More Than ‘Management’: Why Executive Development Is Crucial to Leadership

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MIT Professional Education, which provides professional education courses and lifelong learning opportunities for science, engineering, and technology professionals at all levels from around the world, is a MTLC member and a sponsor of our Technology & Innovation community.

 Among the many courses offered through MIT Professional Education are a series on leadership for engineers, software developers, and other technical professionals. David Niño, Senior Lecturer, Bernard M. Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program, has developed these programs with a particular focus on helping people move from outstanding individual contributors to successful leaders, a transition that is often difficult to make.

 We had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Niño recently about how innovation is such a crucial component of leadership and what skills technical professionals need to have in order to be successful. Our conversation follows.

From the outside, effective leadership often appears to be an innate, holistic skillset—so much so that people often question whether leadership can be taught at all.

For Dr. David Niño, the answer is a resounding Yes.

Here, Niño—a senior lecturer in the Daniel J. Riccio Graduate Engineering Leadership Program, and instructor for MIT Professional Education—shares his thoughts on leadership styles, the intersection of leadership and innovation, and the role of training in developing and nurturing the skills that make people great leaders.

Q: When you speak about leadership, it often seems to go hand-in-hand with innovation. Why is innovation such a critical component of effective leadership?

 Niño: In some rare cases, a company or someone makes something so wonderful that you don’t really want to or need to change, because what you’re making is just so outstanding. The Stradivarius violin, with its brilliant design and sound, comes to mind as an example. But that’s more the exception than the rule. Even for companies that have lasted for over 100 years, they’ve mostly had to reinvent themselves a number of times. The Ball Corporation, is an example that comes to mind. In its early years, the company made those ironic glass pickling jars (which I used as a kid). But over its hundred-plus years as a manufacturer, the company evolved toward incredibly advanced engineering, such as making optical and mirror technologies for the James Webb Space Telescope. If you’re leading innovation that will take an organization in new directions and toward advanced technologies, that’s going to be hard and it will take skilled leadership, especially among the technical ranks. There’s a big misconception that just because something seems like the obvious new direction, that people are going to automatically go along. It doesn’t work that way. This is why leaders of innovation have to be skilled in the repertoire of tools that it takes to be effective in moving people and systems in new directions.

Q: What are some of the most important skills that a leader needs to have?

Niño: People who want to lead innovation should be asking themselves four questions. One is: How do you create an environment where people can innovate and create effectively? The second is: What are your unique strengths and values as a leader of innovation? The third is: How do you create and communicate a vision of innovation? And finally: How can you understand and align your company’s internal and external environments so you can be more successful as a leader of innovation?

When I think of leadership, the most important things that come to mind are a focus on the future, the ability to imagine and spearhead change, and an emphasis on the emotional and human side of things. When leaders are effective at what they do, they energize people and build followership. Without followership, there is no leadership.

Q: Is there a particular leadership style that works best?

Niño: Broadly speaking, there is a range of leadership styles.  At one end of the spectrum, you have more authoritarian leaders, who tell others what to do.  And on the other end, you have more democratic or empowering leaders, where a lot of people’s voices matter. Both styles (and those in between) can be effective in some situations, and they can also be ineffective. I can imagine, for example, the very democratic leader slowing down the process of innovation, because lots of people have to have a say in big strategic decisions. I can also imagine an authoritarian leader, lacking in important areas of expertise or judgment, taking organizations in misguided directions.

The question is not so much what style of leadership is universally better. I think the real questions are: What does your market need? What does your industry need? What do your people need? What are your collective strengths and capabilities? What does your company need, in terms of its ability to succeed in developing and implementing new ideas?

Different styles can be effective in different contexts. There’s no one ideal leadership style.

Q: What role does formal training play in the development of leadership skills?

Niño: For a lot of professionals, it’s not part of their expertise to learn how to lead well, or even to manage well. The same may be true to collaborating in teams; many are more skilled in delivering individual contributions than in delivering collective ones; and our reward systems often reinforce these tendencies (rewarding individual achievements over team ones). Further complicating the development of leadership skills are traditional budgets, where companies invest greater amounts toward senior executives. So it’s very difficult for people to make this transition into a leadership role and acquire those skills without some formal training, especially early on in their careers. Think about all those years of K-12 and college education that reward individual achievement, and then tack on another 10 years of individual achievement in your work life, where you get recognized for great individual work. None of those systems reinforce teamwork and the other skills needed to be a good leader, and so it’s hard for people trying to make that jump.

Q: You specialize in teaching leadership to engineering professionals. What are some special considerations for leadership in technical fields?

 Niño: Well, technical expertise is a critical component of leading in technical or engineering environments, because it gives leaders the credibility needed to explain technical innovations and gain the much-needed support and followership. The whole idea of leadership doesn’t always resonate with people who come out of a pure technical environment. They think of leadership as a ‘management’ thing—something the bosses do – and in some cases, may develop an “anti-leadership bias. But leading is really about seeing opportunities, choosing the right problems to solve, convening the right people in teams, and then creating and implementing these changes. This is how organizations adapt to change and leadership is a critical enabler. So, leadership is something that is valuable in all workplaces, and it’s also something anybody can do. If you’re in a situation that calls on your unique expertise and your unique motivations, I think by learning leadership, you’ll be able to step up and meet those challenges.

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