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The Ebb and Flow of Engineering Leadership Orientations

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Assessment of Engineering Leadership Skills

Tagged Division

Engineering Leadership Development Division

Tagged Topic


Page Count


Page Numbers

26.1519.1 - 26.1519.16



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Paper Authors


Doug Reeve P.Eng. University of Toronto

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Professor Reeve is the founding Director of the Institute for Leadership Education in Engineering (ILead) at the University of Toronto. Providing opportunities for leadership learning has been central to his work with engineering students for over twenty-five years. Dr. Reeve is a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry and served as Chair from 2001-2011.

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Cindy Rottmann University of Toronto, ILead

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Cindy Rottmann is a Research Associate at the Institute for Leadership Education in Engineering (ILead) at the University of Toronto. Her research interests include engineering
leadership, engineering ethics education, critical theory, teacher leadership and social justice teacher unionism.

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Robin Sacks University of Toronto

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Dr. Sacks is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering at the University of Toronto teaching leadership and positive psychology at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. Robin also serves as the Director of Research for the Engineering Leadership Project at the Institute for Leadership Education in Engineering which aims to identify how engineers lead in the workplace.

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The Ebb and Flow of Engineering Leadership OrientationsContext & Objective:The National Academy of Engineering and Engineers Canada have been advocating forengineers to assume greater leadership responsibilities in their workplaces and in society (EC,2009; NAE, 2004), but little is known about how engineers orient themselves toward leadership.In phase one of our study on engineering leadership we used grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss,1967) to identify three professionally relevant leadership orientations— Technical Mastery (the“go to” engineer for technical questions), Collaborative Optimization (engineers who build highperforming teams) and Organizational Innovation (engineers whose creative ideas drive thecompany). In this paper we report on phase two of the study, the primary objective of which wasto analyze the prevalence of these orientations in a larger sample of engineers.Relevance to LEAD:Our project is directly relevant to LEAD is it involves empirical research on the nature ofengineering leadership from the perspectives of professional engineers.Methodology:The primary source of data for our analysis is a survey of 175 engineers working for twointernational organizations with head offices in Canada. We solicited information aboutparticipants’ 1) background characteristics, 2) leadership orientations across time and situation,and 3) their evaluation of the skills and traits of exemplary leaders. We used Cronbach’s alphato test the reliability of survey scales using the full complement of data collected (n=175) andfound that all three scales met the social science reliability threshold of 0.7 (Kline, 1999). Forthis paper, we use descriptive statistics to analyse engineers’ leadership orientations acrossdevelopmental and situational contexts.Findings:Overall, as might be expected in a highly technical profession, a greater proportion of engineersin our sample prioritized technical mastery (45%) over each of the other two orientations. Whenwe analyzed the data by career stage, however, we found that as engineers progressed throughtheir careers from students to junior engineers to senior engineers, the percentage of them whoprioritized technical mastery dropped (45% to 28%), while the percentage who prioritizedcollaborative optimization (39% to 43%) and organizational innovation (16% to 29%) grew.Beyond this interesting developmental trend, we found that situational prompts also shapedengineers’ identification with the three leadership orientations. Engineers at all career stageswere most likely to prioritize technical mastery when provided with task-oriented prompts(64%) and collaborative optimization when provided with job satisfaction (45%) and teamwork(48%) prompts.Conclusions & Implications:Our findings suggest that engineering leadership orientations are dynamic entities that shift overtime and across situations. Among other recommendations to be discussed in the full paper, itbehoves us as engineering educators to expose all students to multiple ways of influencing,supporting and relating to their colleagues. Leadership strategies that may feel uncomfortable toundergraduate students will become increasingly relevant as they gain workplace experience.

Reeve, D., & Rottmann, C., & Sacks, R. (2015, June), The Ebb and Flow of Engineering Leadership Orientations Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24857

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