NASA Systems Engineering Leadership Development Program

Behavioral Competency Model

The behaviors exhibited by NASA’s highly valued Systems Engineers fall into five broad Themes with associated Competencies and their observable Behaviors. The broad Themes are Leadership, Attitudes and Attributes, Communication, Problem Solving and Systems Thinking, and Technical Acumen. The findings are known as the NASA Systems Engineering Behavioral Competency Model.

The five Themes and their Competencies are portrayed in the color-coded gear spokes in the following image (click image for a closer view).

Below the image you will find a list of the Themes and their Competencies. Click each Competency to display or hide its associated Behaviors.

NASA Systems Engineering Behavior Competency Model


Appreciates/Recognizes Others

  • Articulates the relevance of the team’s work and its overall contribution to the success of the program and organization.
  • Fairly represents individual and team contributions and gives credit where credit is due. Acknowledges work performed by others and verbally expresses appreciation.

Builds Team Cohesion

  • Knows that resolving differing opinions is important to clarify the problem and foster better understanding. Works to ensure vigorous debate is allowed among people with different views, goals, and objectives to build a common framework.
  • Establishes healthy relationships to foster team cohesion, strong mission focus, and system perspective by asking team members to provide input and voice concerns.
  • Models open, non-defensive behavior with others.
  • Notices when others are uncomfortable and communicates acceptance with open, relaxed inquiry by making positive, encouraging comments to others throughout meetings.

Understands the Human Dynamics of a Team

  • Motivates team by consistently communicating progress and understanding of the challenges and opportunities faced by the system design.
  • Supports teams success by consistently asking: How can I help you? What do you need to succeed? What tools do you need to do your job?
  • Ensures that all the disciplines interact and work together by meeting regularly and communicating progress often.
  • Genuinely respects people and their talents by encouraging and challenging them to do their best work.
  • Understands that people assimilate information differently. Builds rapport with others by adapting communication styles appropriate for the recipients.
  • Builds upon past experiences in successfully leading various systems engineering teams.

Creates Vision and Direction

  • Keeps the team on track by holding a big picture view of what needs to be accomplished in order to reach mission requirements.
  • Listens to the assessments and concerns of all team members realizing each person has a point of view that is important to them, and continually reminds them of the higher goal.
  • Ensures each team member understands their roles and responsibilities.
  • Articulates to the team what constitutes system and mission success and their relationship to each other.

Ensures System Integrity

  • Understands the integrity of the system is a primary role. Makes system planning decisions accordingly, reporting unacceptable project risks to senior management.
  • Accepts responsibility for the performance of the system. Serves as the focal point for blame and criticism when problems occur with system performance.

Possesses Influencing Skills

  • Understands the political forces that affect the project and disseminates the relevant information to subsystem engineers and others, as needed.
  • Influences actions of personnel not under their direct management control by creating synergy among and with people.
  • Builds a base of contacts, information sources, knowledge, and expertise that may be called upon at various stages of the project. Invests the time and effort necessary to build this resource network.

Sees Situations Objectively

  • Assumes responsibility for own actions without blaming others for mistakes or misrepresenting ones self.
  • Understands some of the best ideas can come from a mix of people. Does not assume there is only one right answer.
  • Remains objective so as not to be hindered by irrelevant, outside influences.

Coaches and Mentors

  • Coaches and mentors team members and less experienced systems engineers to develop the breadth and depth of their competencies by giving specific positive and negative feedback for developmental purposes.
  • Recognizes high potential individuals by understanding and identifying the presence of skills and traits needed to be successful in the field.
  • Challenges individuals to do their best work by giving assignments that build their capabilities.
  • Asks questions that challenge assumptions, validate conclusions, and explore thought processes.
  • Promotes a team culture that places a greater priority on the performance of the system than the performance of its subsystems.


  • Delegates responsibility and authority to the lowest possible levels while retaining control of subsystem requirements and system integration functions.
  • Builds confidence among team members by delegating responsibility and decision-making authority to subsystem leads and then accepting the decisions they make without resistance or second-guessing.

Ensures Resources are Available

  • Ensures that the team has the right tools, knowledge, and resources in order to get the job done.
  • Keeps abreast of current analytical tools and models by knowing where to find them, when to apply them, and how to use them.
  • Utilizes data archiving tools and processes to organize, simplify, and distribute information effectively. Ensures that the information team members use to make decisions and coordinate activities is reliable and trustworthy.
  • Uses formal channels of communication to place reasonable limits on the number of people from whom information is gathered.

