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Scholars in Engineering Leadership Program Q&A

February 06, 2018

Mike Johnson, Professor and Chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, asserts that today’s engineering graduates shouldn’t rest on their expertise alone.

Mike Johnson

Mike Johnson

What is a leader, and how do you become one?

For some engineering students, the question seems largely irrelevant. They assume leadership is either a natural talent bestowed upon a few visionaries or a special branch of education for those with an entrepreneurial bent. At any rate, it doesn’t have much to do with finishing a pressing fluid dynamics assignment.

Mike Johnson, Professor and Chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, asserts that today’s engineering graduates shouldn’t rest on their expertise alone.

“Employers assume the engineers they interview already have technical skills. What employers really want are people who can take leadership roles, apply their engineering ability to real problems, talk with vendors and marketers and inspire teams to make amazing products.”

Johnson oversees the brand new Scholars in Engineering Leadership Program. An expansion of the college’s efforts to expose engineering students to leadership principles, students in the program take two classes and participate in a self-designed leadership experience. Students who want to start the program during the spring semester can sign up through November 22. Recently, we sat down with Dr. Johnson to discover more about the program

Doesn’t the college already have a leadership program?

The college does have an excellent leadership program that has been going for about 10 years. Alumnus L. Stanley Pigman and his wife, Karen, have funded it and been actively involved. The class accepts 15 students a year and provides a hands-on intensive leadership experience.

One thing it can’t do, though, is serve a large number of students. As the college grows, more students need these essential leadership skills. We wanted to create something that would be accessible to all students in the college and enable them to develop core leadership skills and principles.

Shouldn’t engineering students just learn how to be excellent engineers? Why should they bother with leadership, too?

In the old days, engineers were perceived as people who sat in a cubicle and designed stuff. They had a purely technical focus and often a reputation for being socially awkward or unable to work with other people. More and more, when we ask company representatives what our graduates need to have when they hit the job market, they talk less about technical skills and more about professional skills—the ability to interact with others, to lead a group, to be part of a team. Those used to be called “soft skills,” but the truth of the matter is that they are essential skills.

What do the classes look like?

The first class focuses internally—on yourself. A lot of being a leader is about knowing who you are and what you care about, knowing how you relate to other people, and understanding your strengths and weaknesses.  Students in the course will develop an understanding of authentic leadership, take personality inventories, and learn about emotional intelligence and effective communication.  By the end of the course, students will have begun to build a personal leadership vision for themselves. Who do I want to be as a leader? What are my leadership principles? What are the things I value and want to bring to other people?

The second class focuses more on team dynamics. How do I react to other people? How can I lead people who perhaps don’t want to be led? How do I deal with adversity? Those issues, discussed in a team environment, will allow students to develop and deepen core leadership skills that they can use in their careers.

It seems like to learn leadership, you would have to…you know, lead something—not just sit in a classroom listening to lectures about leadership.

Of course! Being a leader is not about taking classes; it’s about actively using leadership skills to make an impact on the world. The Scholars in Engineering Leadership program calls for each participating student to design and undertake their own leadership experience. Students might have a community organization they care about and choose to take on a leadership role, or perhaps be an officer within a student organization here at UK. A co-op student could take a project leadership role within the company. The leadership experience is designed to be flexible - students will propose a plan, carry it out, and then reflect afterwards on how the experience has helped shaped their perspective on leadership.