Applying West Point Leadership Principles to Engineering Management

When it comes to leadership, one might be surprised to find out that the principles guiding an engineering manager at a startup aren't too different from those learned at West Point, the United States Military Academy. The principles I learned as a cadet, and later applied leading soldiers preparing for deployment to Iraq, have proven timeless and are as relevant in the tech startup world as they are on the battlefield.

Every cadet has to learn these principles, and while they are designed for soldiering, I have liked them as a well proven set of leadership principles to always apply.

1. Know Yourself and Seek Self-Improvement

Understanding yourself, your management style, and your strengths and weaknesses is vital1. Self-awareness and a continuous pursuit of self-improvement set the tone for the entire organization, inspiring others to do the same.

2. Be Technically and Tactically Proficient

Having technical expertise in engineering leadership is essential. Staying up-to-date with technological advancements isn't just a luxury, it's a necessity. Regularly engaging with your craft and being able to discuss the latest developments demonstrates dedication and can earn you respect within your team. Not in our case, "tactically" proficient basically means being good at the little things of your job. For example, making sure you are good at manager's scheduling.

3. Seek Responsibility and Take Responsibility for Your Actions

The ability to take charge and own up to mistakes is a mark of a strong leader. It's important to give credit to others when things go well and to take responsibility when they don't. This encourages a culture of accountability within the team.

4. Make Sound and Timely Decisions

Effective decision-making in both speed and quality is critical. The OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) loop is an effective framework to guide this process. It promotes analytical thinking and swift problem-solving.

5. Set the Example

Leadership isn't about implementing protocols — it's about setting a positive example that your team will follow. Your actions will inspire others more than any written policy can.

6. Know Your Team and Look Out for Their Well-Being

Truly caring about your team members is essential. This doesn't mean you need to become close friends with everyone, but it does mean knowing enough about them to understand how to manage them effectively.

7. Keep Your Team Informed

Transparency and open communication are cornerstones of effective management. Sharing your vision and updates with your team not only fosters a sense of inclusion but also enables them to make micro-decisions aligned with the company's goals.

8. Develop a Sense of Responsibility in Your Team

Empowering your team and encouraging ownership and accountability can help cultivate a sense of responsibility. This goes a long way in fostering a motivated and self-starting team.

9. Ensure that the Task is Understood, Supervised, and Accomplished

Clarity in task assignment, monitoring progress, and providing feedback are critical for ensuring tasks are effectively completed. Using a single task list that outlines all priorities can greatly simplify this process.

10. Build the Team

Building your team doesn't stop at hiring. It's about nurturing talent, weeding out those not contributing positively, and fostering individual growth to create a team that's more than the sum of its parts.

11. Use Your Team Wisely (Employ Your Team in Accordance with Its Capabilities)

Every team member has unique strengths. Leveraging these strengths appropriately ensures the team operates at its highest potential.

The leadership principles from West Point have stood the test of time, proving valuable both on and off the battlefield. As an engineering manager, you have the opportunity to implement these principles to create a robust, efficient, and highly motivated team.