Conversations: Walker on Leadership

The College of Engineering column Conversations features faculty members addressing topical, occasionally polemical issues from an engineer’s perspective to showcase the expertise, the questions, and the controversies that drive them to seek engagement on a larger scale.

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This month, we feature Sharon L. Walker, PhD, dean of Drexel’s College of Engineering, on the meaning of leadership. It’s an idea that has lately taken a drubbing, as the traditional conception of leadership collides with its practice on the national stage. We spoke with Walker about what leadership means, how she approaches it, and how she manifests it as the leader of an evolving College.

How do you define “leadership”?

I’ve been pondering this. I sort of see two types of leaders, and I think this will help define what leadership is. There’s the leader who, in the moment, people listen to because there’s some sort of charisma and rank. You think of the example of the military leader: you listen to them because they’re your boss and they’re somewhere in the hierarchy. You follow that leader because you have to or because you’re super-inspired. It’s sort of a mechanistic response. And then if you add in charisma, you’re really drawn to follow them.

But that’s only one kind of leader. I think of leadership more from the perspective of the person who exemplifies qualities that people follow because there is a desire and an understanding of what that person’s vision is, and it’s so well-articulated that you can’t imagine not following them. And when I say follow, I mean following their example, supporting their vision. It might be an organization. It might be a community. But it’s that kind of long-term leader who has a more substantial impact. Even in great leaders in military history, the ones who truly won the wars were the ones who had vision, those who thought beyond the moment and themselves.

That latter kind of leader is a service leader, and I really believe in this concept: people who take themselves out of it. They may have a good strong ego, and they have to have a sound sense of self. But they’re people who are motivated beyond their own outcomes. They’re motivated because of a broader good. That’s what’s called a “servant leader,” someone who looks at the needs of others.

So, definitions? I think the true sign of a servant leader involves this issue of empathy. Because you can see what other people need and be motivated by addressing the needs of others around you. What’s best is the well-being of others and the organization itself. And when you’re motivated by that beyond yourself and you can be empathetic to the needs around you, the kinds of change you can lead and the motivations you can develop in others is transformational. That’s why I think of it as a longer-term leadership. It’s the kind that makes change and that becomes part of a foundation of an institution or a country.

So, why do people want leaders?

You would need a good sociologist to answer that one. But in general, I think we all crave framework in our lives, whether we like to admit that or not. I see that in my children. It doesn’t mean we want to be controlled. But we want to understand the boundaries of life because it takes away some of the unknown and the fearfulness.

Leaders give us a sense of comfort. When there’s somebody you can rely on and you feel that there’s the machine of an organization around you led by somebody competent and capable, there’s a sense of security that comes from that. Politically, in the past, even when I didn’t agree with somebody, there was still a sense of confidence that the leader was bringing a sense of stability and competence to the table. I think that’s one of the reasons people are so uneasy in the country right now. One way or the other, regardless of politics, everybody feels insecure because we’re thinking, are these people competent? Do these people have vision?

Underneath it all, we all want to feel that there’s a framework that will support us and sustain us and protect us, and leadership provides that – whether it’s your organization or your military or your nation or your homeowner’s association. And of course, sometimes people like it because then they don’t have to fulfill leadership roles themselves!

There are only a few people who truly look at leadership and say, that’s what I want to be. Maybe in the corporate world they want it because they want the money. But these roles come with an enormous burden. There’s an enormous ethical and human burden that comes with leading that most people don’t understand or don’t want. A lot of people say, “I want to be the CEO because I want to make that kind of money.” But actually, there is a responsibility that comes with being in those positions that most people don’t understand. So they’re not always the kinds of positions that you want.

Did you always know you wanted to be a leader?

Yes. I’m unusual in that capacity. I knew I wanted to be a leader from grade school. You know the age when boys and girls never played together? I’m the one who brought them together. I was the organizer on the playground about what we would play and how we would play it. I hate the word ‘bossy,’ because it’s so gendered; but I was never seen as a bossy kid. People really saw me as the social catalyst in the group, an includer. I never let kids sit by themselves or put up with bullying. I was that kid who would not tolerate that and would stand up to the bullies. The only fight I was ever in in high school was because there was one kid who was bullying someone else.

