Engineer to Leader
"Imagine engineers and technical managers who are as effective with people as they are with technology."

STCerri International E-zine/Newsletter

#25: February 23, 2009

Engineers Are Natural Leaders... Say What?

I know this week's Ezine may cause some controversy but I've got to put this out there because by being silent, I believe it's only making the situation worse.

You see, recently I had dinner with a friend of mine.  During the conversation he made a comment that nearly required that someone administer the Heimlich maneuver to me.

I was chewing on some delicious French bread when he said; "You know, a lot of people I work with think that engineers are natural leaders".  That's when I nearly choked on my bread.

Fortunately I recovered quickly and asked, "You said what?"

He repeated his statement and this time, without food in my mouth, I laughed out loud.

Then I responded, "You've got to be kidding me, right?"  He responded, "No, I'm not."

I will, admirably I think, defend my position in the remainder of this Ezine.

Enjoy and be well,

Steven Cerri

P.S.  Feel free to pass this Ezine on to a friend.

Note:  If you have missed my previous Ezines/newsletters you can find them archived at: 
Archived Ezines/Newsletters
"Engineers Are Natural Leaders..."

I'll begin this discussion at the beginning.  And as a beginning I will state that no one is a "natural leader".  No one is a "born leader".

I listen, often with great frustration, to people who make proclamations about leadership.  They might say that "so-and-so is just a born leader".  Or how someone "is a natural leader".  Or how "everyone can be a leader".

Well, which is it?  Are leaders born?  Are they natural? Can everyone be a leader?

The bottom line is that most people who talk about leadership don't understand the term or the concept and are merely repeating some old phrase that others have spoken.  They often make statements like:

"Leaders inspire and managers perspire"... or...

"Leaders know what to do and managers know how to do it."

Actually, these are generally useless phrases.

I wouldn't mind in the least if someone wanted to tell me who was a born leader or a natural leader if they spent time up front defining leadership.  But most don't.  They assume that everyone has the same definition and understanding of leadership.  And all I have to do is discuss leadership and leaders with these people for a while and I can quickly determine that we don't all have the same definition of leadership.

My definition of leadership
Therefore, I'll begin here with my definition of leadership... and it's not a simple definition. 

Leadership, in my book, is a multi-faceted term that has a complex definition.  The definition of leadership has multiple parts (six to be exact) and if any part is missing it's not leadership.

However, for this Ezine and this discussion, there are only two components of the definition that are necessary.

The first component is that leadership is about the relationship between the leader and the context.  This may well be the most powerful component of leadership.  The leader and the environment must be in a mutually supportive relationship.   If the environment doesn't "need" or "want" the leader, the leaders seems "out of touch with reality".  If the leader is exactly what the environment "needs", the leaders seems to magically appear, as if out of thin air.  They seem to be "born" for the job.

In reality, they've always had these traits and now the environment has shifted and their traits are perfectly matched to the occasion.  (There are those situations where the leader can "morph" to match what the situation needs as well, and this kind of leader has become more common in the last 40 years or so.)

Therefore, what looks like "magic", what looks like a leader born to the job of leadership, is actually an individual living their life, waiting in the wings, off stage, until the stage is set for them to step forth fully formed or nearly so.

As long as the environment is aligned with what the leader can provide, then the leader will flourish.  However, when the environment shifts, the leader will often vanish or be significantly diminished in stature.

There are many examples of this "match-up", and then a lack of it, throughout history.  They include many military leaders, such as Napoleon, General George Patten, and many political leaders such as Boris Yeltsin, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush just after 9/11.  We must wait to see how the leader-environment match-up plays out for President Barack Obama of the United States as well as President Nicolas Sarkosy of France.  Both were elected in environments that were making a major transition.

This leader-environmental match-up is is exactly why successful "serial entrepreneurship" is so difficult to achieve.
How many times can a match-up occur between an entrepreneur and the environment?  Apparently not very often.  It is the rare entrepreneur, indeed, who can start-up several successful companies. 

Only the leader who can morph to match the environment can be a leader in a variety of situations.  General, and later president, Dwight Eisenhower is an example of a leader who was able to cross contextual boundaries.   And Elon Musk is an example of a successful serial entrepreneur. 

All one has to do is look out in the world and it becomes clear that there aren't any born leaders or natural leaders.  The phrase, "He (or she) is the leader of their time" is a truly accurate statement.  Leadership is about the leader the their "time" being in alignment.

Engineers are not born leaders
Leadership, then, is about the match between the person and the situation.  What often looks like natural leadership is a serendipitous correlation between the person and the situation that requires the behavior of the individual at that moment in that situation.

So, not only are people not "born leaders" nor are they "natural" leaders, but engineers are certainly not any more prone to leadership than anyone else. 

In fact, as an engineer I can say, with significant authority, that engineers are probably some of the least leadership-prone people on the planet.  Most engineers do not enter into engineering school to be leaders.  On the contrary.

The second part of my definition of leadership is that most leaders lead people.  And by my definition, most (not all) engineers are not in the least interested in leading people.  If engineers wanted to be leaders... 

They would not have focused on a career that allows them to interact with physical laws that don't talk back. 

They would not have focused on a career that allows them to sit in front of a computer and code all day long. 

They would not have focused on a career that allows them to deal with concepts instead of people, emotions, and values. 

They would not have entered a career that allowed them to avoid developing effective communication and interpersonal people skills.

