Engineering is a highly technical profession where engineers are often described as adept problem solvers, creative innovators, or “good at math, and stuff”. While these positive traits somewhat broadly portray the profession, they also highlight the currency of technical proficiency and the undervaluation of “soft skills” such as leadership. I will not digress into a rant of calling important skills, such as communication, emotional intelligence, work ethic, time management, and teamwork, “soft”; rather, this is a call to action to invest in yourself by developing and practicing leadership skills and traits early in your engineering career.
As a pragmatic engineer in training, I approach “leadership development” as a series of small steps that I can take towards self-improvement and professional development. At its core, leadership development is a practice of self-examination, assessment, and adjustment to become a better person and engineer. Like any practice, the process of continuous improvement becomes a habit when you engage in it often enough. The question is: where do you start?
Follow the Leader!
Start your personal development journey by picturing leaders you already admire. These can range from famous engineers (e.g. Julie Payette, Elon Musk, etc.) to leaders at your workplace. Whether they are great leaders or poor leaders, lessons can be learned from their example. Next, list their qualities. I believe great leaders (engineering or not), possess at minimum:
Mirroring and Skill Development
Some of these qualities can be developed, while others must come from within. For instance, character cannot be coached but ethics can. So what does it take to develop these qualities?
All together now!
Putting your plan in action can be as simple as asking for feedback at work on your communication style or asking for an opportunity to improve your leadership skills. For example, sign up to present on a project to improve upon your communication or organize an event to boost your organizational abilities. Volunteering is another great way to start putting your skills into practice if you haven’t been able to connect with the right opportunity at work.
Remember, leaders didn’t walk into their roles at the top. They started by building credibility, earning trust, and developing skills while finding their place in a community. So go for it: find your community and make a difference. After all, that’s exactly what a leader does.