What True Leadership Contains

Engineer LeaderLeadership – the type that makes someone pull an all-nighter to meet a client deadline or shut out any thought of failure without dictatorial directive – requires a solid understanding of five characteristics of people.  Every person has their own version of aspirations, ideals, inner beliefs, affections and hatreds.  In organizational settings, some of these characteristics will merge into a shared characteristic.  What gets lost in the onslaught of leadership training, tips, and tricks is that in the end, people are human and humans have emotions. 

Leadership is about harnessing these emotions.  From my twenty years of leading engineers in both developed and austere locations, I’ve gained a healthy appreciation for leveraging the soft-side of leadership in getting projects accomplished.  I learned, through leadership failure, that not understanding the subjects that touch the human soul spelled the difference between success and failure in leading.

Knowing these following five characteristics of the people you lead makes your leadership effective and, just perhaps, amazing:

1.  Aspirations.  What is it that each person wants from the task at hand?  From their job? From life?  Who is it they desire to be?  Knowing these thoughts allows you to tailor task assignments to fulfill these aspirations whenever the opportunity arises.  Think of the tasks you’ve received when you were completely engaged.  Why was that?  Because the task you were delegated aligned with your aspirations.

2.  Ideals.  Whether we state them or not we each operate with set parameters and limits of acceptance.  It’s why we won’t do certain tasks and we have certain goals for which we strive.  Our ideals are what we’ve established, either consciously or unconsciously, that guides our life.  When you know what the ideals are of the people you lead, you are able to adjust goals and objectives as needed to earn full buy-in of the team.

3.  Inner Beliefs.  Understanding the inner beliefs of the people you lead gives you insight into how individuals will act on certain projects, whether they will be a good fit for certain actions, or whether you’ll have to adjust the task set to meet the team’s abilities (or bring in new people).  For example, if you have a project requiring management services in Africa would you put a PM on the job whose inner beliefs are at odds with working outside the U.S.?  No, you won’t.  You’ll put someone on the project whose inner beliefs align with that type of work.

4.  Affections.  Knowing what the people you lead like is important. When used effectively, this knowledge allows you to assign certain tasks and projects to those you know like a particular type of work.  On larger teams knowing this information can allow you to parcel out even tasks viewed as undesirable to most, to someone.  Also, understanding the affections of your team allows you to use this to your benefit when developing enticements for accomplishing less-than-desirable work. 

5.  Hatreds.  In the same vein as understanding what is liked, you need to know what the people you lead hate.  Every job has work that people hate and everyone hates different things.  Knowing these hatreds will allow you to shift tasks, when possible, to the people who can best get the work done with least amount of pain.  Or at least know what tasks you’ll have to build-in enticements to get the work done.

You don’t require years of study in a leadership program at a prestigious school or a position on the board of a publicly traded A/E firm to gain mastery of using these five characteristics in your leadership.  You simply need to be connected to the people you lead.  You need to know them and genuinely care about working with and for them.  Once you do this, your leadership will become truly exceptional.

“You don’t lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership.”  Dwight D. Eisenhower

Christian Knutson, P.E., PMP is a leader, civil engineer, and author.  He’s an accomplished professional specializing in A/E/C work internationally and author of The Engineer Leader, a recognized blog on leadership and life success for engineers and professionals.