Engineering Leadership: More Than Management

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Engineering projects are challenging. Even a simple project involves finding new technical approaches and finding creative ways to achieve results. When engineering leaders play an active role during every step in a project, the process goes more smoothly and results are better for the team, business, and end user.

However, it’s important to draw a distinction between leadership and management:

  • Management: Management tends to be reactive. It focuses on “managing” day-to-day issues through planning, organizing, and coordinating. The manager must be aware of a job’s context and constraints – for example, its timeframe, personnel, and other assets. He or she must be careful of scope creep, instead of holding the big picture in mind.
  • Leadership: Leadership involves proactive innovation and development. Instead of looking at a project in terms of its “limited resources,” the leader seeks ways to improve upon what’s available and what’s assumed. First and foremost, the leader communicates. He or she is the model of expected behavior, ethics, and potential.

According to author Warren Bennis, the manager does things right, while the leader does the right thing.

This distinction is not without some controversy. More and more people in the workplace now take on some aspect of leadership in their roles. This means the distinction between leadership and management is not as powerful as it once was. Even so, each team generally has one pinnacle leader who all its members look to for inspiration.

Management and Leadership in Engineering

Managers are responsible for tangible resources like tools and components, while leaders encourage people to deliver on the potential on those resources. In traditional engineer training, dating back to the 1940s, the emphasis is on management. However, innovation and other competitive differentiators depend on leadership to a great degree.

In this climate, would-be senior engineers need to combine both the management and leadership perspective. This requires greater attentiveness to “soft skills” than engineers may be used to — the most important of which may be oral and written communication. It is up to the leader to keep the lines of communication open and address any misunderstandings.

If management involves technical skills, leadership involves people skills. The most effective engineering pioneers will develop a blend of both. It is worth asking how someone who has focused on management can rapidly hone leadership skills?

Three areas of focus can help managers become effective, confident, and authentic leaders:

Model Ethical Behavior and Hard Work
Leadership starts with the basics that most people have been working on their whole lives: Core behaviors like punctuality, honesty, and continuous improvement. No one can become an effective leader if others do not wish to follow them. Demonstrating authenticity and integrity will help motivate teammates. Obviously, all people have different motivators, but these behaviors establish a high standard that many people will strive to meet.

Continuously Develop Interpersonal Skills
Engineers have a reputation — often unfairly — for having trouble communicating. Explaining complex technical topics so non-experts can grasp them is a skill in itself. It’s one thing to speak effectively with other engineers, but quite another to summarize the project to cross-functional contacts or executives with no technical knowledge. Ultimately, to tap their full potential, leaders must be able to do both.

Traits like intuition and empathy are also classified under interpersonal skills. Many engineers are very hard-working, valuing their status as experts. They may be unwilling to admit mistakes or to express concern when too much is being asked. A leader knows his or her team members well enough to read subtle cues. Some goals may be beyond the leader’s power to change, but it is still important to ensure each person’s unique skills are being utilized.

Understand the Whole Picture
Few technical teams operate in a vacuum. Someone is always responsible for winning buy-in and accessing resources that only other stakeholders can provide. That “other” may be the head of HR or a member of the board of directors. Whatever the case, it’s necessary to understand how the project fits into the whole scope of the organization’s strategy. What are the business drivers involved, and how will a given action — or inaction — affect overall goals?

Flexible Leadership Is the Future of Engineering

Today’s crop of engineering leaders is challenging stereotypes and getting results. To do it, they need to combine technical excellence with the ability to motivate others — and put those efforts into context with relevant business savvy. With this approach, top engineers will be better positioned to contribute to a company’s strategic vision and help junior engineers exceed expectations.

Learn More

Ohio University offers an advanced degree program for engineers who want to become leaders without losing their foundation in engineering. Our online Master of Engineering Management focuses on leadership and management skills and their direct relationship to engineering process improvement, project management, effective communication, and innovative solutions.


SPIE Professional, “What Every Engineer Needs to Know”
The Wall Street Journal, “What is the Difference Between Management and Leadership?”
CCLP, “Bennis, Waren On Becoming a Leader”