Are Good Engineers by Definition Good Leaders?

I often say to both my team at Container Solutions and my customers that we ‘need leaders at every level’. My definition of leadership is this: if a person acts in a way that reduces fear and increases energy, then that person is leading.

Thus a broad smile to say, ‘everything is ok’, is leadership behaviour.

This morning I found another definition, in MacGregor Burns classic, Leadership. He says,

The famous [leaders] may have a marked and rare capacity to respond to motivations and values of themselves and others, to persuade and manipulate with skill, to relate end and means.

I’d like to take each one of these in turn.

Capacity to Respond to Motivations of Themselves and Others
You see this in people when they are mature enough to know what they like and project what they think others like. In engineering this manifests itself in one person letting another person get on with their job unmolested.

I know very normal people who would not dream of interfering with others in one context but would in another. It’s easy to see, therefore, that leadership is a function of the context one finds themselves in. (For example one may lead in my office but turn into a complete arse if asked to be a scrum master in large company.)

To Persuade and Manipulate
I don’t like manipulation, not for moral reasons, I am too tired to care about that, but because it’s not effective. I do, however, love a good bit of persuasion. At Container Solutions we think of the full-stack engineer as someone who can build a GUI, the middleware and have empathy and communications skills. The last bits don’t always come so naturally, and so we speak at meet ups, practice talking, practice listening, and we are getting quite good at it.

When visiting some clients it’s quite easy to see that a lack of leadership comes from a lack of a willingness to persuade and explain. For some reason some people don’t see persuasion as real work. These people are not leaders.

Relating Ends to Means
I must say – please forgive me – that I am quite good at connecting ends to means after first working out what a person’s needs actually are. I put the latter down to being an engineer – isn’t listening to our end-users what we do? And I put the former down to years of studying and practicing strategy. I had no idea, until I read the passage above, that relating ends to means was a leadership skill… but on refection, now I do.

If a person helps another person relate ends to means, are they likely to feel energised and less fearful? I think in most cases, yes. Because this is my main test for leadership, I now get why relating ends to means is about leadership.

What about the other two? Does a good bit of persuasion – coaching, speaking, coding together – create energy and reduce fear? Hell yes, in most cases, it does.

And understanding the needs of another person and responding accordingly, does that create energy and reduce fear? Yes, I think so.

Conclusion
My test for leadership is whether or not the behaviour of a person makes other people feel energised and less fearful. It also happens to be my test for whether or not someone is behaving like an arsehole. Having read a bit of MacGregor Burns’ book I am quite pleased to learn that what I thought was an engineering skill – relating ends to means – can also be categorised as a leadership skill. This makes me think of a question,

Are good engineers also good leaders?

I reckon this is worth thinking about.

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Jamie Dobson

Jamie specializes in innovation and technical strategy. As the CEO of Container Solutions, he is primarily responsible for the direction of the company and the well being of the team. He occasionally works with clients on tricky strategic problems, teaching executives how to ‘win’ with technology.

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