10 Questions: Barry Shoop on Leadership

10 Questions: Barry Shoop on Leadership

Pictured above: 2016 IEEE President Colonel Barry Shoop addresses emerging leaders at the inaugural IEEE-USA Future Leaders Forum in New Orleans.

IEEE’s 2016 President, Colonel Barry Shoop, is a leader who has devoted his life to developing leaders, as head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and in his new position as Dean of Engineering at The Cooper-Union. A frequent speaker on the subject, Barry is also the author of A Practitioners Guide to Leadership, published as part of IEEE-USA’s “Launching Your Career” e-book series. One fundamental theme that runs through all of his work is the belief that “effective leaders are made, not born.”

We recently had an opportunity to explore that theme by framing 10 questions for Dr. Shoop with a practical focus on how to develop and apply your leadership skills.

Q: Dr. Shoop, in your monograph for IEEE-USA, you describe leadership as “the ability to influence, motivate and enable others to contribute toward the effectiveness and success of the organizations of which they are members.” Another oft-used formulation is that “leadership is the art of motivating a group of people to act towards achieving a common goal.” The ability to motivate is a key element of both definitions. For a young, aspiring leader, what advice can you give on how to motivate people, especially where you lack the position or tools to influence or compel them?

Shoop: An effective leader does not require positional authority. If you must compel others to action through financial reward or risk of punishment, I would argue that you are not a leader but simply the boss.

Effective leadership is about establishing a shared vision. A young, aspiring leader may not be in a position of authority or set the organization’s mission or vision, but understanding the organization’s mission and vision and how your office, branch or division supports the organization’s mission and vision is key to aligning people with a common goal. Be positive and forward-looking, envisioning exciting possibilities and then enlisting others in a shared vision of that future.

Finally, effective leaders reduce barriers to success. This is certainly easier if you are in a position of authority because you can often control resources. But even those who do not have positional authority can contribute to reducing barriers that can include lack of shared understanding, skepticism, resistance, motivation, and others.

Remember, leadership is about setting the conditions so that others can succeed.


Q: If you can break down the elements of leadership into specific attributes – integrity, communication skills, accountability, creativity, decision-making, delegation, etc. – which attribute do you believe is the most important to master and how would you go about trying to develop or improve it?

Shoop: From Bass’ Theory of Leadership, transformational leadership theory says that people can choose to become leaders and learn leadership skills. A common framework is an iterative, closed-loop process comprising three components: (1) study, (2) practice, and (3) reflection. This follows gaining new knowledge, experience and reflection. JFK once said “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” Beyond this leadership development framework it is important to understand that there are a number of traits that are necessary to be an effective leader.

High moral character tops the list and is comprised of integrity, honesty and courage. H. Norman Schwarzkopf once said “Leadership is a combination of strategy and character. If you must be without one, be without strategy.”

Other important traits include trust and respect, both of which must be earned, followed by vision, passion, charisma, and effective and active listening. Marcus Aurelius once said: “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”


Q: Successful leadership requires an ability to communicate effectively. Today, we have access to a wide variety of tools and apps to aid communication that we can work to master, from making more effective use of email, PowerPoint, and video-conferencing, to using collaboration tools, and coming soon, augmented reality. But the ability to communicate effectively starts with the person and has both a verbal and written context. What can an aspiring leader do to improve their ability to communicate?

Shoop: Effective communication skills are absolutely essential to leadership. There is no shortage of workshops, seminars, short-courses and courses available to improve both your written and oral communication skills. There are many opportunities within IEEE to gain experience and improve your public speaking abilities.

Like leadership development, I would offer that you can use the same iterative, closed-loop framework that includes the same three components: (1) study, (2) practice, and (3) reflection. Like leadership development, I believe the most important component here is reflection.

For communications, I advise that you seek-out a mentor, someone who will provide you with honest feedback on your performance and make recommendations on how to improve. And don’t forget that effective listening is a critical part of this full-duplex communication activity.


