Army colonel teaches Northeastern engineers to be leaders

Professor showing students something on a white board
Professor Mike Manning (left), known at Northeastern as “Colonel Mike,” chats with Cibaca Khandelwal, a masters in information systems student and assistant at the Gordon Institute of Engineering Leadership, and Benjamin Rutledge, an institute recruitment specialist. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Mike Manning, a Northeastern professor, served in the war zone of Iraq in 2005. Later came a hazardous posting in Afghanistan—which bookended with a mission in Kosovo, another theater of conflict early in his career.

In his previous life as a U.S. Army colonel, Manning developed an array of leadership skills under duress. Since 2020, when he became a professor of engineering leadership, Manning has been applying those lessons to help graduate students unlock and explore their potential.

Manning is a professor at the Gordon Institute of Engineering Leadership, a year-long program that trains up to 45 Northeastern students annually in team-building and leadership skills. By applying his experiences in a new way, Manning—known as “Colonel Mike” among his students—is supporting the vision of Bernard M. Gordon, a Navy veteran and tech entrepreneur, who created the institute in 2007 to identify and train the next generation of engineering pioneers and leaders.

“Bernie Gordon sees the military as the preeminent leadership teaching organization in the country,” says Steve McGonagle, a retired Army colonel who suggested Manning as his replacement upon retiring two years ago from the Gordon Institute.

Headshot of Mike Manning
Mike Manning (or “Colonel Mike,” as known by his students), professor at the Gordon Institute of Engineering Leadership. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

After leaving the Navy and earning electrical engineering degrees via the GI Bill, Gordon became known as a father of high-speed analog-to-digital conversion, leading teams that would design and create a variety of high-tech devices. Gordon, who is 95, started three companies along the way, which convinced him to launch institutes and programs at multiple universities, including Northeastern.

“He kept finding that he was hiring engineers that lacked some of the critical skills to invent, to innovate and, most importantly, to implement,” says Simon Pitts, the institute’s director. “So he has invested a lot of money with Northeastern and other institutions to try and fix the problem.”

A goal of the institute is to help broaden the perspective of engineers and tech specialists, taking into account the views of colleagues representing a variety of disciplines as well as the needs of the customer. Students are placed in groups so that each is focused on supporting their half-dozen teammates.

“Our premise is that leadership is a skill that can be taught,” says Steven Klosterman, a professor of engineering leadership who helped design the institute’s curriculum, which integrates with master’s degrees offered by the College of Engineering, the College of Science and the Khoury College of Computer Sciences. “A second lieutenant in the U.S. Army at age 23 is able to command tens if not hundreds of people in mission-critical situations with precision, poise and competence while being very decisive—and they’re taught those skills over the course of their training as Army officers.”

Instead of waiting for engineers to develop leadership traits the hard way via years of on-the-job training, the institute focuses on those skills in what Klosterman calls “a year-long boot camp.” The program culminates in a challenge project—equivalent to a thesis—in which each student identifies and solves a problem within their current organization, with the help of teammates and mentors.

Half of the institute’s graduates earn a company promotion within one year, and three-fourths of them are promoted within two years. The students represent a highly-diverse group of life experiences from across the world—which makes Manning feel at home.

“The Army has got to be the most diverse secular organization in the U.S.,” says Manning. “I learned in the military this idea of bringing in people with very different perspectives and backgrounds, and creating an opportunity for them to use their voices.”

Manning applies his military experiences in counterintuitive ways.

“Leadership is about taking care of people and it’s about loving people,” says Manning, who refrains from discussing the dangers he has faced in war zones. “It’s about empowering people. The best leaders that I ever encountered had the ability to create the conditions of safety and trust, where everybody had a voice. There was a full recognition that leaders don’t create greatness; they unlock the greatness that exists.

“They invite their people to share ideas, to challenge each other,” Manning says. “‘Don’t sit on your expertise,’ you hear these leaders say, because you have an obligation to contribute to the team’s mission.”

Manning had taught occasionally in a variety of university settings when he was recommended to Northeastern by McGonagle, who was preparing to retire from the Gordon Institute. The two veterans taught a class together in fall 2020 before Manning took over.

“He draws on the empathy that he developed leading groups of peers for 20-plus years in uncertain, difficult and foreign circumstances,” says Courtland Chapman, a 2021 Gordon Institute graduate who works as a technology and innovation engineer for Saint-Gobain Research North America, a multidisciplinary industrial research center near Boston. “This allows him to quickly bond with his students. He is extremely kind and listens intently, tailoring responses and actions to the student and situation rather than a canned coverall statement.”

Manning approaches the classroom from an unusual perspective, says Amy Manley, the institute’s admissions and marketing director.

“It’s not lecturing,” Manley says of Manning. “He’s having a conversation and they’re talking through how things are done: ‘When you had that conversation, how did it make you feel?’ ‘How could you change it next time and make it better?’ He’s very approachable.”

It works because, in part, the students see their professor expanding his perspective—from the military to the larger world—even as he’s asking them to expand theirs.

“We afford our students an opportunity to grow, to stretch themselves, to become comfortable with being uncomfortable—and that is a space that I had the distinct privilege and honor of living in as a soldier,” Manning says. “Over the course of the year, we transform the cohort [of students] into a high-performing team.”

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