SDM Course Helps Students Build a Leadership Roadmap

Shalom S. Saar By Shalom S. Saar, Senior Lecturer, MIT Engineering Systems Division
April 6, 2011

Editor’s note: In this article, Senior Lecturer Shalom S. Saar describes Leadership: The Missing Link, a required course in MIT’s System Design and Management Program (SDM).

SDM’s leadership course is designed to prepare students to become better decision-makers. Students emerge with a richer understanding of their strengths and weaknesses—as well as a roadmap for leveraging their abilities to become more successful leaders.

Too often, students who return to school for upper-level engineering degrees overemphasize their need for technical skills and underemphasize the importance of gaining people skills. Yet the reality is that conflict is a growth industry. As business becomes more global, conflicts proliferate—it’s simply too easy to read an unfamiliar environment the wrong way, and different leadership styles prove more successful in different situations. While the technical side of being at MIT is important, the people side is just as important, if not more critical.

The purpose of Leadership: The Missing Link, is to enhance each student’s ability to lead and mobilize others. Helping students become aware of themselves and their impact on others can increase their level of competency to work through others. To paraphrase the ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War, if the executive doesn’t know himself and doesn’t know his opponents, his chances of winning are very low.

The course utilizes various instruments, real-world case studies, and simulations. While the first part of the course focuses on understanding oneself, the second part assists students in developing the skills needed to motivate and influence others. We focus on such topics as strategic thinking, leadership styles, personality types, approach to conflict and emotional intelligence. In addition, we use a 360-degree feedback diagnostic tool that each SDM student is required to complete during orientation.

Students conduct the 360-degree assessment by requesting feedback on 25 leadership competencies from a wide array of colleagues—including supervisors, subordinates, peers. The report they get from this instrument is usually eye opening; it reveals that the perception someone has of himself is not always the perception others have. One woman might think she’s a good listener, for example, only to discover that her friends and colleagues think she ignores their views.

By the end of the course, students are able to assess their strengths and weaknesses, but the class is also prescriptive. Students learn how to probe, listen, influence, negotiate, and motivate.

In one exercise, for example, students learn the value of bringing people to their own solutions—an effort that builds trust and loyalty. Leaders need to know how to build and sustain trust in order to motivate followers. And, once trust breaks down, it can be impossible to regain. For that reason, the course also includes simulated conflicts that allow students to experience the corrosive and contagious nature of mistrust.

As a final exercise, each student is asked to submit a paper analyzing an unsuccessful experience. This can range from having a conflict with a boss to not getting along with a peer. By reflecting on the experience and relying on the findings from the various instruments, students are able to understand the dynamics and their roles in making things worse. By examining their role, they come up with constructive alternatives to the problem they faced.

Lastly, each student has the option of meeting the instructor for one hour privately to go deeper into the results of the instruments and to get coaching and counseling. By the end of this course, students have learned to enhance their effectiveness as leaders—developing a set of "soft skills" that often make the crucial difference in human relations.

Shalom S. Saar