I knew I was wired for this. I love the leadership activities I did through Girl Scouts in middle school and high school. I was always happiest organizing things and people. Nobody identified that I was going to be an engineer early on, because nobody in my family was ever a scientist or an engineer. So they sort of assumed I’d be an educator, which was the family business, so to speak.

For my whole life I’ve been a natural systems thinker. I’ve always understood the interconnectivity of people, things, institutions – all those kinds of organizational pieces that make me a good engineer. Those are the things that I think translate into being a good leader.

Would you agree that leadership skills have not been a traditional part of engineering pedagogy?

Well, maybe not in the core courses. But I have encountered it. When I was at UC-Riverside, I used to teach a class on professional development for environmental and chemical engineers. We talked about project management and teamwork and team management. And so leadership was a part of that.

Servant leadership isn’t always from the front. Servant leadership can be from the back, too. Sometimes the best leaders are not the ones that you know about. They may not be the dean or the CEO or the president; it could be the person who’s really organizing your team and holding everyone accountable and setting a good example and keeping you motivated. Those are leaders, too. I think in the engineering curriculum, we’ve traditionally taught leadership from that style – a good leader can manage a project or bring the team together. That is the kind of leadership that we’ve indirectly taught in engineering curriculums. When I taught this class at Riverside, we talked about it from that perspective.

“Sometimes the best leaders are not the ones that you know about. They may not be the dean or the CEO or the president; it could be the person who’s really organizing your team and holding everyone accountable and setting a good example and keeping you motivated.”
Sharon Walker

Engineers, by virtue of being really good systems thinkers and technical people, often get into positions of organizational leadership, even if they don’t want to. And then there’s the interesting challenge of, how do you transition from that technical person to a leader? I think engineers are good at that. But it’s not necessarily without its challenges to make that transition. I think there’s an opportunity to train engineers to be ready for those kinds of roles, especially if you want to train people to be ready for startups or be part of an interdisciplinary team.

Traditionally, engineering schools rely on students to do that through extracurricular activities – maybe through SWE, or IEEE, or Formula SAE groups. I actually think we need to be more intentional and make sure we infuse it into the curriculum. I think this is something we can look at when we do freshman design programs and senior capstone projects for implementation in a more intentional way.

Is industry asking for these kinds of soft skills?

I think more and more, that’s what they’re looking for. Regularly, people come in and say we need our students to be able to communicate. But I think they mean not just technical reports and speaking well to clients or being able to translate the project – they are referring to leadership. This involves communicating to people: doing the design and translating it to a team of people who are building it or manufacturing it. That’s not just communication. That’s leadership, because that involves understanding people’s needs and meeting those needs. By the way I’m defining leadership, that’s part of the soft skills that industry representatives have said they need.

Do we have any new approaches toward providing students with these skills?

So, Drexel has this long and storied past of being an example of what it means to educate engineers. Drexel has been a leader in the past, and we are the right platform to test new ways of teaching engineers. We can be nimble and innovative – that’s part of our ethos, right?

I’m very excited we’re going to be part of KEEN, the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network. Part of that model of education is leadership. And so we’ll have access to those extraordinary program resources. But more broadly, I want to ask our faculty to be creative and really not be afraid of setting the bar for the next few decades on what it means to educate engineers. And I think leadership is a piece of that.

Can you discuss your new idea for engineering co-ops?

I have challenged our faculty to think about, what it means to be the engineer of 2050. What does it mean to be an engineer working 30 years from now? Just look at the exponential change in technology in our lives in the last 20 years – this is not the same world.

We cannot cut corners on fundamental technical tools. You still have to understand thermodynamics and structures and certain engineering concepts, like circuits. Those are not changing any time soon. But there are other elements of the curriculum that we have to think about where there has to be certain technical competency for all of them, like understanding big data and the kinds of software and hardware interfaces all engineers really do have to appreciate.

But I would also argue that every engineer also needs to understand climate change, because for every single one of them, their careers are going to be impacted by how the world is changing.

We would be remiss … no, I should actually use stronger language; we would be ethically irresponsible if we did not train engineers to think seriously about climate change. Whether we’re designing future connectivity in the world, infrastructure, mechanisms. Because they are going to have to work in a world that’s smaller globally but experiencing more severe storms and regions that will no longer be able to be sustained because of rising water and changing temperatures. Whether the current adult population and current leaders want to accept that or not, it’s the reality. And so I also think the way we train engineers in addition to that technical competency is understanding it in the context of climate change. The world is changing. So their skill application will need to change. The canvas of their lives will be very different from ours.

