Big Ideas

Leadership for Engineers, Part I: Getting the Most Out of the People Around You

I recently realized that as our teams face the myriad challenges inherent with doing new things, and engineering innovative technology products, that I suggest one thing more than any other: that we provide leadership. After some discussion, the question inevitably arises: “What do you mean? Exactly?

My tendency is to provide a suggestion specific to the situation at hand. Don’t underestimate the value of your point of view–clearly express what you think is best. Or better understand what’s driving that decision you disagree with. Or do your best to leverage that person’s strengths and keep the big picture in mind. 

Stuff like that.

However, this is such a powerful concept I’ve wanted to generalize a response so people can see its applicability on a daily basis in nearly every situation, and hopefully help people develop leadership capabilities that permeate everything they do. A critical clarification: by “leadership capability” I am NOT solely referring to one’s ability to manage others, or that you need a certain title or role to provide leadership.  If you’re working with at least one other person, you’re in a position to provide leadership, whether it be in your personal or professional life. For engineers, the type of leadership I’m talking about applies to all the technical work you do as long as you’re working with at least one other person, no matter what your experience level or role.

After many attempts the past couple years to answer more broadly what I mean by provide leadership, I’ve realized how dependent this is upon the audience. Since I’m most interested in answering this question for us analytically-minded engineers, I’d like to share a few ways of answering this that have resonated with engineers. This is the first.

People are Vectors

Vectors have direction and magnitude:


Let’s say the vector represents a person on a team, and the effort he or she is contributing. Usually you want this effort to be directed toward a shared goal. In most cases, the leader of a group sets this direction, so the vector looks like this:


As for the magnitude, you probably guessed that it’s proportional to how powerful the person’s contribution is:


  Extending this to a group of engineers, a lack of leadership might look like this:


Not everyone is pointed toward common goal. Typically it’s the leader of the group’s job to do this, by setting a direction for the team:


Once everyone is working toward a common goal, if you sum the vectors you’ll have a better chance of reaching your goal:


If you can increase the magnitude of the vectors–the contribution from each person–by getting the most out of everyone, you’ll reach your goal that much sooner:


That’s just a matter of the group’s leader getting the most out of everyone, right? No. And this is the point I’ve seen many engineers miss.

Leadership Definition 1: Getting the most out of the people around you

If you’re a member of a team, no matter what your role, it’s your job to get the most out of everyone around you.

Yes, the designated leader of a team has a lot to do with getting the most out of everyone as well, but that only goes so far. The rest is up to everyone on the team. No matter what your role, getting the most out of others around you is your responsibility.

Your next question might be how do I get the most out of the people around me? Answering that could take a lifetime, but here’s a simple place to start: be aware of the impact every one of your interactions has on those around you. With every interaction you have, you’re either increasing or decreasing people’s desire to work hard together. Nobody has the luxury of doing and saying whatever they want without impacting the people around them, and the degree to which those people are motivated to contribute, even if they don’t realize it.

Think back to the interactions you’ve had today. How did you respond to frustration you felt? How did you interact with someone who gets on your nerves? How did you resolve a difference? How did stress impact an interaction? What did you choose to bring up and when? How did you say it? Now envision another person having the same interaction with you. Are you more or less motivated to work with this person? How did the energy in the room change? Do you feel more or less excited to be a part of the team?

The beauty is that once everyone on a team realizes they’re in a position to provide leadership, the easier it is for everyone else to provide it, too. You get nice, big vectors all pointed the same direction:


  That’s the kind of team that can overcome those myriad challenges.