Understanding what kind of leader you are: a new lens to look at Engineering leadership

Understanding what kind of leader you are: a new lens to look at Engineering leadership
Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

Here’s a novel way to help engineering leaders understand themselves, and evaluate the best way to leverage their skillsets.

Introduction

Leadership in engineering is a delicate balance, demanding both technical proficiency and inspiring vision. While taking Technical Leadership course offered University of Washington-Seattle’s Engineering Leadership program, I realized the frameworks offered didn’t quite satisfy how I envisioned myself as a leader, or what I expected from engineering leaders in my organizations. Over the last year or so, I have developed a novel way of understanding the skills and roles of such leaders.

Traditional leadership theories, while valuable, often fall short when capturing the demands of the engineering field. In this essay I introduce a novel perspective: a multidimensional framework that illuminates the multifaceted nature of engineering leadership. It empowers both leaders and followers to navigate this complex terrain with greater understanding and effectiveness.

The Multidimensional Framework

This framework transcends singular leadership styles, instead recognizing the interplay of four distinct dimensions:

  1. Spiritual: The ability to inspire vision, meaning, and purpose within the team.
  2. Technical: The expertise and innovation driving projects forward.
  3. Personal: The guidance, mentorship, and interpersonal skills fostering individual growth.
  4. Inspirational/Celebrity: The impact on a broader community through exceptional work and influence.

By exploring these dimensions, leaders can identify their unique strengths and areas for development, working on self-awareness and growth. For followers, the framework unlocks a deeper understanding of the diverse leadership styles they encounter, enabling them to identify the leaders who resonate most with their individual needs and aspirations.

What is important to understand is that a leader can excel at any one of these skills, and make for an excellent example for their charges, while failing in all the others. Or they can focus on building multiple strengths, and provide well-rounded guidance to others. Regardless, my proposed framework provides an opportunity for flexibility in interpretating what a good engineering leader can be which most existing framework don’t completely clarify.

Imagine a software engineer drawn to the technical brilliance of a solutions architect, while a product owner finds solace and motivation in the philosophical leadership of another. This framework encourages such nuanced appreciation, recognizing that different leaders excel in different dimensions, they contribute uniquely to the collective success of an engineering team.

A quote often (wrongly) attributed to Mark Twain goes: Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial ‘we’. Despite that, I will refer to myself in the plural hereon, as the framework, once out in the work doesn’t belong to my person anymore. Let us proceed.

Throughout this essay, we delve deeper into each dimension, exploring key attributes, strengths, and potential limitations of each. We showcase real-world examples of engineering leaders who embody these characteristics, highlighting the impact of their diverse styles.

Spiritual Leadership

  • Key Attributes: Vision setting, purpose definition, ethical leadership, creating a strong team culture.
  • Strengths: Motivates and inspires teams, creates a sense of community, drives innovation through shared values.
  • Weaknesses: Can be overly idealistic, may neglect pragmatic details, potential for manipulation.
  • Example: Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, known for his commitment to protecting the environment and sustainability, before it became trendy. He aligned his company’s mission towards his vision despite it being at odds with profitability.

A spiritual leader shows the path…and vision…for the long term. They may not guide you technically, or help you in your day-to-day work, but their vision and mission of what is to be done, and what should be done is so strong, you can’t but be allured by the possibilities. You are driven to your work to work towards their vision, overcoming for their other potential deficiencies in technical or personal aspects by finding other means.

Technical Leadership

  • Key Attributes: Deep technical expertise, problem-solving skills, innovation, driving project execution.
  • Strengths: Builds trust through competence, delivers results efficiently, ensures technical solutions are sound.
  • Weaknesses: Can be overly focused on technical details, neglect communication and team dynamics, potentially miss the bigger picture.
  • Example: Grace Hopper (leading the development of COBOL and revolutionizing programming languages)

A technical leader bedazzles with their technical skills, quick-wittedness, ability to come to anybody’s assitance at a moment’s notice and immediacy in identifying the issue at hand. They gain respect by their sharpened skills in their field of expertise, and inspire others because of their sheer intelligence, work ethic and competence. The followers want to become them, be even tenth as effective and productive as they are, and even if they are not great at vision-setting or inspiring, or helping at a personal level, it doesn’t matter, because their technical expertise trumps all.

Personal Leadership

  • Key Attributes: Strong interpersonal skills, mentoring and coaching, fostering individual growth, building trust and rapport.
  • Strengths: Creates a positive and supportive work environment, helps individuals reach their full potential, promotes collaboration and knowledge sharing.
  • Weaknesses: Can be overly individualistic, neglecting the collective needs of the team, potential for favoritism.
  • Example: Somebody’s team lead, could be a great mentor!