Attitudes & Attributes

Remains Inquisitive and Curious

  • Is naturally inquisitive and curious, and is largely driven by that curiosity. Is fearless and has an authentic and persistent desire to understand how everything works and how it relates to everything else. Can quickly connect dots and identify weak spots.
  • Seeks to understand the big picture and interrelationship of the parts. Moves without boundaries from one topic to another, to discover what else needs to be known, what might be overlooked.
  • Actively explores the technical issues, concepts, and lexicon of subsystem disciplines that are less familiar and comfortable.

Seeks Information and Uses the Art of Questioning

  • Asks difficult questions of discipline or subsystem experts regarding boundaries, conditions, and assumptions to ensure continuity across all systems and to ensure that the proposed solution is an integrated solution and fundamentally makes sense.
  • Asks questions, at appropriate times and in various ways, to ensure consistency of answers and to reveal if others understand what constitutes system success. Probes an area if inconsistency is revealed.
  • Asks questions artfully. Uses a series of questions that build upon each other to help identify the root of a problem or solutions.
  • Asks Why? Why did we decide to do it that way? What were the alternative solutions, and did we do trade studies that helped us determine why this was the best solution?
  • Confident in knowing what they do know and willing to state it and admit what is not known; seeks specialists to fill in missing pieces.

Advances Ideas

  • Restates, reframes, and clarifies others questions to ensure understanding among group members by questioning and measuring an idea against system requirements.
  • Fosters open two-way discussions. Brainstorms with others to solicit various viewpoints. Allows and encourages people to state opinions while listening for connections and disconnects in logic.
  • Engages the team by explaining how the solution or approach was reached.

Gains Respect Credibility, and Trust

  • Uses respectful tone, words and body language.
  • Follows through on commitments and serves as an advocate for the team.
  • Demonstrates understanding and appreciation of the challenges others face.
  • Earns the respect of team members by demonstrating personal integrity. Conducts business in an honest and trustworthy manner by avoiding deception and treating team members fairly.
  • Sees trust of self and others as a pervasive element required to achieve success.
  • Earns trust and respect of others by having a strong understanding of the systems technical requirements and assigns work based on the individuals skills and abilities. Understands that not everyone is an A player.
  • Lets team members do their job. Tells them what has to be done, but not how to do it.

Possesses Self-Confidence

  • Willing to speak up, regardless of who is present to ensure the most technically sound decision is made for the good of the overall system.
  • Demonstrates a positive attitude and exhibits confidence.
  • Sits back and listens to group discussions while building models and connections and/or identifying disconnects.

Has a Comprehensive View

  • Takes responsibility for the whole life-cycle, the whole system and all its parts. Understands the whole job and that it is never done.
  • Strikes a balance between what must happen to obtain success and what must not happen to avert failure.

Possesses a Positive Attitude and Dedication to Mission Success

  • Encourages a success oriented environment by displaying passion, excitement and enthusiasm about the work and the challenges faced by the system.
  • Is dedicated to mission success by working until the job is successfully completed even if that means working long hours to ensure the job is done.
  • Creates a “can do” atmosphere by providing positive feedback and is empathetic toward team members. Encourages others with their “can do” attitude.

Is Aware of Personal Limitations

  • Seeks guidance from experts. Knows what they know and what they dont know and seeks others to fill in missing data.
  • Acknowledges technical limitations to others. Does this with ease.

Adapts to Change and Uncertainty

  • Presses on with the project and ensures that the implications of change are addressed throughout the entire system in the face of ever-changing requirements.
  • May make decisions with incomplete or imperfect data.
  • Understands that change is inevitable and takes appropriate actions quickly. May assemble other technical experts to brainstorm various avenues and approaches to support the change.
  • Remains calm under pressure. Looks at things pragmatically and understands what’s going on. Doesn’t over-react.

Uses Intuition/Sensing

  • Uses both intuition and sensing when evaluating a problem or making a decision. Does not rely solely on data. May use of “gut feeling” if data is inconclusive.
  • Moves concepts and ideas easily through artificial boundaries. Uses intuition and the senses to penetrate the system and discover or synthesize solutions to a problem.

Is Able to Deal with Politics, Financial Issues, and Customer Needs

  • Is politically savvy. Understands the larger forces at work. Studies the political and financial issues and impacts.
  • Shares and uses knowledge and expertise that shapes the political and financial environment in positive ways.
  • Balances tasks and deliverables against resources and designs processes that save time and money.
  • Possesses the ability to interface with the customer and successfully lead discussions to create an understanding of system status across various levels, both up, down and across.


