MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XVIII No. 5
May / June 2006
Meritocracy and a Diverse Faculty
A Brief History and Workings
of the MIT Corporation
Committees of the Faculty:
An End-of-Year Recap
Lippard and Sharp Awarded
National Medal of Science
Energy Research Council and Forum:
A Major New Institute Initiative
Efficient Use of Energy:
Part of MIT's New Energy Initiative
Fueling Our Transportation Future
Lighting a Fire in MIT's
Undergradute Education
Some Thoughts on the Arts
Reflections on the "Visualizing Cultures" Incident
On the "Visualizing Cultures" Controversy and its Implications
Communication Requirement
Evaluation Process Begins
A Modest Proposal:
A Dental Insurance Plan for All Students
New Resource on Faculty Website:
"Current Practices"
"Soft Skills" to Help Avoid the "Hard Knocks"
Computer Space Planning for MIT
Tops IT-SPARCC's Priority List
Seniors Report Increased Satisfaction
with Faculty Interaction
Smart Buy Purchasing Initiative
Primary Form of Support
for Doctoral Students
Printable Version

"Soft Skills" to Help Avoid the "Hard Knocks"

Charles Leiserson and Catherine Avril

Dealing with the tough (but nonacademic, nonscientific) issues

What do you do when confronted with an apparently unmotivated student? How do you deal with interpersonal conflicts that could jeopardize your research? How does your modus operandi help or limit you in different situations? How would you communicate successfully with that key donor who thinks very differently from you?

These situations typify just a few of the thorny challenges that faculty members can face. Generally unschooled in how best to deal with such human-centered issues, faculty are left to gain experience through “hard knocks.” That’s painful … and not the most efficient approach for developing leadership skills. So concluded Professor Charles Leiserson of EECS. While on leave at Akamai Technologies in 1999–2001, he saw first-hand the value to that company of engaging a management expert to assist with leadership skills training. Upon returning to MIT, Leiserson realized that similar training provided to engineering faculty could significantly enhance their teaching and research.

Since 2002, three dozen MIT faculty have participated in a series of workshops developed and presented by Professor Leiserson and Chuck McVinney, management consultant. Originally offered to faculty in the then Laboratory for Computer Science, this year sponsorship by the School of Engineering has widened the audience to all Engineering faculty.

“The School of Engineering at MIT is fortunate to encompass many extraordinary faculty who are conducting pioneering research and educational innovations,” says Dean Tom Magnanti. “These workshops provide a novel forum for individual and collective reflection and enhance the faculty’s effectiveness in those important endeavors.”

McVinney explains the customized nature of the Leadership Skills for Engineering Faculty program. “We have developed these workshops specifically for academic engineering environments and use real-life examples taken from situations faced by engineering professors.” Leiserson and McVinney have run four workshops over the past five years, including three at MIT and one at the National University of Singapore’s School of Computing.

Having completed the program, participating faculty members can understand and articulate how leadership styles affect engineering, research, and the educational process. “I learned many key things essential to running a group and interacting with others that you don’t learn anywhere else,” says Prof. Kimberly Hamad-Schifferli of Mechanical Engineering. “A good way to become aware of your inner strengths,” says Professor David Gifford of EECS. Both senior and junior faculty participants gain significant insights into:

  • emotions in the workplace
  • being effective with people who think differently
  • how to foster creativity
  • dealing with conflict
  • giving effective feedback
  • how different situations call for different leadership styles
  • student motivation
  • self-understanding as a leader.

Professor Rodney Brooks, director of CSAIL, comments, “CSAIL faculty speak in very positive terms about the workshop. It has provided them an opportunity to develop a better understanding of themselves and others and helped them to know how to manage their research groups.” Professor Eric Grimson, department head of EECS, who has provided academic support for Leiserson to teach the workshops this semester, adds, “The leadership course that Charles Leiserson has created is a great opportunity for our faculty. While clearly of value to junior faculty who are anxious to learn skills that will make it easier for them to supervise students, run a research group, interact professionally with colleagues, and generally be more effective leaders, we have had senior faculty in our department take the course and comment on how much they learned that makes them better faculty members.”

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A question of time

 Leiserson observes, “When I attend a departmental luncheon to acquaint faculty with these workshops, someone invariably expresses the concern that they have little time to attend a session. In fact, workshop participants often find that the time invested in attending a workshop is easily returned in just one semester by avoiding time-consuming miscommunications with students and staff and by applying the lessons in situational leadership to bring students up to speed on projects more quickly.”

About the workshop

Leiserson and McVinney instruct workshop participants in human-centered strategies for leading effective teams in academic engineering environments. Through a series of interactive role-playing activities, self-assessment instruments, and group discussions, faculty members develop a repertoire of techniques for addressing issues that commonly arise within engineering research groups and among teaching staff. “I really appreciated the self-assessment instruments and the framework they provided for future growth,” says Professor Bruce Tidor of EECS and Biological Engineering. Professor Polina Golland, also in EECS, points out, “The professor/student role-playing taught me how differences in communication styles can seriously complicate interactions, a poignant and unforgettable lesson.”

Because leadership styles vary widely with personality, the workshop eschews “one-size-fits-all” prescriptions. What works for one person often fails to work for another. Instead, the workshop promotes awareness of the participants’ own styles of leadership, offers them a palette of approaches to explore, and provides experiential learning to help them to determine what works best for them. The instructors do not judge styles as “good” or “bad,” but provide a nonjudgmental yet structured environment in which participants can discover their own leadership strengths. In Professor Leiserson’s words, “No dogma.”

Discussion topics in the workshop cover a wide range of issues that includes: group culture, student advising, race and gender, balancing work and family, research and grants, the imperative to publish or perish, reputation and tenure, teaching, and service.

Professor Regina Barzilay of EECS sums up her experience this way: “I learned many things about myself that will help me in my professional and personal life.” “I admit I was skeptical,” adds Professor Vivek Goyal, also of EECS, “but I was amazed that so much of the material was genuinely universal.”

For information about future workshops, please contact Donna Savicki in the Office of the Dean of Engineering,, x3-3294.

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