So you want to become a leader? Are you sitting back and thinking about what actions you need to take to become one? Maybe it feels like some kind of secret mission – where you must uncover the hidden secrets of becoming a leader.

 
Man writing tips on white board in presentation to group.

As engineers, we often feel like we have to "engineer our way" through a discovery or design process in order to lead. Why do we think this way? 

In the Masters of Engineering degree with a concentration in Information Engineering Management program we like to think that leadership is simply a decision to start. You don't need permission from others or a special title to be bold. When you make the decision to lead yourself well, you will suddenly find yourself ready to lead others. 

The truth is, the real secret to leadership is action. However, the way you think about leading precedes the actions you take. Leadership begins with simple acts of stepping forward, thinking differently about opportunities out of comfort zones, and a willingness to grow - even through the awkwardness of unfamiliarity. It's starting as an eager engineer that takes on challenges, which can lead to leadership opportunities, and ultimately management positions

Here are three steps I learned early in my career when I was ready to become a leader:

  1. Change your thinking
    In one of my engineering positions, I hated my job. Levels of leadership above me were poor examples of leadership. Morale was terrible. I was looking for a way out. However, as an engineer who did not know anything else, I felt trapped. 

    I found an escape in studying the psychology of success, so I started reading anything about the subject. What I learned was that while I could not control my leaders, my company, or really much at all about work, I was in control of my reaction to it. They could tell me what to do, but they could not tell me how to feel and how to think. Later that same week, the Earl Nightingale quote “we become what we think about" summed up my whole situation. I had become miserable, angry, frustrated, and depressed. It was showing up in every aspect of my life and in my health. I wanted to become something else. 

    So, out of desperation, I started experimenting. I decided I would start thinking like the CEO of my company. My day-to-day activities would be focused on how he would deal with the situation. While I did not know the CEO, I would think how he would handle the same issues I was being brought. I began to focus on serving the customer and impacting the bottom line of the company. 
  2. Actions make a difference
    Soon, I was directing my team to take action to best serve both the company and the customer. I would call other teams to get things moving, and even call angry customers. As an introvert, this wasn't ideal or fun, but my CEO-thinking helped me overcome anxiety. I felt like I was doing something to help people and started enjoying the experience. I even began to enjoy calling angry customers so I could smooth over the issues.   

    At the end of the first week in my new pseudo-CEO role, one of the ladies who worked for me asked – “What has happened – you seem different?”

    I had not thought about it – I was just playing the role. I asked her what she meant and she continued to tell me everyone was getting along better and she was enjoying work more. She told me – “Whatever you are doing, please do not stop.”   
  3. Ask for help when you need it
    I used to hate to ask for advice and thought it made me look weak. But the truth is, I know a lot but I do not know everything. I never will. When I started thinking like the CEO, I would stop and ask people how to do things. I would even have them show me their job. 

    One day a technician showed me how to reroute traffic in the network. Even though I wasn't sure I understood all that he did, when I told him I was impressed by his skill he looked at me with a big smile and said “Thanks!” I did not mean to give him a compliment – but I think I did. 

    Later on, him showing me how he rerouted networks came in handy when I was working with another team. I had seen it done, and knew it could be done, even if I did not know how to do it.

    Leaders ask a lot of questions. They do not make decisions in a vacuum. They are always learning and are not afraid to go to the place where the action happens. Don't be afraid to seek counsel. Even the best leaders get a lot of input.

Where to Start Now?

Waiting for an opportunity to begin leading is not how a leader would act. Simply start where you are, with the work you do. Talk to your boss. Ask them about tough decisions they've had to make and get them to explain their thinking process.  Think about who your work impacts. Talk to those people and think about how your decisions and actions can best impact their work as well. 

If you do not think you are ready for leadership, then look around. You are most likely already leading. It may be your family, friends, community, your team at work, and you may even already be seen as a leader by your boss. Take a moment and think about the leadership responsibilities you already have and use it as motivation to think how you can continue to improve your leadership qualities. 

Let Us Help You Lead

At IEM, we want to help you find those areas where you can start leading in your career, and arm you with the skills to start making a difference and get noticed in your current position. Use the form on this page to schedule a time to talk or email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Let us help you lead your way to a technical or engineering management career.

About IEM

The Master of Engineering with a concentration in Information Engineering Management (IEM) at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) is a specialized concentration designed primarily for engineers and people in technical positions. The concentration presents business systems and soft skills in a curriculum that is based on actual engineering industry needs and is offered completely online.