Shared Leadership in Mechanical Engineering-Centric Capstone Design Teams: A Comparison of Military and Civilian Engineering Programs

Contributing USMA Research Unit(s)

Civil and Mechanical Engineering

Publication Date


Publication Title

ASEE Annual Conference

Document Type

Conference Proceeding


There is a continuing call for the development of engineers who can become leaders in helping solve the world’s grand challenges. Leadership scholars suggest that “shared leadership” may be a more effective leadership model than the hierarchical, individual leadership model that is typically used in team-based capstone design projects. The capstone experience replicates the creative, complex, and interdependent knowledge work for which shared leadership has been shown to be more effective. While many programs look toward the capstone design experience to help build students’ professional skills, which includes leadership, student preparation for the leadership challenges associated with the capstone design team experience may widely vary. Unlike some of their civilian counterparts, military academies and military colleges often incorporate a highly developed leadership curriculum throughout the four-year college experience, whereas civilian engineering universities tend to be less purposeful in their development of engineering student leadership. Little is known, however, regarding how civilian and military undergraduate engineering students approach and share leadership in their formative, design experiences.

The purpose of this study is to examine institutional differences in the level of shared leadership enacted by senior level capstone design teams within the mechanical engineering programs at two military and one civilian institution. Looking across three leadership scales derived from the Full Range of Leadership model, this study identifies significant differences in the shared leadership enacted by capstone design teams across those institutions. We draw upon a sample of 209 student round-robin leadership ratings using a subset of the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire; this sample represents 45 senior level capstone design teams. Using social network analyses, density and centralization of team leadership networks are calculated across three scales that each represents a different form of leadership. These network variables are compared across institutions using non-parametric analysis of variance. This comparison of leadership in mechanical engineering capstone design teams across three military and civilian institutions provides critical insights into the ways students enact and share leadership within their capstone design experience. Our results uncover civilian and military institution level differences that may play a role in differential leadership development across these two populations of undergraduate engineering students.

Record links to items hosted by external providers may require fee for full-text.