Leadership for Systems Engineers: 6 Traits to Cultivate

Recent examples drawn from current events underscore the necessity for an appropriate leadership temperament. This is no less true for systems engineers than it is in the political world. Particularly in the technical world, this aspect of leadership is often overlooked when discussing leadership or providing leadership training. This is despite the fact that temperament is arguably the most important facet of effective leadership. It even exceeds the value of individual intelligence. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said that President Franklin Roosevelt possessed “a second class intellect, but a first class temperament.”

Technical leaders must inspire and motivate their teams in the same way as leaders in other settings. Technical and non-technical teams both seek to innovate and produce. Systems engineers face a particularly challenging task. It is our responsibility to focus the team on the “systems view.” This runs counter to the value that we, as a society at large and as an engineering profession in particular, place on specialization over generality. Systems thinking is by nature holistic. And yet, from the educational institution to the corporate pay scale, the engineer is graded by the degree to which he or she is engaged in the pursuit of deep knowledge of a narrow subject area. With this bias in thinking accompanied by the reinforcing social structure, anyone advocating a holistic point of view is facing a steeply uphill battle.

The mechanics of moving teams up that hill are those of human motivation. Engineering teams are no different in this respect from any other group. Both are composed of people—people with the same neurological processes with which they respond to their environment. The leadership task is much the same even if the content of the groups’ production is different. Leadership temperament retains its importance across disciplines.

There are a number of characteristics that make up a leadership temperament. Among those are: the ability to listen, manage conflict, feel empathy, and accept criticism. Good leaders practice regular self-reflection, learn from their mistakes, and adopt an attitude of genuine humility. In this post we will discuss each of those characteristics in turn and explore how they enhance the leadership of their practitioners.

1. Listening
Communication is the vehicle by which leadership is transmitted back and forth between the leader and the led. The foundation of communication is listening. Very often those who teach or take communication courses focus on expression. The development of communication skills is primarily composed of skills in speaking or writing. But the most important aspect of a complete set of communication skills is listening.

Listening allows us to look into the minds and hearts of our communication partners. It is only by listening that we can come to know what they are thinking and feeling. It is the tool by which we are able to discover their ideas and contributions to the conversation. One way out-bound communication transmits a message but does nothing to enlighten the broadcaster of that message. By listening, we set up two-way communication and move toward a shared understanding. We can verify that such an understanding has been established and use it to move forward.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of listening is that it requires us to be present to the incoming message that the other party is sending us. This is difficult because it requires us to silence the constant conversation or “movie” that goes on in our heads most of the time. It also requires us to be present and genuinely interested in what the other party is saying. The good leader wants to hear what others have to say and is able to give their communication full attention. This allows the leader to learn, grow, and build on the contributions of others.

2. Conflict Management
Another vital part of the effective leadership temperament is the ability to recognize, value, and manage conflict. Managed well, conflict can be the engine of innovation in a team or group. Conflict is much like a fire in a fireplace. When controlled or managed, the fire remains within the confines of the fireplace and provides light and comfort to the room. Unmanaged and out of control, the fire may escape into the room itself and cause significant damage to the surroundings.

Where conflict in an organization is managed in a way in which the status quo is brought into contrast with potential changes, decisions may be made that move the organization in a way that is intentional and beneficial. However, without careful management, conflict can become personal and lose its focus on problem solving. Like a fire out of the fireplace, it can then cause great damage to the organization.
It is important to note that while avoiding conflict can avoid damage, it will also avoid the benefits that come from the constructive juxtaposition of ideas. Without conflict, much innovation is simply lost to the organization. There is a natural tendency among many if not most people to avoid conflict. Some conflict courses inadvertently contribute to this tendency to conflict avoidance by couching their solutions as “conflict resolution.” Conflict management is a better term because it does not imply that conflict is eliminated (resolved), but rather, actively managed. A good leader manages conflict in a way that garners its benefits while avoiding potential damage.

3. Empathy
In working with the organization, a leader must be genuine in developing concern for and interest in the members of the organization. The foundation for this genuineness is the ability to develop empathy. The dictionary defines empathy as, “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” This goes beyond simple acknowledgment and awareness into real sharing of the concerns and feelings of others. It is often said that people do not care how much you know until they know how much you care. The true appreciation of those feelings is part and parcel of real listening and effective conflict management. The ability to really care about others and their thoughts and feelings is empathy. For the good leader, empathy is the key to communication and conflict management.

4. Criticism
The good leader must be able to accept, evaluate, and integrate criticism. If criticism leads to an automatically negative reaction, there is little chance that a leader can realistically judge its value, much less internalize its benefits. Rightly judged and acted on criticism can lead to growth. Resilience rests on the ability to weather the inevitable criticism that any leader of consequence will face. This requires the leader to hear it all, internalize what is valuable, and reject without histrionics what is not.

In a similar vein, the leader must learn to accept that no one is perfect, and mistakes and failures will happen. The good leader learns from those mistakes; the poor leader hides and denies them. Any leader who can say that they have made no mistakes (or even very few mistakes) is acknowledging that they lack any significant leadership experience. The mark of good leadership is not the absence of mistakes, but the learning that comes from them.

5. Self-Reflection
Honest self-reflection is another critical leadership skill. Leaders must know themselves as they are, without the distortions of ego. This equips them to accept themselves as a work-in-progress and prepares them to deal with the world around them. As Epictetus said centuries ago, “The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.” (Epictetus, Discourses) The path to progress for leaders and the groups they lead is always through the choices they actually control. Self-reflection enables them to see that path clearly.

The self-aware leader who is comfortable in his or her own skin can then surround themselves with talented colleagues without feeling threatened by them. This is an important leadership skill. Collaboration is important to any team, but the synergy that results from the collaboration of skilled and talented people is incredibly productive. The ability of a leader to attract and inspire a team composed of such individuals without the need to assert some advantage over them is extremely valuable.

6. Humility
Much of this adds up to an attitude of true humility. The word humility has its origin in the Latin word for ground or earth—“humus.” Although humility has come to have a cultural context of shame or unworthiness, this is etymologically unjustified. A fairer translation would be “grounded”—grounded in reality. The leader is realistic in self-assessment. This leads to a quiet, unassuming confidence with no need to exalt or deny. Some would-be leaders exaggerate their own self-importance. The problems with this are evident. Others pretend to be less than they are, an inaccuracy that is just as bad. As Marianne Williamson observed, “Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.” (Williamson, M., A Return to Love, Harper One 1996.) It is only by a true understanding of self that humility can emerge.

Perhaps these concepts can best be summed up in the words of a poet—in this case, Rudyard Kipling. The concepts of humility shine through these lines—lines needed now more than ever. With a small adjustment to Kipling’s Victorian patriarchy at the end, here is Kipling’s “If.”

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Leader! [emphasis mine]

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