5 Ways to Master Leadership in Engineering

Leadership in engineering is one wild ride! Juggling the egos of brilliant minds with all sorts of personalities can be a real challenge.

To top it off, loads of engineers are introverts, making them a tough crowd to read. But fear not! We’ll go over 5 simple and relatable tips for engineers stepping up to the leadership plate.

 #1 People aren’t machines

white cyborg finger about touch human finger

A lot of engineers treat people like their trusty computers. I mean, we get it – computers are reliable, and they don’t hold a grudge if you yell at them. No wonder everyone loves machines so much. Heck, I’ve even written about why machines outperform humans at work.

But here’s the kicker: humans aren’t machines!

Even the most stoic engineer has feelings. Boss them around, and they might comply at first. But eventually, they’ll rebel and might even resent you.

So treat engineers with respect, not like shiny new gadgets. By doing so, you’ll help them crank up their productivity and teach them how to work as smoothly as a well-oiled machine, just like you.

#2 Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes

Imagine yourself in the position of those you’re leading. You wouldn’t want anyone treating you like dirt, right? Even the most level-headed engineer would hate it. We’re all human, after all, and emotions are part of the package.

Besides, engineers know they’re the ones bringing in the dough for tech companies. No self-respecting engineer would put up with being treated like shit.

Remember, humans are like machines in one way: they need specific inputs to produce desired outputs. As a leader, it’s your job to figure out those inputs. It might sound cold, but that’s how we biologically operate on a fundamental level.

Consider your own engineering journey. What fueled your ambitions and made you give your best? Chances are, it was something like:

  • Clear career goals
  • Responsibility for crucial projects
  • Joining top-notch engineering teams
  • Competitive pay and benefits
  • Having a say
  • Autonomy

Try stepping into your team members’ shoes. It’s a fantastic way to remember that you’re not so different from them after all.

#3 Make people feel great

Who doesn’t love feeling good? A sincere compliment can work wonders. Leaders should take the time to notice and praise their engineers, whether it’s a job well done or an entire team’s success.

But be genuine. Fake flattery will backfire and damage relationships quicker than outright neglect.

My motto? Treat others how you’d want to be treated. Simple acts like remembering someone’s name and greeting them in the morning can make a world of difference.

Show empathy, too. Some engineering decisions might seem ridiculous or downright foolish, but nobody’s perfect. Some engineers are just better at hiding their uncertainties. Offer support when you can.

This brings us to Elon Musk’s golden rule:

“We have a strict ‘no-assholes policy’ at SpaceX.”

Elon has built an engineer-centric culture at SpaceX and Tesla, with workplace rules that maximize his team’s potential. As a hands-on leader who’s deep in the engineering trenches, there’s a ton you can learn from his leadership style.

#4 Connect with engineers on a deep level

leadership in engineering

Dig deep to find out what really makes your engineers tick. Once you know their heart’s desire, you can connect with them on a profound level. If you can tap into their passion, they will even be willing to take a pay cut just to work with you when your funds are tight.

Take my buddies at SpaceX, for example. They’ve always been obsessed with space, and they’re all about leaving their mark on humanity. And what better way to do that than by working at SpaceX, the modern-day NASA?

SpaceX reels in top engineering talent from every field, all thanks to Elon Musk’s commitment to making humans a multi-planetary species. His vision struck a chord with tons of like-minded people who shared his dream but didn’t have the resources or guts to chase it.

So, Elon created a space (pun intended) for people to connect with their dreams and others who shared their passion. That’s why engineers willingly work crazy hours at SpaceX, even though better-paying jobs are just around the corner.

SpaceX leadership knows what engineers crave and serves up the following:

  • Massive challenges with complete autonomy
  • An engineering-focused workplace
  • Respect and a voice

This powerful approach to engineering leadership is often overlooked, mostly because lots of companies have, well, boring missions. Seriously, some billion-dollar businesses are all about getting people to click on ads…

But even if your mission isn’t the most thrilling, you can still create a workplace that engineers will love. Offer an environment where they can flex their technical muscles from 8 to 5. It might not be as cool as designing rockets for Mars, but it’ll still make a difference.

#5 Get your hands dirty

Don’t just chill on the sidelines with your feet propped up. Roll up your sleeves and show your engineers you’re not afraid to get in the trenches. This will inspire them to work harder and follow your lead.

By making yourself available and approachable, you’ll become more relatable, and this helps build strong connections. Just take a look at Elon Musk’s thoughts on the matter:

“If you think about war … do you want the general in some like ivory tower or on the front lines? The troops are going to fight a lot harder if they see the general on the front lines.”

Elon doesn’t shy away from getting his hands dirty. He spends most of his time engineering and hanging out with his employees on the factory floor. The guy even sleeps in his factories!

So, don’t distance yourself from the people you need most. If you do, engineers might question your motives, morale could nosedive, and some might even quit.

I’d even say you should always have a solid grasp of the technical details of a project. That way, you can lead engineers effectively and provide meaningful feedback. Otherwise, you’ll just seem like a puppet. Personally, I had mad respect for bosses who were super smart and worked alongside me.

The importance of leadership in engineering wrap up

Engineers, with their technical skills, know the ins and outs of projects down to the tiniest detail. Pair that with killer leadership skills, and engineers can make some seriously epic leaders.

When it comes down to it, everybody wins with top-notch engineering leadership. Engineers feel fulfilled working under someone who just gets it, and projects are knocked out of the park every single time.

Do you think engineers make great leaders? What’s the best type of leadership in engineering?


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