The Keys to Successful Leadership for Engineers

Autonomy, trust, and risk taking are among the skills needed

13 May 2014

Photo: iStockphoto

A few weeks ago, The Institute wrote about whether engineers make for good leaders. In my opinion, no one—no matter what his or her career of choice—has an innate talent to be a successful leader. It is a matter of having the desire to be successful as a leader.

This involves learning how to be effective working with others. To do that, we have to understand those we work with and the culture of the office environment, and provide those on our team the adequate time necessary to complete the tasks at hand. After reading the comments on whether engineers fit this mold, I started asking myself whom I know that is both an engineer and a successful leader. A few names came to mind.  

These include two of my friends who completed their engineering degrees from Texas A&M University, in College Station, and went on to form their own full-service consulting company—M&S Engineering, celebrating its 15th anniversary this year. What I believe made them successful is applying their unique philosophy, which they call “management by exception,” to lead their employees. While, of course, profit and cash flow are important to them, those are not as important as autonomy, a team they can trust, and working in an entrepreneurial environment where employees can take risks. This made their company ripe for opportunities for those who wish to apply themselves and continue to grow and be challenged in their career.

On the other side of the coin, I can also think of engineers whose leadership was not so strong. Even I have to admit, as someone who has led companies and projects for more than 25 years, I am reflecting on my own management style. I realize now that micromanaging and focusing excessive attention to minor details are some of the reasons my first business failed.

Prior to starting that company, Engineering Applications, which consulted on security and power supply systems, I thought to myself that if other people can start businesses, why can’t I? For several years, the company did do well. It grew to 135 employees with four branch offices in three countries. Because of the expansion, it made micromanaging more difficult. I started to lose control of the company and made quick decisions that ended up being the wrong decisions. I lost some of my best employees and along the way lost my confidence. Many of my former employees told me they thought I could not trust them to do the job right. This led to a domino effect of other things going wrong with the business and, ultimately, I called it quits.

A leader who has the ability to understand others and is able to connect with his or her employees is more likely to find a resolution to problems in the company. Management, I’ve learned, is not about micromanaging, but rather about lifting people up to a higher standard.

Future leaders, in my view, will be those who give autonomy to their employees and allow them to go on the trail not yet taken and leave their own mark.

In all my posts, I like to end with a quote that has influenced me in my career. Here is one from the great Isaac Newton: “If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Do you have an example of an engineer who makes for a strong leader? What are the qualities you believe engineers are required to have to lead their team to greatness?

blogQusi Photo: Qusi Alqarqaz

Qusi Alqarqaz is an IEEE member and an electrical engineer with a full-service engineering consulting company based in New Braunfels, Texas.

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