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Leading from the Bottom Up: Leadership Conceptions and Practices Among Early Career Engineers

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Engineering Leadership Development: Theories, Models, Frameworks, and Tools

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Engineering Leadership Development Division

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Paper Authors


Mike Klassen University of Toronto

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Mike Klassen is the Assistant Director, Community of Practice on Engineering Leadership at the Institute for Leadership Education in Engineering (ILead) at the University of Toronto. He designs and facilitates leadership programs for engineering students - with a range of focus from tangible skill development to organizational leadership to complex social problems. Mike is a candidate for the Master of Arts in Higher Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and has a BASc in Engineering Science from the University of Toronto.

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Serhiy Kovalchuk University of Toronto

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Serhiy Kovalchuk is a research associate at the Institute for Leadership Education in Engineering, Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, University of Toronto.

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Doug Reeve P.Eng. University of Toronto

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Dr. Reeve is the founding Director of the Institute for Leadership Education in Engineering (ILead) established in 2010. Development of personal capability has been central to his work with engineering students for twenty-five years. In 2002 he established Leaders of Tomorrow, a student leadership development program that led to the establishment of ILead in 2010. He is also a Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry

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Robin Sacks University of Toronto

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Robin is an Assistant Professor with the Institute for Leadership Education in Engineering at the University of Toronto where she teaches leadership and positive psychology. She served as Director of the Engineering Leadership Project, which aims to understand how engineers lead in industry.

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Most studies on engineering leadership have focused so far on developing an empirically based theory [1], understanding how leadership orientations vary across demographic variables [2], and identifying the kinds of leadership development that occur during undergraduate engineering education [3]. In recent years, other studies have helped uncover how engineering companies advertise leadership in job postings for entry level engineers [4], what recruiters look for at career fairs [5], and the leadership behaviours most valued by companies [6]. There is a a limited understanding of how these expectations translate into reality when early career engineers join a company and begin their socialization in the workplace. We do not understand how early career engineers develop their leadership identities and conception, and the extent to which they exhibit the leadership behaviours sought after by the companies that employ them. This paper addresses this gap by examining what kinds of leadership development occur in the early years of an engineer’s career by examining the transition process of engineers as they navigate their first few years of professional work.

Relevance to engineering leadership Our study explores how early career engineers conceptualize leadership, the leadership behaviors they exhibit, and the opportunities for leadership development and practice in different organizational contexts.

Methodology This paper draws on a larger qualitative multiple case study research project that examines the university-to-work transition of engineering graduates. As part of the study, we interviewed 21 early career engineers in four engineering companies to explore how they understand and practice leadership at the early stage of their engineering career. We also compared and contrasted opportunities for the development and practice of leadership within and across the four engineering companies.

Results The study revealed that the majority of early career engineers conceptualize leadership in terms of position, while a few had more nuanced definitions relating to process, relationships and informal types of leadership. In terms of behaviours, our study corroborates the relevance of Hartmann and Jahren’s leadership themes, with the three most frequent being communication, interpersonal interaction and initiative. Finally, the most common opportunities for leadership at this career stage were to lead a project, to mentor co-op students and interns, or to play a role in a committee or extracurricular organization associated with the company.

Recommendations and implications Our study suggests that leadership development does occur at this early career stage and that both engineers and their organizations have important and distinct roles to play in this process. Engineers can enact their agency by taking initiative, asking questions and pushing to learn about the broader context in which their work fits. Organizations can create an expansive organizational culture by creating challenging assignments, providing adequate feedback and encouraging engineers to learn from their colleagues. The study also corroborates previous findings about the resistance to leadership among engineers [1], and show links between the positional conception of leadership and the orientation towards technical mastery identified in earlier studies.


1. Rottmann, Cindy, Sacks, Robin, & Reeve, Douglas W. (2014). Engineering leadership: Grounding leadership theory in engineers' professional identities. Leadership, 23. doi: 10.1177/1742715014543581 2. Reeve, Douglas W, Rottmann, Cindy, and Sacks, Robin. (2015). The Ebb and Flow of Engineering Leadership Orientations. Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 3. Rottmann, Cindy, Sacks, Robin, Klassen, Mike & Reeve, Douglas W. (2016). Sports, arts and concrete canoes: Engineers learning to lead outside the formal curriculum. Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 4. Hartmann, Beth & Jahren, Charles. (2015). Leadership: Industry Needs for Entry-Level Engineering Positions. Journal of STEM Education, 16:3. 5. Handley, Meg, Lang, Dena & Erdman, Andrew Michael. (2016). Identifying Engineering Leadership Potential During the On-Campus Recruiting Process. Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 6. Hartmann, Beth, Stephens, Clinton & Jahren, Charles. (2016). Validating the Importance of Leadership Themes for Entry-Level Engineering Positions. Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education Practice. 7. Yin, Robert. (2013). Case Study Research: Design and Methods. Sage Publications

Klassen, M., & Kovalchuk, S., & Reeve, D., & Sacks, R. (2017, June), Leading from the Bottom Up: Leadership Conceptions and Practices Among Early Career Engineers Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28608

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