Q: The world is made up of introverts and extroverts, who possess fundamentally different ways of interacting with the world, processing information, and of generating energy and self-motivation. We often associate leadership with characteristics common to extroverts, but there are many effective leaders who are introverts by nature. Do you have any insights or advice for our readers on how to develop a leadership style that is consistent with their personality type?

Shoop: I am a believer that effective leaders must understand both individual and group dynamics. I often recommend the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) instrument to provide insights about members of your group, allowing you to better understand your group members. The MBTI assessment is a psychometric questionnaire designed to measure psychological preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions.

Equally important to understanding the members of your team is understanding yourself. The first of eleven principles of leadership is to know yourself and seek self-improvement. Self-assessment and awareness of both your personal strengths and weaknesses is critical.

As a career introvert, I have had to learn to understand myself and must deliberately work to be outgoing and engaging. Jack Welch said: “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”


Q: In an article for the IEEE Institute, you talk about the “New Face of Leadership” in an environment of rapid technological change, and stress the need for leaders to work as synthesists who can draw expertise from an array of disciplines and bring that knowledge to bear on multidisciplinary problems. If you were talking to a future engineering leader about how to succeed in this type of challenging environment…what steps would you advise they take to become a so-called “T-shaped leader” whose knowledge is both broad and wide? What disciplines would you recommend they develop expertise in and what types of knowledge should they look to acquire outside their main technical discipline?

Shoop: The characterization of a T-shaped individual describes an individual with both depth and breadth of skills. The vertical component of the “T” represents deep disciplinary knowledge and expertise while the horizontal component of the “T” represents the ability to work across fields and integrate what are often referred to as soft skills – communications, teamwork, global understanding, critical thinking, innovation, and entrepreneurship, to name a few.

A PriceWaterhouseCoopers survey of CEOs indicates that industry leaders are looking for more than just skilled technical professionals but want a much broader range of skills. Future engineering leaders will need to be able to lead cross-functional, cross-sector and cross-cultural initiatives. They will need to be able to anticipate external issues – such as public policies and regulation, and the convergence of technologies – that affect their field.

Growing resource pressures, energy, ethical design and the environment will remain dominant issues in the near-and-mid-term. It would be valuable for a new engineering leader to be curious, open to non-traditional and even non-technical opportunities, embrace cross-disciplinary learning that extends beyond math, science and engineering into art, philosophy and psychology, all in an effort to broaden your perspective and embrace the human dimension of technology.

In 1956 C.P. Snow published an article entitled “The Two Cultures” and later in 1959 delivered the Cambridge University Rede Lecture entitled “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” on which the book The Two Cultures is based. Snow argued that practitioners from the sciences and the humanities should build bridges to further the progress of human knowledge and to benefit society. More recently, in his product demonstrations, Steve Jobs would conclude with a slide, projected on the big screen behind him, of a street sign showing the intersection of Technology and Liberal Arts.


Q: As you often note, leadership doesn’t require rank or hierarchical authority…anyone can be a leader or show leadership traits regardless of what level they are working at. One common challenge many of us have experienced at one time or another is working in a group without a defined leader, often in a cross-departmental team, but where not every member of the group is pulling their weight. In a group of “equals,” how would a leader address this problem?

Shoop: It is often difficult to judge the acceptable level of engagement and contribution of an individual. Is simply attending all scheduled meetings sufficient? Does actively providing your voice on all topics in a discussion qualify as significant contribution? What of the individual who appears not to engage or participate but in one comment comes-up with the definitive solution to the problem the group has been wrestling with?

My first response is not to judge too quickly. Often lack of participation is not deliberate or malicious. You might have an introvert among a group of extraverts or the individual feels less qualified than others.

In a group of equals with no assigned leader, an informal leader can make suggestions on how to organize to solve the task that the group is addressing – recommend subgroups with assigned tasks and deliverables – directly asking the underperformer where they feel best qualified to contribute, even identifying special skills, experience or expertise that they have to inspire and motivate them to participate and contribute.

There will always be times where the underperformer cannot be persuaded to participate and contribute. This is where it becomes necessary to pull the individual aside, and privately suggest that perhaps they don’t have the background or interest and that they might be wasting their time.