Leaders with this style foster your personal growth, watch out for your potential career-wise, guide you towards tools and techniques to improve yourself, and make sure you’re performing the best you can. They empower you to push yourself as hard as you can go, and make you understand the worth of your work. They clear the blockers standing on your way, and help you see your mission more clearly. They touch you at a personal level, as a mentor.

Inspirational/Celebrity Leadership

  • Key Attributes: Charisma, public influence, motivating large audiences, building brand recognition.
  • Strengths: Drives external interest and investment, attracts top talent, inspires broader social impact.
  • Weaknesses: Can be susceptible to ego and fame, may neglect internal team needs, focus more on external perception than internal reality.
  • Example: Steve Jobs (inspiring a generation with inspired products and captivating presentations)

This kind of leadership is not necessarily related to one’s field, but can be. This sort of leader has such charm, charisma, and drive that onlookers can’t but help be inspired and driven. These leaders are great at being celebrities too, and use their influence in all the right ways. They might not know you personally, but they will have changed millions of lives for the better through charisma and ability. While Steve Jobs is an obvious example, I want to give another example of Julia Evans who maintains an excellent tech blog, give public presentations, and inspired me to start working on this website.

Potential Pitfalls

However, overemphasizing any single dimension within the multidimensional framework can lead to potential pitfalls, hindering both individual and team success. Here’s a breakdown of the possible downsides for each dimension:

Spiritual Leadership

  • Overly idealistic vision
  • Neglecting pragmatic details
  • Ethical manipulation

Technical Leadership

  • Technical elitism
  • Neglecting communication and team dynamics
  • Missing the bigger picture

Personal Leadership

  • Overly individualistic focus
  • Favoritism and bias
  • Neglecting the collective needs

Inspirational/Celebrity Leadership

  • Ego and fame
  • External perception over reality
  • Neglecting internal engagement

Tips for Leaders and Followers

In this section we will discuss actionable advice for both leaders and followers within the framework:

How Leaders Can Develop Each Dimension

  • Spiritual Leadership: Develop a strong personal vision, connect with team values, foster ethical decision-making, inspire through storytelling.
  • Technical Leadership: Continuously learn and upskill, collaborate with technical experts, communicate technical concepts effectively, focus on problem-solving and innovation.
  • Personal Leadership: Develop interpersonal skills, be a mentor and coach, build trust and rapport, foster a learning environment.
  • Inspirational/Celebrity Leadership: Develop your personal brand, connect with the broader community, leverage your influence for good, stay authentic and humble.

How the Framework Benefits Followers

The multidimensional framework of engineering leadership empowers followers in several ways:

  • Improved understanding of leaders: Recognizing the different dimensions of leadership allows you to better understand your leaders’ motivations, strengths, and potential limitations. This empowers you to:
    • Appreciate different leadership styles: Instead of judging a leader based on a single trait, you can appreciate their unique way of contributing to the team.
    • Identify your preferred leadership style: Recognizing your own needs and preferences helps you gravitate towards leaders who inspire you in specific ways.
    • Anticipate leader behavior: Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of different leadership styles helps you predict how leaders might react in different situations.
  • More effective communication and collaboration: Knowing your leader’s strengths can help you tailor your communication and collaboration style to be more effective:
    • Communicating with technical leaders: Focus on clarity, data, and solutions when working with technically focused leaders.
    • Connecting with inspirational leaders: Share your personal motivations and goals to find common ground and inspiration.
    • Building rapport with personal leaders: Openly discuss your individual needs and career aspirations for better guidance and support.
  • Enhanced career development: Recognizing different leadership styles allows you to choose mentors and role models who align with your own career goals:
    • Seeking technical mentorship: If you aspire towards technical expertise, find leaders who excel in that dimension.
    • Finding inspirational guidance: Choose role models who motivate and inspire you to achieve your personal best.
    • Learning from diverse leaders: Expose yourself to different leadership styles to glean valuable insights and broaden your own skillset.
  • Personal growth and empowerment: Understanding leadership styles helps you become a more self-aware and proactive team member:
    • Identifying your own leadership potential: Reflect on your strengths and explore how you can contribute to the team in diverse ways.
    • Taking initiative and ownership: Proactively solve problems and contribute positively based on your understanding of the leadership needs.
    • Building stronger teams: Recognizing different styles helps you bridge communication gaps and foster collaboration within the team.

By learning about these leadership styles, you gain valuable tools to navigate your own professional journey and become a more effective team member.

Conclusion

The multidimensional framework we presented in this essay hopefully offers a fresh and useful perspective on leadership in engineering. By recognizing the interplay of spiritual, technical, personal, and inspirational/celebrity dimensions, both leaders and followers can achieve greater understanding, effectiveness, and ultimately, success.

Royalty-free stock image above from Pexels.

Sirish
Sirish

This is where all my quirky comments will go.