MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXI No. 4
March / April / May 2009
Should One Size Fit All?
Rethinking the Math Core
Tom Kochan New Faculty Chair
Distrust of Educational Innovations
Engineering Excellence in Challenging Times
Leadership Skills for Engineering and
Science Faculty
Interview with Director of MIT Medical
Dr. William Kettyle
Update on the Faculty Renewal Program
Newsletter Adds Two Board Members
The Moral Moment: Departing Words from
the Outgoing Faculty Chair
MIT Faculty Vote to Make Their Articles Openly Available
TA Training Bootcamp Reinforces Curriculum Innovations and Improves Recitation Experience in Freshman Chemistry Course
MIT Faculty Work/Life Website Created
MISTI Launches Call for Second Round of Global Seed Fund Proposals
Laughing Together
West Garage
Bernard M. Gordon-MIT Leadership Program: Developing Engineering Leaders of Tomorrow
The Need for Interdisciplinary Education
MIT 150 Exhibit to Celebrate Institute's
150th Birthday
The Federal Research Dollar
on the MIT Campus
The Future of Medical Care?
Printable Version

Leadership Skills for Engineering and Science Faculty

Charles E. Leiserson

Few would argue that our formal positions as MIT professors motivate our graduate students to work hard on our research projects. Our personal leadership skill – the ability to inspire the people who work for us – also matters. But, what are the skills and behaviors that define stellar faculty leadership? Whereas industry invests in management training for their leaders to address analogous problems, most universities tend to assume that professors are well skilled in the art of leadership with no additional education or training needed.

MIT has been a leader in countering this anachronistic and anti-intellectual point of view. Since 2002, over 100 MIT faculty and senior researchers have participated in a workshop entitled, Leadership Skills for Engineering and Science Faculty, which is taught by management consultant Chuck McVinney ( and me. The workshop will be offered twice this summer on June 15–16 and on July 13–14 as part of MIT Professional Education Short Programs. Chuck and I developed this leadership workshop specifically for people in technical academic settings. The figure shows the breakdown of past MIT attendees across departments. Participants have included all university ranks from assistant professors to full professors and department heads. Fewer than five have graded the workshop less than an A.

Participants address the real and human challenges endemic to technical academic groups. How does one give effective feedback? What are the pros and cons of various strategies to resolve conflicts? How should one deal with an unmotivated student? “Tremendously helpful!” said Mechanical Engineering Professor Kimberly Hamad-Schifferli. “I learned many key things essential to running a group and interacting with others that you don’t learn anywhere else.”

Chuck McVinney explains, “We provide conceptual tools so that participants can dive beneath the surface of the everyday ‘soft skills’ we so often hear about.” Borrowing from learning and leadership models commonly taught in business schools, participants experiment with the concepts in the safe environment of the workshop, engaging in role-playing and other immersive activities. For example, a “situational leadership” model helps participants understand how new students can be integrated into a research team without losing motivation. A “mental diversity” model helps participants communicate effectively to disparate audiences about the purpose of their research group’s technical work. EECS Professor Vivek Goyal commented, “I admit I was skeptical, but I was amazed that so much of the material was genuinely universal.”

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 determine what works best for them.

Chuck and I encourage participants not to judge styles as good or bad, but rather, which styles work for you and which don’t. The workshop provides a nonjudgmental yet structured environment in which participants can discover their own leadership strengths. “No dogma.”

The workshop arose serendipitously. During a leave-of-absence from MIT as Director of Systems Architecture at Akamai Technologies, a local Internet start-up, I met McVinney, who was brought in to help the engineering organization address problems with teamwork dynamics. Mr. McVinney introduced our team to human-centered strategies for engineering leadership. Upon my return to MIT in 1991, I worked with McVinney to adapt these “management” lessons for technical environments within universities.

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to talk at many departmental luncheons across the Institute about this workshop. Invariably, someone expresses the concern that they have insufficient time to attend a session. In fact, workshop participants tell me that the time invested in attending the 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.

Although there is a tuition fee for attending a workshop, MIT’s Office of Sponsored Programs advises that the cost is eligible for direct charging to a sponsored research project, because workshop activities can be identified specifically with the participant’s particular project and benefits that project directly. In addition, the Dean of Engineering has made two 50% scholarships available for faculty in the School of Engineering. For more information, please consult or contact MIT Professional Education’s Short Programs by e-mailing If you wish to register, you should do so by June 5 for the June session and by July 1 for the July session.

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