Emergence of Leadership in Engineering

Today’s fast-paced global economy, with the scope, difficulty, and complexity of problems, mandates a critical need for leaders engineers (Jablokow 2008). Every engineering organization, big or small, needs leaders and managers for the success of the organization and projects they execute. (Kumar and Hsiao 2007). Engineers are hired (among other functions) to solve complex problems, perform detailed analysis of processes/systems and structures, to design, and to develop and implement (Reeve 2010). Engineering leadership can be defined as the ability to lead a group of personnel from various profiles for creating, designing, developing, implementing, and evaluating products, systems, or services (Crumpton-Young et al. 2010). Engineering leadership is also defined as management of technical change, innovative conception, design, and implementation supported by the invention of enabling technologies to meet the needs of customers and society. (Northouse 2010).

Several researchers argue that leadership is an important skill that should be included in engineering education curricula (Cox et al. 2009; Kumar and Hsiao 2007). The importance of leadership education/training in engineering has been highlighted in various initiatives and reports, including those by, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE 2004, 2005), and the works of Komives et al. (2007), Kouzes and Posner (2008), Kotnour et al. (2014).

According to the NAE (2004), “engineers must understand the principles of leadership and be able to practice them in growing proportions as their careers advance”. Engineers need to exercise their leadership due to “the growing interdependence between technology and the economic and social foundations of modern society”. Criteria for accrediting engineering programs for USA in 2012-2013 include not only strong analytical skills, but also skills indirectly related to leadership (e.g. the ability to communicate effectively, to function in multidisciplinary teams, and to understand the impact of engineering solutions in global and societal contexts). These and other reports (Hilton 1995; McCuen 1999) have called for better preparation of engineering undergraduates to meet the leadership demands of a changing global society (Ahn et al. 2014). Experts believe that every young engineer must be given the opportunity to lead in their early career and must be allowed to manage a project and be encouraged to develop soft skills, such as interpersonal, marketing, and communications skills (Bowman and Farr 2000). In order to be a true engineering leader, engineering students must possess technical and nontechnical soft skills, which would give them an edge in the workplace (Kumar and Hsiao 2007). They must possess skills such as written and oral communication, customer relations, personal initiative, teamwork abilities, organizational knowledge, and decision-making that will facilitate the development of solutions to business challenges, to be effective leaders (Newport and Elms 1997).

A critical re-examination of the current engineering education system suggests a possible reformation of the current system. One of the most essential leadership attributes is teamwork; yet, studies show that students are lacking these skills (Adams 2003; Bahner 1996; Gardner 2001; Natishan et al. 2000). Many researchers found that many undergraduate students within engineering departments do not receive leadership or management skills training that are needed for them to succeed as leaders within future engineering positions (Kumar and Hsiao 2007).

Promoted in the form of minors, formal undergraduate degree programs, formal graduate degree programs, and graduate courses, leadership has been identified as a skill that needs to be included in the curricula for future engineers (Cox et al. 2009). Russell and Yao agreed that “an engineer is hired for her or his technical skills, fired for poor people skills, and promoted for leadership and management skills” (Russell and Yao 1996).

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