Listens Effectively and Translates Information

  • Sees the system from various perspectives. Listens and acts as translator between parties (subsystems, Project, vendors and other customers), ensuring each gets the necessary information from others.
  • Communicates project status to management and other key internal and external stakeholders. Clearly communicates requirements to providers of the subsystem elements.
  • Is an excellent listener. Is keenly aware of what is being said and of omissions. Listens for themes that continue to surface. Then there comes a point where the SE will begin to penetrate by asking questions. If questions are not adequately answered, the SE will begin to focus on the potential soft spot.
  • Listens to identify critical elements or parameters of the problem. Listens for information that leads to connections between system elements and information that disrupts connections.
  • Clarifies and simplifies ideas under discussion by offering and/or requesting “summation” statements.

Communicates Effectively Through Personal Interaction

  • Consistently communicates progress and gains understanding from others on what challenges and successes are faced by the systems design. May meet face to face on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, to ensure everyone is in the loop understand the systems requirements.
  • Prefers personal interaction over e-mail. Uses face-to-face interaction as a primary communication channel to hear concerns, share information, build rapport, create buy-in and create relationships within a team.
  • Communicates in a clear and concise manner.
  • Facilitates effective communication in team meetings and throughout the project by regularly interacting with people on the team and getting them together to ensure everyone is up-to-date.

Facilitates an Environment of Open and Honest Communication

  • Welcomes divergent opinions by creating an atmosphere where team members feel the freedom to openly express their opinions. Encourages and respects differing opinions in order to drive convergence on decisions.
  • Promotes open, honest communication by asking questions, protecting proprietary information, protecting minority opinions, and incorporating valuable ideas that are shared in the system design. Identifies and takes steps to remove communication barriers that are unique to particular individuals or groups.
  • Patiently listens to each of the team members/discipline experts in order to assure that everyone gets heard–that all diverse and dissenting opinions are considered. Listens to all who want to speak, does not communicate irritation and does not shut people down.
  • Effectively facilitate teams, meetings and disagreements. Asks clarifying, probing and penetrating questions to ensure all information is out on the table.
  • Demonstrates accessibility and approachability by having an open-door policy.

Uses Visuals to Communicate Complex Interactions

  • Graphically pulls together ideas, issues, and observations to better understand and explain all systems and interfaces and to solve complex problems. Uses visuals, such as Venn diagrams, models, pictures, charts, metaphors, archetypes, and other relevant representations, to communicate complex problems or to display the interconnections of sub-elements.
  • Keeps everyone involved by keeping accurate records of big and small picture aspects affecting the system and distributing information in advance.

Communicates Through Story Telling and Analogies

  • Uses personnel experiences to build connections and provide explanations by using engineering and non-engineering stories and analogies. For example, creates analogies from historical events, everyday experiences and “life lessons” to better explain concepts and ideas to others.
  • Shares experiences and lessons learned with others to support future systems design.

Is Comfortable with Making Decisions

  • Makes decisions in a confident and timely manner when appropriate — with or without complete or optimal information — allowing team members to maintain forward progress on their assigned tasks.
  • Carefully monitors the impact of decisions on system performance, backtracking and changing direction if necessary. When the team’s forward progress is not at stake, the Systems Engineer may choose to postpone decision-making and engage in more detailed analysis.
  • Stays on point until ideas are heard, recognizes when enough data is gathered to make a decision, and then moves on. Willing to revisit decision if new data warrants it.
  • Makes difficult or unpopular decisions, keeping the best interest of the system in mind, weighing the potential risks to team cohesion and interpersonal relationships against system performance.

Problem Solving & Systems Thinking

Identifies the Real Problem

  • Identifies the critical problem to be solved by asking questions and identifying the key requirements.
  • Recognizes what is technically right among many good ideas by viewing a problem across system boundaries and comparing each design to the other.
  • Frames the problem in a logical way and identifies resources required to solve the problem efficiently.
  • Solves problems with the team by listening for the issue, pinpoints problem areas, makes recommendations, and then steps out. Avoids side trips and unnecessary minutiae and focuses on important issues.

Assimilates, Analyzes, and Synthesizes Data

  • Assimilates and distills large quantities of data and ensures all of the data is on the table to solve a problem or make a decision. Ensures decisions made are supported with data.
  • Breaks data into smaller pieces or parameters, prioritizes the parameters, then synthesizes the data to reach an answer or solution.
  • Has the ability to rapidly recall data.
  • Approaches and solves problems in a systematic manner by using tools, processes, procedures in order to find solutions.