Similarly, there are interpersonal skills that we must ensure are there, because this “I generation” would rather text than talk. There’s research that shows when you’re isolated, you lose that capacity to engage with humanity. If we’re going to be engineers who address the needs of humanity, we have to keep connected to our fellow human beings. That’s part of that empathy piece, right? And if you put up these virtual barriers against engaging with other human beings, it’s a problem. So I actually think our education has to be intentional about this human interface piece. How do you do that? How do you ensure that somebody is aware of the needs of the broader world?

So here’s my crazy new idea: I would love to encourage our students to spend one of their co-ops at a non-profit or doing work for the common good. For example, working with  a city government or a non-profit, or maybe international work through our peace engineering program. Just imagine their co-op being engineering for the common good. And it falls in line with Drexel’s mission, which is community engagement. There is no reason one in three of their co-ops cannot be for an organization. It could be for-profit, but it has to be for an organization where the mission is not just making money. Or if not that, then internationally, because that gives you a global context.

What if somebody is working as a software engineer or in research; how are leadership skills necessary at those levels?

As I said, good leaders are often leaders from behind or from within an organization. Being a leader sometimes is about setting an example of hard work, competency, and ethical behavior. That’s a leader. And sometimes those are the least glamorous people in the team. But they’re your doers. They’re the brick-and-mortar of any organization. To me, that’s leadership. It’s just leadership without ego, and perhaps without compensation. There are lots of leaders who set examples by the way they live all the time. It takes a certain level of moral courage to do really good work and to call people out when they’re not doing the right thing. Every organization needs that.

Any public role models you’d care to mention?  

Hillary Clinton came to my high school when she and Bill were campaigning in ’92 or ’91. She came onstage. She spoke about public service. She spoke about the need to commit one’s self to public service and the public good. And it just resonated. She was a very powerful speaker. I had met other politicians at the time, and heard them speak. But she was the first time I heard a speaker that led to a, “Wow!” So I remember that very vividly. Colin Powell’s another person who left me feeling like that. He spoke in a way that just made me feel, ‘Now that’s a leader.’ When he spoke, I was reinvigorated to take on the role. And it was more than just charisma. There was something … I even knew at the time when he was speaking, I was a professor already, right? Regardless of their politics, they both spoke of a common shared value system about serving each other. They both spoke on themes of service, human decency, and respect that just resonated with me. I’ve always loved listening to people who could take themselves out of the equation when they spoke. I’ve always admired that.

What are we doing to develop women and minority group leaders?

We have to acknowledge privilege and that those who do not have it should have it. Over time, as more people who have been traditionally underrepresented by all sorts of measures – women and people of color and socioeconomically disadvantaged people – have access to better educations, they will get the same platform of opportunity. Things will change. But right now as a nation, we are not opening our gates in the ways we should. This is an issue of access to high quality education and opportunity. Only as we have more diversity and representation – that comes with access – will we finally have an appropriately diverse face of leaders.

People will say, how can we hire somebody in this position – there are no women in the pipeline? Well, why aren’t there women in the pipeline? Everybody has to take responsibility – moral, organizational, professional – in opening that pipeline and sealing those leaks. People put their hands up and say, there’s nobody in the pipeline; therefore, I can only promote people who look like me. But when you notice the pipeline’s not there, there’s a responsibility to change that. The problem is one of people not acknowledging the pipeline’s not there because of historical privilege and access. People don’t take ownership of that. It is not easy to address historic and systemic injustices, so this provides an easy “out.” Nobody wants to acknowledge their complicity by inactivity. It’s systemic.

So, a lot of it is taking personal and professional responsibility. For those of us in positions of influence, using that influence to make changes is imperative. I’m doing a lot of this advocating for those who have been historically underserved and underrepresented, and I admit, it’s a burden. It’s not part of my job description. It’s not what I’m being compensated for. But I do it because it’s what I believe in and it’s the right thing to do. And you do it on Saturdays and on weeknights and at nighttime because it’s the right thing to do. We need more advocates from privilege, more advocates who are the white males. Usually when you find someone like that, it’s because he has daughters, or a child with special needs. There’s a personal connection. That’s wonderful, but it shouldn’t take just that. Access and diversity should matter to everyone. And, getting back to my earlier point, that’s where this idea of developing empathy matters.

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