NAE’s Mote says leadership must be taken, not given

NAE’s Mote says leadership must be taken, not given

In his address March 21 at a first-of-its-kind engineering leadership conference at Rice, National Academy of Engineering (NAE) President Dan Mote urged engineering students to understand the difference between being a leader and being placed in a position of authority.

“You can give people position, but you cannot give them leadership,” said Mote, who served as president of the University of Maryland for 12 years before taking the reins at NAE in April. “It’s very important for you, as you are studying leadership and thinking about leadership, to think about taking leadership rather than expecting to get it because you get the right job.”

National Academy of Engineering President Dan Mote addressed a first-of-its-kind engineering leadership conference March 21 that was hosted by the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership.

Mote was the keynote speaker at COMPLETE 2014, the inaugural conference of the Community of Practice for Leadership Education for 21st Century Engineers (COMPLETE), an 11-member consortium of university leadership centers and institutes that includes the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership. RCEL hosted the two-day conference designed to explore the current state of engineering leadership and best practices in professional development for engineers who are within the first five years of their careers.

In his keynote address at McMurtry Auditorium, Mote described the role of leadership within organizations and laid out a framework to both assess leadership opportunities and to successfully meet those opportunities. He said leadership is ubiquitous and necessary in all human organizations¬† — formal and informal. He examined the different styles of leadership from the most powerful — transformative, charismatic leadership — to the least powerful — punitive, coercive leadership.

He said charismatic leaders inspire others with a grand vision of the future. Expert leaders are followed because they are trusted. Positional leaders are followed simply because they are in a position of authority. Reciprocal leaders take charge by cutting deals with others and coercive leaders use threats to get what they want.

Mote said most jobs involve positional leadership, in which authority for part of the organization is granted to someone by virtue of their position. While not all jobs come with the opportunity to oversee a transformational change in the organization, Mote laid out a framework for evaluating the responsibilities and opportunities for transformational leadership in any situation.

“There is something singular about every leadership job,” Mote said. “You need to ask, ‘What is it that I can do in this job that no one else can do?'”

In situations that call for strategic transformation, Mote urged students to think big.

“Vision is they key,” he said. “Without vision, there is no progress.”

Mote cautioned against setting goals that would be too easily met. “If it’s too easy, then no one will be impressed with the results.” He said the proper vision should be feasible but should also be viewed by most people within the organization as unattainable, at least initially.

To ensure success, he said, leaders should look for short-term wins, opportunities to deliver tangible results that many within the organization had previously thought unattainable. By piecing together a string of short-term “miracles,” leaders can draw more people to their cause and make their vision appear more attainable to everyone within their sphere of responsibility.

“Inclusivity is mandatory, because everybody wants to feel like they are a part of the team,” he said. “Everybody within your cone of responsibility must see themselves as being a part of that vision. Otherwise, they may work against it, and that creates internal conflicts that detract from your ability to execute the vision.”

Mote’s inspirational speech set the tone for the COMPLETE conference, which was attended by more than 200 student and faculty leaders from the organization’s member institutions: Rice, MIT, Iowa State University, Northeastern University, Pennsylvania State University, Southern Methodist University, Tufts University, the University of Florida, the U.S. Naval Academy, the University of Toronto and the University of California, San Diego.

RCEL was established in 2009 to educate and prepare Rice engineering students to become inspiring leaders, exceptional team members and bold entrepreneurs. Through a combination of academic courses, leadership labs, student discussion groups and structured learning experiences, RCEL provides students with opportunities to develop and strengthen their leadership abilities and prepares them to put these skills into practice in engineering and professional environments.

To learn more about the COMPLETE 2014 conference and RCEL, visit


About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.