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The challenges humanity faces in the 21st century — from the stable supply of energy in a carbon constrained world to the delivery of new products based on the fusion of engineering and life sciences — cannot be accomplished by individuals or technology on its own. We need to cultivate technically astute people who can apply their skills to guide and lead the development of socially, environmentally, and economically acceptable solutions to technical problems.

We need engineering leaders.

In the end, technologies developed at MIT and elsewhere will not of their own ingenuity become real solutions. For successful implementation, products must have a champion who knows the technology, the marketplace, and the consumer. Such a champion is found in an engineering leader with a clear vision for bringing the product to market. The engineering leader owns the responsibility for the project but allows each team member to own his or her individual successes.

In the 20th century, engineering leaders emerged to prepare us to grapple with the new challenges that humanity now faces in the 21st century. Among the best examples of a 20th century engineering leader who delivered a new technology to fit the needs of the day and whose innovations and contributions we must build upon to solve tomorrow’s challenges is Hyman Rickover.

From February 1949 to January 1955, Rickover took the idea of using nuclear fission to generate power from an unrealized vision to a fully operational nuclear submarine. It is easy to forget what an achievement that was: Nuclear fission had never been used to generate power at the time Rickover was tasked with the project that would lead to the Nautilus.

Even after the Nautilus was launched in 1955, Rickover continued to champion innovations related to nuclear power. As a result of his projects, zirconium became commercially available at a reasonable price, safe operating procedures for nuclear reactors in the United States were established, and the pressurized water reactor became the most prominent reactor type in the US.

These accomplishments were a product of Rickover’s leadership: he possessed the supreme ability to create and execute upon his vision. This ability was underpinned by an undying sense of personal responsibility.

In Rickover’s mind, every action undertaken needed to be milked to the last drop to further the work towards the vision: everything was important and connected to the big picture. One instance of Rickover’s focused dedication arose when Edwin Kinter and Jack Kyger tested the Mark I prototype of the submarine power plant in 1953. This was the first full-power test scheduled of the power plant, and it came on the heels of corrosion problems discovered in the Canadian reactors at Chalk River.

For Kyger and Kinter, this was to be merely a full-power test, but for Rickover it was a demonstration that a nuclear submarine could cross the Atlantic without stopping. When Kyger and Kinter wanted to stop the test at twenty-four hours and again at forty-eight hours, Rickover insisted that they continue to a full one hundred hours to simulate a transatlantic crossing.

When the test was successfully concluded at one hundred hours, the opportunity had been maximized: The test put the project to build the Nautilus ahead of schedule, and the team understood the importance of even the smallest task in the context of realizing the larger vision of making a practical nuclear submarine.

As effective as Rickover was at putting every action in the context of his vision, keeping his projects on schedule and driving innovation, he was by no means a perfect leader; his interviews and personal interactions are legendary for their coarseness.

Nevertheless, we can and should take Rickover’s drive, determination, and sense of personal responsibility to develop ourselves as engineering leaders who will find solutions to the important problems facing the world. By doing this, we commit ourselves to excellence and prepare ourselves to emerge as pioneers in our field.

The ability for a clear engineering leader to emerge while preserving a collegial atmosphere in an innovative setting is itself an innovation — especially at MIT. In addition to preserving this collegial atmosphere, the leader must hold his or her team to the highest standards, set the direction, and move in that direction.

Thankfully, there are many opportunities at MIT to practice and refine one’s own leadership. As I and fellow Gordon Engineering Leader (GEL) students will seek to show in this series, MIT and the Gordon program are pioneering ways of training future leaders.

In the spirit of past leaders, we undertake this commitment not only to motivate and inspire our own teams to function at the highest level, but also to demonstrate the importance of engineering leadership in the larger world. We respect the contributions, commitments, and drive of all who take this commitment seriously and all who endeavor to develop themselves and encourage others to be world-class engineering leaders.

MIT has a rich history of producing engineering leaders. In their footsteps, with respect for the challenges that face us in the future, let us all learn and practice engineering leadership.

This article is the first in a four-part series written by students in the Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program, and will appear on Fridays. Russell Rodewald is a 2011 SB/SM candidate in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering.