how a leader sees things compared to others. Leaders exist in every profession, although only a few reaches the leadership level or get the responsibility to lead.

    But for all different reasons, not all leaders have the leadership quality one likes to see. De Vries listed 5 different leadership personalities that could lead an organization either to prosperity or to ruin: dramatic-type, suspicious-type, detached-type, depressive type (?), and compulsive type. The depressive type is hardly a leadership quality, yet there are leaders of that quality. As a Spanish saying goes: fish starts to smell at the head, so does the leadership personality penetrate into an organization either to inspire or to demoralize or something in between.

    Perhaps a little note on the confusion that exists on the difference between a leader and a manager – both of who belong to the collaborative same club of controlling things. The one that is often cited is: a leader aims to do the right thing; while a manager aims to do things right. A leader is transformational showing the way to achieve a long-term vision; while a manager is transactional and bureaucratic tending short-term goals to tread the way shown by a leader.    

    Carla has rightly pointed out that any stereotyping of individuals or groups does neither reflect true nature nor serve any good purpose.

    Dr. Dilip Barua, Ph.D, P.Eng, M. ASCE
    Consultant - Coastal, Port and Marine Engineering
    Vancouver, Canada

  • 7.  RE: Engineering Leadership
    Best Answer

    Posted 07-06-2017 09:42 AM

    Engineering leadership...that must be something found in abundance among us engineers.  We generally seem to be such a fine and intelligent bunch of people that are honest and straight forward and hard working. There must be leaders in abundance among us.  My opinion, based on anecdotal evidence, is that we are trending much better with a need for a lot more improvement.  Take a look at the US Congress or other places where leadership influence acts directly upon the course of humanity, and you still won't find many engineers.

    So, we might as well keep skipping along with Dorothy and her buddies going off to see the Wizard of Oz.  Oh, if we only had a brain, a heart, the nerve...to be a leader!  The Wizard might help us.  Ha!ha!

    If I ever get to see the wizard, I believe he would tell me that we engineers need to up our game in at least two important areas: critical thinking and emotion.  Critical thinking is too much work to talk about today, so I'll mention a few rambles about emotion, which is a vague and abstract topic mostly outside of rationality. Maybe that's why we don't touch that that much at work. What good is anything outside of (apparently) objective stuff derived from hard rationality? After all, the power of rationality to produce wealth, and help us survive in our struggles in the jungle seems undeniable. Just look at the proof like smart phones, and the rocket we're on getting more of it at a faster and faster rate. Then why bother with emotion?

    People are emotional creatures above all else, that's why. They apparently have a yearning for meaning and purpose that manifests naturally from human consciousness. And in the interior places of their hearts there seems to be a desire to understand the most worthwhile reason to get out of bed in the morning for their existence (and their jobs). Helping people to navigate toward that emotional place of ultimate meaning and purpose is the essence (and power) of leadership.

    Seeing the higher ideals of something is the first practical step toward tapping into the power of emotion that leaders use to go toward good things. For example from my own struggles to be a leader, I always abstract our profession as a bunch of good deed doers trying to help push back nature's envelope of brutality. (That's very vague, but it's the best I can do in one sentence.) It's easy for me to see everything engineers do with a romantic and grandiose view, because I love what we do. The idealization of it is the basis of my love. My own mental creative license and flights of fancy in abstracting the ideal in what we do is essential for me so that it might have emotional impact to match its importance.

    Last summer I was on vacation with my children standing atop Hoover dam in 120 degree heat. They were grouchy with me for the blazing sun and my laughter. They didn't think it was funny when I said that we should take off our shoes on that civil engineering hallowed ground, or when I tried to go on about the magnificence of the project and the magnificence and scope of the civil engineering profession. Of course I digressed into how lucky I was to get paid to do what I love…I have to confess that I was almost serious in every word I said.

    Like most people, my children are tough customers in 120 degree heat, and they don't always connect with what I'm trying to get to, but that's due to my shortcomings, not theirs. My quest to lead them toward what is wonderful in them (two people that I love) is like trying to be a leader in the profession that I love. It's emotional.

    Edward "Esco" Bell P.E., M.ASCE
    Public Works Director
    Mount Vernon WA

  • 8.  RE: Engineering Leadership

    Posted 07-07-2017 10:17 AM
    ​This is an interesting and insightful discussion.   I think there is a clear difference from engineering leadership and political leadership. One significant factor is the value placed by our society and capitalistic ideals on who is considered for leadership. One of the greatest strengths (and likely the greatest weakness) of engineers, is that engineers think rationally and look for logical linkages of cause an effect.  The majority of the U.S. population does not think that way.  Our society values middlemen not the doers or creators.  While innovation is valued, its benefits accrue to those who leverage innovation, or who are innovative in the way that they leverage economically the work of others.  For engineers to be leaders in this society, they have to be less concerned about the technical logic of a situation and more concerned about the popular perception of the situation.  Instead of manipulating earth, steel and concrete, engineers must manipulate public opinion.  This is not an easy task for someone trained in logical application of science. 

