Engineering leadership: Grounding leadership theory in engineers’ professional identities

Here’s your first ILead research stop of 2021! For January, we’re highlighting Engineering leadership: Grounding leadership theory in engineers’ professional identities, a paper that has been used by engineering educators in Canada, the United States, Australia, Singapore, and the EU to support leadership identity development in engineering students. This grounded theory study explores whether and how engineers identify themselves as leaders. Members of the ILead research team found that many engineers working for engineering intensive organizations were averse to classifying themselves as leaders until the idea of leadership was framed in professionally relevant ways. Drawing on data from focus groups and interviews with 54 engineers, the research team defined three distinct “engineering leadership orientations” that felt like a better professional fit for research participants: Technical Mastery; Collaborative Optimization; and Organizational Innovation. Which of these identities reflects your current orientation to leadership? Which one reflects the engineer you want to be? What might be missing? Read the full paper here.

Engineers lead in professionally meaningful ways, distinct from other occupations. Technical Masters who are highly attuned to their craft offer mentorship in their area of technical expertise. Collaborative Optimizers catalyze growth and change within a team and organization by fostering motivation, encouraging others and leveraging the strengths of teammates. Organizational Innovators anticipate and respond to trends, strategize and work to implement their visionary ideas.

If you feel ambivalent about labeling yourself as a leader, try replacing the concept of “leadership” with the idea of “positive influence.”  Look for the ways that you have influenced the direction of a project or the work of a team, and consider that this may be an expression of your leadership.

Becoming aware of your leadership practice allows you to seek learning opportunities where you can hone the skills that you’re already applying and advance your team, your projects and, when you wish, your own career. Recognize that influence is an expression of what you care most about, allowing you to draw on your technical and social skills to guide your team towards desired results.