How often do hear people saying we need better leaders?
We blame our slow responses to climate change on populist leaders. Thanks in part to populist leaders, women still face the same barriers as they did two or three decades ago. We are consuming earth’s irreplaceable resources, mineral and biological, far too fast to ensure future generations share the lifestyle we have today. We can change… but we need good leaders!
We hear time and again how people are losing their trust in leaders, politicians, institutions, and journalists. Where, they ask, are the Roosevelts, Kennedys, Churchills, Ghandis, and Mandelas who could lead us through these challenges?
We have run out of time to sit and wait for a phalanx of talented and inspiring leaders to emerge and rescue us.
I think we can make good leaders emerge much sooner. Universities could do that, but they need some new ideas.
In my research I have tried to understand what engineers do and why they do what they do… or not.
Engineers have to be leaders, no matter how inadequate their people skills. Contrary to what you might think, engineers never build anything themselves. They only achieve results by persuading other people to do their work differently. This is how I came to understand much more about leadership, and how we could develop more effective leaders.
Our education institutions, schools and universities alike, mostly rely on written assessments: exams, or quizzes. Students are rewarded with grades, good or bad. Every time this reinforces a connection between writing and rewards. It is never stated, but deep in students’ subconscious minds, writing grows ever more important while face to face social skills are easily neglected. It’s called the hidden curriculum, what schools teach without ever saying so.
No matter how often teachers and professors tell students that soft skills and emotional intelligence are vital, the hidden curriculum is telling them something else at a much deeper instinctive level.
The same assessments also reinforce another connection. Students are nearly always assessed on their individual performances in exams and tests where collaboration is seen as cheating, and explicitly prohibited. Occasionally group reports carry marks, but students still have to show they contributed individually, and were not free-riding on others’ efforts. The connection between rewards and individual work is reinforced nearly every time.
And thirdly, emotions are seen in school and universities as attributes to be suppressed. Logic should triumph over emotions, evidence over perceptions… surely yes, every time.
Yet, when it comes to leadership, collaboration, social skills and emotional awareness are everything. Good leaders relate to people in emotional spaces, gain their trust and respect, and they hone their face to face social skills.
Of course, universities have used exams for generations. So, why have perceptions on leadership changed so much in the last two to three decades?
I argue that the advent of email and instant text messaging has (again inadvertently) swayed our social interactions because text communication has become fast, free, and easy. Before these innovations, writing letters or documents took much more time, and effort, and we had to pay the post office to send them. Even though educated leaders had an instinctive preference for communicating in writing, time and convenience favoured face to face socialising and phone calls.
Once text messaging became ubiquitous, a new generation of leaders, no more predisposed to writing than their forebears, suddenly embraced the speed and convenience of text without realising perhaps that trust would be an early casualty (also spelling!). We know from decades of psychology research that trust is more strained and fragile when people write to each other instead of meeting face to face.
These influences are accidental. They are by-products of efforts to make assessments as fair and objective as possible, and written communication as fast and convenient as possible. Also to educate students as rational critical thinkers who can develop and analyse arguments for themselves.
So how can we reshape our students’ unconscious instincts that would make it so much easier for them to gain our trust as future leaders? It’s important to understand just how strong this accidental conditioning can be, that favours writing, individual achievement, and suppressing emotions. Persuasion will not work as long as the hidden curriculum is repeatedly reinforcing opposing instincts.
I have some suggestions.
In the short term, particularly with engineers, there’s an opportunity to reshape their instincts in the first few months at work. Many endure a challenging transition from school. Even getting a job can be a soul-destroying experience until they realise that most jobs are never advertised and networking is the only way to find them.
My former students have told me how surprised they were to find that many people just don’t read emails, or misunderstand them. Of course, I enjoy reminding them about all the emails and handouts that they never read as students. This troublesome transition provides a fertile moment of disorientation when instincts can be challenged and reshaped before habits harden with time. In an environment that favours collaboration, change is easier.
In universities, faculty complain about teaching workloads that make research a weekend or night time hobby. With appropriate instruction in teaching methods, students could learn to teach much of the curriculum. Not only would this relieve faculty, shifting their role to a source of inspiration, and necessary quality assurance, but this change would also promote much more face to face interaction between students, reinforcing their knowledge at the same time. It is often said that one only really comes to understand ideas when you have to teach them to others.
Students would then be assessed in two dimensions. First on their collaborative efforts, being graded on how well they teach, lead and inspire other students. And second on the equally necessary individual learning that ensures they acquire knowledge and wisdom to make sense of it.
Just think how much easier it could be for young leaders to engage those people in our societies who respond more in emotional spaces, and read reluctantly at best. But that can only happen if emotional awareness and social skills are reinforced through their education. Politicians would not have to resort to populism to build respect and popularity. Instead they would have the skills to help people understand the huge changes we all need to make.
Even today’s leaders could learn a thing or two. Though it could be harder for them to appreciate, later in life, how they have been seduced into text messaging, a habit which inevitably weakens trust and respect.
If you’re a young engineer, or leader reading this, ask yourself before you next send that text. Could I talk face to face instead? If not, could I call? Could we make a time to talk?
And, as always, remember not all people are alike. Some relationships work best through writing. My grandfather and great uncle ran our family business and communicated by letter through their secretaries for decades even though they had adjacent offices!
Read more: Trevelyan, J. P. (2010, October 27-30). Engineering Students Need to Learn to Teach. Paper presented at the 40th ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference, Washington, DC. Available from IEEE Xplore or myself.