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June 22, 2020
June 22, 2020
June 26, 2021
Engineering Leadership Skills Development Across the Undergraduate-to-Workforce Transition
Engineering Leadership Development
This is a research paper for the ASEE LEAD topic area: Explore
Introduction To struggle or to fail is to be human. How we reflect and learn from such universally human experiences is what ultimately contributes to our personal and professional growth and development. As part of a larger project on engineering leadership, and with a central focus on the theme of “struggle,” this paper presents findings from a focused analysis of 29 career history interviews with experienced engineers. The broader project explored leadership learning situated in day-to-day practice, with this paper focusing on a particular catalytic event and the resultant learning through adversity.
Situating the research It has been over a decade since the academy and the engineering profession first brought attention to the gap between the need for engineer leaders in a competitive globalized world, and the readiness of engineering students who are entering industry to take on that challenge [1-3]. Given the gap, much of the primary research on engineering leadership over the same period has focused on the design and outcome of university curricular and co-curricular leadership programming . This paper complements the existing body of literature while standing apart. By focusing not on the learning of particular leadership skills, but the learning through challenging leadership moments – while enacting those leadership skills deliberated in the literature, this research introduces a dimension to understanding engineering leadership that is situated in workplace struggles.
Theoretical orientation and methodology Building on the theoretical perspective framing the larger project, we use situated learning theory as an analytical lens  to examine the leadership learning process catalyzed by specific workplace struggles. The project explores a variety of socio-cultural, practice-embedded learning that is realized through leadership enactment in a variety of contexts (e.g., engineers trained in nine different disciplines working in engineering intensive, financial services and government organizations) and professional situations (e.g., struggles, proud moments, sea changes). Data were collected through in-depth career history interviews with 29 engineers to elicit reflection on leadership learning. The semi-structured interviews spanned an hour-and-a-half to two hours, and the transcripts were systematically coded and organized using an inductive and iterative process of thematic analysis within a team environment.
Findings and implications Results from our analysis revealed two overarching themes on leadership learning: (1) ‘Leverage your personal resources and experiences in leadership,’ with subthemes such as ‘rely on your self-awareness, knowledge & integrity,’ and ‘take lessons from painful experience into future leadership’; and (2) ‘Contextual awareness in managing and navigating constraints,’ with subthemes such as ‘take action to protect organizational culture and values’ and ‘think outside the box to overcome constraints.’
In the final discussion, we connect the leadership skills identified in the literature to the way they were operationalized by senior engineers in difficult leadership moments, to understand more fully how those challenging experiences have contributed to meaningful leadership learning for engineers. For engineering educators, the findings authenticate for students the complexity of leadership under adversity, and present a more holistic view of leadership in a professional context.
Chan, A., & Rottmann, C., & Reeve, D., & Moore, E., & Maljkovic, M., & Macdonald-Roach, E. (2020, June), Wisdom through Adversity: Situated Leadership Learning of Engineering Leaders Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--35583
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