Q: If asked to characterize what makes a leader, many people would say leaders are people who are skilled at inspiring others. President John Quincy Adams once defined leadership with the quote, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” Apart from being a good role-model, are there things you can do or practice to become more “inspirational” to those around you?

Shoop: I often end my workshops and lectures on leadership by telling participants if they are in a leadership position, lead. That is what people expect. If you are in a leadership position people will watch you because you are in a position of authority and are supposed to be a leader. And it’s not just when you are in front of your team – people watch you in everything you do.

It is also a function of caring for people and taking care of them. Great leaders genuinely care about their people. They know them, care about them, empower them and develop them. General Maxwell Taylor once said “A reflective reading of history will show that no man ever rose to military greatness who could not convince his troops that he put them first, above all else.”


Q: Decision-making ability is another key attribute of leadership. Good leaders use the information available to make good decisions and stand by them even when others may have doubts. Is there a realistic way for an aspiring leader to practice decision-making without having to suffer the real world consequences of bad decisions?

Shoop: Like most skills, good decision-making takes practice and is improved with experience. The best way I have found to improve my decision-making is to broaden my experiences outside of my day-job. I have gained tremendous and diverse experience through my professional society engagement. I have volunteer leadership experience in the Optical Society of America (OSA), international society for optics and photonics (SPIE), Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) and IEEE. This diversity of experiences have allowed me to expand the number of decision-making experiences and increase the variety of types of decisions. But make no mistake, not all of my decisions were good decisions and I learned from each poor decision.


Q: It often seems people in leadership positions are afraid of showing a crack in their armor, of displaying any sign of weakness or vulnerability and are unwilling to admit mistakes. The reality is, however, we don’t always make the right decisions and sometimes we fail for a variety of reasons, many of which may be beyond our control. How do you deal with failure in a way that enhances, rather than diminishes, your stature as a leader?

Shoop: Risk-taking is essential in leadership. Risk is uncomfortable and generates uncertainty but it is at crucible moments when failure is a distinct possibility that you learn the most about yourself. Failure should not be viewed as an end but instead an opportunity for growth. An oft used interview question asks “Tell us about a time that you failed and what you learned from it.” Additionally, effective leaders must be willing to underwrite risk for the members of their team. One way to clearly demonstrate your tolerance to risk and failure is to acknowledge your own failures and the learning that resulted from them.


Q: In this age of ten and twelve step plans to achieve business success, overcome addictions, or find the perfect mate, can you describe a five or ten step plan for learning how to become a successful leader?

Shoop: Effective leaders develop through a continuous process of self-study, education, training, experience and reflection. It’s a three-step plan:

  • Step 1: Acquire new knowledge about the theory and application of leadership. Read articles and books on leadership, study leadership theory, attend leadership workshops and seminars and observe other leaders. H. Norman Schwarzkopf once said: “You learn far more from negative leadership than from positive leadership. Because you learn how not to do it. And, therefore, you learn how to do it.”
  • Step 2: Gain leadership experience. Practice leadership techniques at work, in volunteer organizations and in professional societies. This provides the opportunity to practice the leadership theory and new knowledge acquired during Step 1 of the developmental process.
  • Step 3: Reflect on your experiences and progress. Conducting an honest inventory of your leadership strengths and weaknesses, and then reviewing your leadership experiences through the lens of the newly acquired knowledge is arguably the most important component of this developmental cycle.

This three-step plan is an iterative, closed-loop process that continues throughout your entire career.


With these helpful insights we close, with thanks to Dr. Shoop for sharing his wisdom on the practical development of leadership skills. To learn more on the subject, you can consult his Practitioners Guide to Leadership, available at: https://ieeeusa.org/shop/careers/ebook-launching-your-career-book-3-a-practitioners-guide-to-leadership/, along with other leadership titles in IEEE-USA’s ebook catalog. You can also connect with a community of aspiring leaders at IEEE-USA’s upcoming Future Leaders Forum, scheduled for 26-28 July 2018 in Austin, Texas.


Chris Brantley is IEEE-USA’s managing director.


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