Thinks Systemically

  • Looks across the entire system and facilitates trades and compromises to get a balanced design. Ensures that the integrity of the system as a whole does not suffer because of over optimizing any of the smaller pieces.
  • Sees multi-view representations of systems to understand how the pieces fit together and interact. Visualizes systems in 3-D. Draws a picture in his or her mind, or on paper.
  • Is able to look deep enough into a problem without losing focus on the big picture. Sees the big picture while at the same time demonstrating an overall awareness of the details.
  • Breaks the problem down into smaller manageable parts.
  • Understands how the system works, what it was designed to do, its functions and requirements. Is able to analyze the systems data. Traces implications of a problem in a step-by-step manner across the system.

Has the Ability to Find Connections and Patterns Across the System

  • Integrates and provides a connection between the various engineering segments of the project. Is able to identify connections from separate elements of the project that others would not notice and brings these connections to the team’s attention as a means to assist in solving underlying issues.
  • Examines and explores the implications of how technical decisions being made affect the bigger system architecture. Sees the ripple effect of changing requirements or making changes to any element of the system.
  • Able to see system interfaces. Identifies the impact that changes to one sub-system are having — or might have–on other sub-systems. Locates and corrects sub-system ‘disconnects’ or ‘inconsistencies’ that are having a negative impact on system performance.

Sets Priorities

  • Sets technical priorities in order to maintain the balance for the problems at hand while achieving system requirements.

Keeps the Focus on Mission Requirements

  • Is focused on developing a system that meets the end-item product objectives and does not lose sight of this while integrating the pieces of the system into the whole system.
  • Studies, understands, and articulates the projects overall objectives. Knows what the system must do and be in order to accomplish its objectives.
  • Sets technical priorities with principal investigator and subsystem engineers to achieve system requirements.

Possesses Creativity and Problem Solving Abilities

  • Enjoys and is energized by fully concentrating on a problem for long stretches, until solutions are formed and implemented. Possesses passion for problem solving.
  • Takes the initiative to solve the problems.
  • Solves problems with the team by listening to the issues, pinpointing problem areas, making technical recommendations; may help implement the solution.
  • Does not adhere to rigid rules or formulas for system design, but may create new ideas and approaches that are necessary to deal successfully with system constraints.

Validates Facts, Information and Assumptions

  • Breaks data into smaller pieces or parameters. Prioritizes the parameters then synthesizes the data to reach an answer or solution by examining system and sub-system operations in minute detail. Recognizing that seemingly minor miscalculations can lead to significant problems in system performance.
  • Questions all assumptions that go into the design.
  • Looks for, and anticipates, problems or issues in the system in places that may not be covered with the right kind of data to make a decision.
  • Looks for answers that may not be readily apparent from just looking at the data alone. Does not rely solely on data.

Remains Open Minded and Objective

  • Receptive to hearing diverse/varying opinions. Is willing to re-think/re-work an issue or to change direction when new information or a better idea is presented.
  • Evaluates decisions objectively. Maintains flexibility by avoiding ‘ownership’ of a particular strategy or point of view.

Draws on Past Experiences

  • Draws from his or her hands-on experiences to develop the proper feel for succeeding on future projects, knowing when something looks “right” versus “not even close” from past successes and failures.
  • Solves problems with a balance of innovative developments and proven heritage products. May rely on experience and existing design as guides, but sees each opportunity as a canvas to design new solutions.
  • Uses experience, history, intuition, and sensing in order to assess the situation and develop a solution.

Manages Risk

  • Uses past experiences to anticipate potential problems that may impact system performance.
  • Identifies the key indicators and methods of testing for each type of problem.
  • Develops mitigation strategies for addressing the problems, should they arise.
  • Is risk savvy. Understands that risk is perpetual and needs to be managed.

Technical Acumen

Possesses Technical Competence and Has Comprehensive Previous Experience

  • Shares his or her project experience, and acts as a reliable resource to the team and serves as the go to person.
  • Demonstrates the depth of technical knowledge and expertise necessary to perform, manage, and coordinate work-related activities.
  • Possesses a strong, fundamental understanding of engineering principles along with a cross-disciplinary background.
  • Engages specialists for their technical knowledge and abilities.
  • Demonstrates ability to focus on details while keeping the big picture in mind. Is able to shift focus between the two with ease.
  • Uses an iterative process to refine the design to accomplish the system requirements.

Learns from Successes and Failures

  • Shares with others lessons learned. Lessons come from a strong base of engineering experiences across the full life-cycle.
  • Documents and studies the successes and failures of both the current and previously developed systems. Uses this information to make decisions that reduce risk and maximize the probability of success.
  • Is willing to learn from past failures as well as successes. Understands both are important.

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