Principles to Guide Leadership Training
When employers say they’ll create both shareholder and social value, our students must know the difference.
Opinion By Mehran Mehregany and Gary E. Wnek
We’re witnessing a transformation of our economy, in which emerging technologies that improve lives or the environment show real profit potential. Witness the development of robots that will assist in caring for the elderly, a host of new biomedical devices, and the growth of clean energy. Companies increasingly recognize their role as social enterprises and as builders of relationships with multiple stakeholders. This trend broadens career options for engineering students with an interest in service or in empowering communities. Whereas in the past they may have sought fulfilling careers in nonprofit institutions or government, now they have the option of pursuing those interests through a company. But social value is not the same as shareholder value, and companies that seek to create both will, from time to time, face a balancing act. That’s why it is more important than ever for engineering educators to provide training in ethics-based leadership.
We offer three guiding principles, drawn from our own career experiences in business, academia, and nonprofit organizations.
“Creating conditions of trust in an organization”: That is how Gen. Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state, expresses the essence of leadership. Trust is foundational and in turn is built on honesty, which is a very basic and indispensable building block of good leadership. Honesty is a personal skill, not a contextual one; it is learned and is context independent. This inspires our first principle of effective leadership: Do not be situational. Do not mold the most fundamental beliefs that are dear to you in response to changing scenarios. Adherence to personal core beliefs and philosophies in the midst of changing circumstances at school or at work is, in our opinion, one of the most obvious ways of demonstrating honesty and creating and sustaining trust.
Our second principle of effective leadership is: Do not be transactional. Play for the long game. All too often, individuals in leadership positions, whether at school or in the workplace, rely on short-term gains derived from impersonal transactions that frequently do not (or cannot) lead to long-term, mutually beneficial, and sustainable partnerships. Instead, the focus should be on relationship-building with honesty and integrity. Productive transactions can and will result, but they will not compromise integrity and trust. A selfless service mind-set, encouraged by relationship-building, may in fact be the best avenue to encourage morality as a compass for leadership.
Where does this bring us? “The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles” is a common dictionary definition of integrity. Thus, our third and overarching principle: Lead with integrity. Adherence to this principle must start early, well before graduation and the search for employment. Millennials who try to practice integrity expect universities and companies to do so as well, and they are gravitating to socially conscious institutions that make learning and work fulfilling experiences. Peter Drucker, the author and educator who has been called “the founder of modern management,” put it well: “Performing organizations enjoy what they are doing.” The transformation economy favors leaders dedicated and able to advance the individual and collective capacities of their talent pools. The transformation economy will discourage cultures around management appeasement in favor of cultures around unity in diversity, wherein unity is in purpose—vision, strategy, plan, tactics, and metrics—and diversity is in the intellectual and social fabric of an organization’s talent pool.
We suggest that the basic principles of effective leadership are integrity, adherence to core beliefs, and a commitment to long-term relationships. The 21st-century transformation economy is seeding the landscape to transition to this leadership paradigm. Bad leadership and a lack of a genuine spirit of service will not go unnoticed. With today’s communication tools, individuals and communities can acquire, and share widely, the knowledge needed to exercise the power of choice. They will gravitate toward leaders who create value in their communities. Organizations and their employees that ignore these principles, or students who do not prepare to embrace and espouse them, will be at risk of irrelevance.
Mehran Mehregany is director of the Case School of Engineering–San Diego and a professor of wireless health innovation at Case Western Reserve University, where Gary E. Wnek is a professor of macromolecular science and engineering.