Engineers should not lead organizations. Engineers are rigid, politically unsophisticated, unimaginative, uncommunicative and oblivious to the big picture. They lack the needed qualities for leadership and are best suited for lower-level supporting roles. You hear these comments all the time. Had these comments been made about an ethnic group or nationality, the comments would be condemned as stereotyping and the speaker as a bigot. But it’s quite acceptable if you make remarks such as these about engineers.
There is a price attached to our indifference and subtle acceptance of such derogatory comments. A majority of state legislatures have now passed laws revoking the requirement for a professional engineer to lead state engineering- and infrastructure-related agencies. While this has nearly ensured the extinction of engineers from the top of these agencies, there is a new onslaught against engineers under way that threatens to drive them from even the second- and third-level executive positions.
Many government agencies and private-sector companies have undergone major restructurings in the past two years. The restructuring exercise often includes an exorcism of engineers in which they are blamed for all that is wrong, are said to be problem solvers rather than visionaries and are said to lack adequate business chutzpah and to be insensitive to the political process.
Can you imagine the members of the American Medical Association or the American Bar Association remaining silent while members of their profession had such indignities heaped upon them? The engineering associations have a great number of members but sadly lack real influence.
There is a fundamental cultural issue involved. As a profession, we’re too detached and uninterested in power and prestige. I’ve sometimes wondered if George Washington had not been an engineer would he have deliberately set a precedent to serve no more than two terms as president and instead found a way to cling to the presidency longer. That would have left a legacy of power-grabbing rather than statesmanship. In fact, Washington’s leadership is the template for leadership in government, including his executive style.
Our profession is painfully self effacing, deafeningly reticent and jarringly unsure of its importance. This self-suffering nature is perfectly captured by Rudyard Kipling’s poem written in 1907 called “The Sons of Martha.” It is universally regarded as the engineer’s song.
Kipling’s verses are based on the Gospel of Luke, which tells the story of Mary and Martha, two sisters of Lazarus who were hosting Jesus.
While Mary received Jesus and sat at his feet and heard his words, Martha enthusiastically rushed to the kitchen to make the food, boil the water, wash the disciples’ clothes and perform other chores to make the guest comfortable. When Martha came out of the kitchen and protested to Jesus, he said, “Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things, but one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken from her.”
In his imaginary comparison of the male descendents of Mary and Martha, Kipling portrayed Martha’s sons as the ones who provide all the basic support and infrastructure for every activity of life. They are capable conquerors of nature who say to mountains “Be ye removed” and to the lesser floods “Be dry.” And then Kipling wrote:
Under their rods are the rocks reproved—they are not afraid of that which is high.
Then do the hill-tops shake to the summit—then is the bed of the deep laid bare,
That the Sons of Mary may overcome it, pleasantly sleeping and unaware.
Unfortunately, Mary’s sons and daughters have become so accustomed to “pleasantly sleeping” and being “unaware” that they have started to undermine the contribution of Martha’s descendents. While we built the structures that support life across the continents, we now need to start rebuilding the stature of our profession. It’s time for Martha’s sons and daughters to come out of the back room and demand the respect they deserve.
Rakesh Tripathi has served in management and executive positions for state departments of transportation in both Texas and Arizona.