It seems to me that people who think that engineers are natural leaders have one of two things going on; either they have a very different definition of leadership than I do (and if that's the case I'm willing to listen to their definition before they make their proclamation about leadership) or they are focusing on the fact that engineers can be creative and come up with new ideas...and that is not leadership, that is creativity.

Let's be clear
So let's be clear, engineers are not born leaders, nor are they natural managers.  It doesn't matter if they are baby boomers or new graduates, engineering is not a career that is selected by people who want to lead. 

Engineering is a career for people who want to understand the world not lead it. 

It is for people who want to find the right answer, not argue over the answer. 

It's for people who want to find some certainty in their world, not move through the world filled with ambiguity.

You must learn leadership
Leadership must be acquired, taught, and learned in relation to the context in which it is to be applied.  It isn't part of the engineering curriculum or the engineers' perception of the world. 

And anyone in the academic or business community who thinks that engineers are natural leaders or that the general engineering curriculum teaches leadership is missing a great opportunity. 

Engineers think differently
One of the major reasons engineers have such a difficult time becoming mangers and leaders is exactly because it's such a different way of thinking.

Creativity is not leadership.

Solving for and/or knowing the right answer is not leadership.

Even fighting for the correct answer is not leadership.

Leadership requires risk.  Engineering schools teach how to assess risk and then mitigate against it.

Leadership requires conflict.  Schools teach engineers that having the right answer avoids conflict because who can dispute the right answer?

Leadership requires ambiguity.  Schools teach engineers how to find the right answer so as to minimize ambiguity.

Leadership requires less than complete information to make decisions and act.  Schools teach engineers that if one doesn't have enough information, get more information until ambiguity and risk are removed.

The traits that make a good engineer do not, necessarily, make a good leader.

Now that you are convinced, what's next?
Now that we understand that engineers are not natural leaders and that most engineering schools don't do anything to prepare them for leadership, we are in a much better position to help every engineer who wants to become a leader actually achieve that capability. 

We can train our engineers to be leaders.  We can coach them.  We can give them mentors and opportunities in their work organizations to practice leadership skills.

Remember, a few paragraphs above I mentioned that we had a great opportunity.  Well, here is the opportunity.  If it is correct, as I've put forth, that one of the critical success components for leadership is the "relationship" between the individual leading and the "environmental context", then an important question is, "What can you do as the manager to 'set-up' an environment where your direct report(s) can be leaders?"

Now some managers believe that the way to build a leader is to throw their direct report(s) "into the fire".  Let them "sink or swim".  It should be clear at this point in my Ezine that this approach will only work for those direct reports who have behavioral tendencies that match what the environment "wants" from a leader.

If you are a manager attempting to prepare your direct report(s) for leadership, are you "matching" your individual direct reports with a unique environment and a unique management style from you, so that they can flourish as leaders, or are you treating them all the same.  If you treat all your direct reports the same, you will cultivate only one type of leader, and the others "will appear" to fail as leaders.

Your job as technical manager is to create an environment and select a management style that fosters the leadership development of your direct reports.  It's a one-on-one process.

I never said it would be easy or simple.

Be well,

"Imagine engineers and technical managers who are as effective with people as they are with technology?"

Steven trains, coaches, and facilitates engineers and technical managers to BE the answer to this question.  Steven is unique because he has made this transition himself.  Get Steven's latest thoughts at:

I'm sure you'll find the information in this newsletter/e-zine and other products useful to the advancement of your engineering and/or management career.  Send questions, comments, and suggestions to:

Copyrightę2008 STCerri International and Steven Cerri.  You are free to pass this information on to others and to reproduce it.  If you reproduce sections in whole or part please give attribution to Steven Cerri.  Thank you.

Be well,

Steven Cerri
STCerri International

Steven's Photo #1
Most of us believe that the behaviors that made us successful as engineers will make us successful at the next level of our careers.  Unfortunately, the skills that got you where you are today won't get you where you want to be tomorrow.
Quick Links
Join Our Mailing List
Private Coaching
Take that next step into your future with private tele-coaching or in-person coaching.

Call: 925-735-9500 and set up your 30 minute free interview or
Skype stevencerri.

To learn more go to:
Steven's Coaching
MP3 Files are now available of Steven's CDs

Influencing Without Authority
Influencing without authority is a must in our present engineering world.  A world in which we must collaborate with a wide variety of people from all over the world.  I'll be presenting a course on just this subject:  Influencing when you don't have authority.  Keep and eye out for this box to find more details soon.
Skype for Coaching
We can now use Skype for international tele- coaching.  If you'd like coaching across the oceans, Skype can do the trick. Email me for a time to set up a free consultation.
Get Your Free Ebook
Get your copy of my free Ebook titled:  "Steven Cerri's Ten Rules!"  Avoid the Pitfalls To Your Career Advancement While Making the Right Moves From Engineer To Leader.

Go to the link below, scroll down half a page and on the right side of the page you'll find the sign-up for the free Ebook.

Steven's Ebook
CDs For Sale
Articles you might find useful:

10 Pitfalls to Advancing Up the Technology Management Ladder


Being Right versus Being Effective

Motivating People By Reference

Case Studies

Articles can be found at this link

Steven's Articles Published
Steven's published articles can be found here:

"Engineering or Management", published in NSPE (National Society of Professional Engineers) Magazine, 2008.

"Going Soft", published in ASME (Mechanical Engineering) Magazine, 2004