    I hear the complaints that engineers are not major leaders in society, but neither are most astrophysicists, mathematicians, geologists, biologists or others trained in science.   It seems that instead of trying to be what we are not, we should instead focus on educating those who are in political leadership, and encourage those engineers who have an appetite and avocation for such things.

    Michael Byle P.E., D.GE, F.ASCE
    Tetra Tech Inc.,
    Langhorne PA

  • 9.  RE: Engineering Leadership

    Posted 07-18-2017 04:13 PM
    Women are significantly underrepresented as faculty.

    Please consider moving this critical subject to the forefront of our discussions.

    As we move further into the 21st Century, it is, like, so very overdue.

    Thank you.

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    William Hayden Ph.D., P.E., CP, F.ASCE
    Management Quality By Design, Inc.
    Amherst NY

  • 10.  RE: Engineering Leadership

    Posted 07-07-2017 10:17 AM
    The first priority for design is safety.  The second is value engineering.  If you include safety in the design, the lawyers will be happy (or out of business).  Value engineering will keep the accountants happy.  Administrators will be pleased with a successful project that makes money.  The suggestion that engineers are somehow under the thumb of others may be a reflection of the hourly rate for each profession.  Lawyers and accountants have no issue charging high rates and the public expects to pay them.  Whereas, the engineer often finds their work undervalued in comparison to other professions.

    Chad Morrison P.E., M.ASCE
    Professional Engineer
    Greenville RI

  • 11.  RE: Engineering Leadership

    Posted 07-10-2017 02:38 PM

    The discussion presented by Edward Bell is so nicely presented – it is almost poetic; I feel like reading it again and again. Let me try to add a little to two of his points – critical thinking and emotion. Perhaps the first fall into the purview of intelligence (by intelligence I mean the ability of an individual to process information through rational analysis devoid of emotional bias) – and further than that on smartness (by smartness I mean the ability of an intelligent individual to deliver neatly, such as producing workable solutions). Don't engineers have enough of them? But the faculty of intelligence and smartness is not monopoly of any particular profession or individual – perhaps it is more reasonable to say like Galileo Galelei (1564 – 1642) . . . I have never met a man so ignorant that I couldn't learn something from him . . . Perhaps those who lag behind are not motivated enough to strive in the right direction or have an opportunity, or societies simply do not understand them.

    Most engineers (for that matter the greater scientific community), by training and by professional pursuit, are more keen to process scientific and technical information rather than the wider societal issues (Michael Byle's point). Is that the reason why one hardly hears an engineer being called an intellectual? Or is it that engineers can't be an engineer and an intellectual at the same time? But following the line of thinking put forward by Edward; it is safe to suggest that engineers can do a lot if they put their heart and mind in something.   

    Apart from utilizing the power of emotion – I like to highlight another aspect of human emotion in context of leadership qualities; it is about enjoying what one does. Apart from family support and relationship, there is no doubt that if one enjoys what one does then detrimental stresses are minimized, and a high productivity can be expected (different cultures have different approaches to this problem). But enjoying what one does in professional responsibilities is rather a complex matter. It reminds me of a famous song by Frank Sinatra (1915 – 1998) . . . Life is a beautiful thing as long as I hold the string . . . But life's strings are many – and some of them are not held by an individual. As one often hears, it is perhaps like a puppet show but with more than one puppeteer. A leader (together with his or her close team members and associates) by definition holds many strings of those he or she leads – and the emotional satisfaction of the leader depends to what extent, and how the strings are handled. But a leader's emotional satisfaction can only be real and healthy when there is reciprocity from the satisfactions of those he or she leads.

    Contrary to Michael Byle's point, in my judgment core leadership qualities are same whether it is political leadership or engineering leadership. In political leadership the crew is the people, in engineering leadership it is the fellow engineers and other professionals. Leading fellow professionals can be both challenging and advantageous however. Whether it is political, engineering or other leaderships, a leader is expected to be a beacon of hope – a source of inspiration with an actionable plan to steer the crew in the right direction. Most top engineering services (apart from the entrepreneurial ones) are transactional bureaucratic/technocratic managerial in nature. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why one hears less about engineering leadership, despite engineering leaderships are in abundance. Or perhaps because leadership is understood to be equated more with making a significant transformational difference.            




    Dr. Dilip Barua, Ph.D, P.Eng, M. ASCE
    Consultant - Coastal, Port and Marine Engineering
    Vancouver, Canada

  • 12.  RE: Engineering Leadership

    Posted 07-11-2017 03:18 PM
    In our American culture today, going forward I believe a dated quote describes/summarizes 
    the desired outcome of an effective and efficient leader as:

    "When the best leader's work is done the people say, 'We did it ourselves.' "
    Lao Tzu

    Creating and shaping the internal organizational system . . . structure follows strategy. . .  to support how we work together,
    i.e. collaborate, cooperate, communicate, will be a major key for the leader achieving this goal.


    William Hayden Ph.D., P.E., CP, F.ASCE
    Management Quality By Design, Inc.
    Amherst NY