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Systems Thinking Concepts and Applications for Engineering Leadership Development

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

June 19, 2019

Conference Session

Creating Impactful Learning Experiences for Engineering Leaders

Tagged Division

Engineering Leadership Development

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Paper Authors


B. Michael Aucoin Leading Edge Management, LLC Orcid 16x16

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B. Michael Aucoin is President of Leading Edge Management, LLC and Electrical Expert, Inc. in College Station, Texas. He earned a B.S. in Engineering from the University of New Orleans, an M.Engr. in Electrical Engineering and a D.Engr. from Texas A&M University, and an M.A. in Organizational Leadership from Gonzaga University. Dr. Aucoin has performed research and teaching in academia and has worked in large and small organizations. He served on a Mishap Investigation Board with the NASA Johnson Space Center. He received the IEEE Third Millennium Award, and projects he helped lead received the NSPE Outstanding Engineering Achievement Award and R&D 100 Award. He is a Registered Professional Engineer and earned the Project Management Professional Certification.

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Dennis Arthur Conners

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Many important and worthwhile initiatives in engineering leadership development focus on the development of communication, social, and business skills among engineers [1]. The objective of this paper is to explore and demonstrate the value of leveraging engineers’ deep knowledge of systems in a more deliberate and explicit way in leadership development. These skills are particularly valuable for analyzing, improving, and optimizing organizational processes.

Concepts in systems thinking as applied to organizational behavior are often framed visually in the form of an iceberg. Above the surface, we see events, but beneath the surface there are typically patterns of events that are sustained from beneath by organizational structures, which in turn are established by mental models. Exploration of these latter three areas offer leverage opportunities for significant improvements in behaviors [2], [3]. Such exploration is facilitated through various systems thinking tools, especially when used in groups. Three well-established tools are presented: behavior over time, causal loop [4], and process flow [5] diagrams. Such tools are comfortable extensions or analogs to similar tools used in engineering applications.

These three tools are explained, and simple examples are given. The tools have been in use in an Organizational Behavior and Theory course for the M.A. degree in Organizational Leadership at Gonzaga University. Students from varied disciplines, including engineering, enroll in this program. The content for this topic consists of: 1) readings to help students with the concepts, 2) application of these tools to fictitious problems as well as real issues that they face, e.g. in their jobs, and 3) reflection on the tools through journaling. Student evaluations and feedback have demonstrated the power of these tools for significant improvements and even transformation in organizational behavior. Future work is needed to potentially isolate effects of such skill development for engineers as compared with other populations, and to gather data on the relative benefits of this approach as compared with others.

Given the extensive systems skills that engineers have, such systems thinking tools can provide a powerful way for them to exercise leadership through improvement and optimization of organizational behavior. Such an approach can complement and augment the prevalent initiatives for communication, social, and business skill development in engineering leadership.

Aucoin, B. M., & Conners, D. A. (2019, June), Systems Thinking Concepts and Applications for Engineering Leadership Development Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--33335

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