By Sarah Landrum
As Gen X and Baby Boomers cede more and more economic control to Millennials, the world must also contend with a shifting of values.
With young people graduating from college and joining the workforce for the first time, some of us are taking our first looks at a more global and more swiftly changing world than the one in which our parents grew up.
In several specific ways, Millennials bring a new perspective to the very idea of leadership — not just in the workplace, but also across society in general. Let’s discuss the two kinds of Millennial leadership and what they look like in, and what they mean for, the future of work.
Leadership Of The Self
The “why” is complicated, but Millennials are at the forefront of a leadership movement. But the most visible part of this transition isn’t dominion over others, but rather leadership of the self.
It’s not a new idea, but Millennials are giving it new life as they come of age. The idea is simply that we endeavor to become more in touch with who we are, what we’re capable of and what we want out of life. It’s true that as the world has grown more global and interdependent, it has also grown more decentralized — that is, we’re increasingly less likely to work for organizations with strong singular physical presences and more likely to do what we do from a variety of locations.
Along with this looser culture and sense of place comes a higher need to self-start, self-educate and self-sustain ourselves. Leadership for Millennials isn’t really a skill that’s learned so much as it’s a state we enter where we’re more likely to think deeply about what we do and how we can do it better. It’s about taking on modern life with a sort of holistic state of mind, bringing together our emotional and physical health, dedication to effective communication and personal and professional relationships. In short, while we certainly must possess and celebrate the right to a formal education, we must also commit ourselves to the responsibility to educate ourselves.
But it’s also about communication, according to Bryant and Kazan, who helped coin the term “self-leadership” in 2012. In this attempt to better define and understand ourselves, we become better equipped to deal with others: “In this [the 21st Century] collaborative, decentralized environment, training people to become self-leaders — team members who set priorities, take initiative, and solve problems — is more important than ever.”
We begin with self-leadership because it’s useful to think of such a concept as the first step in a journey. After all, what is the workplace but a microcosm of the larger world? As we learn to govern ourselves, including our triumphs and mistakes, we learn to attempt everything in life, both within the workplace and without, with a keener sense of context and collaboration.
Millennials are, of course, not remotely the first generation to apply this type of thinking to life in the workplace, but their coming of age does represent one of the largest transfers of economic power in world history. We can also thank technology for giving us more time to commit to self-improvement. As we learn to do more with less, the time freed up means more thought-bandwidth for self-directed learning and clear-headed problem-solving.
Leadership Of Others
Let’s put a number on it. By 2030, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Millennials will represent three-quarters of the global workforce. As you can imagine, a community that size means the younger generations’ ideas about leadership don’t begin and end with the self. We must, after all, learn how to lead others, too.
This point brings us to one of the shortcomings in the Millennial approach to leadership. While most of us enjoy greater access to information than ever before — and myriad ways to broaden our horizons, our minds and our skill sets along with it — it might be forcing us to compromise on some of our leadership skills.
For example, Millennials’ research skills and thoughtfulness are second-to-none. These are out-of-the-box thinkers who are slower to conform to conventional thinking than their forebears. One thing they might not be as great at, however, is the interpersonal element of communication and leadership.
Although Millennials are excellent information gatherers, all that time behind a screen might be dulling our social skills somewhat. In fact, some researchers have gone so far as to claim Millennials are at a disadvantage in the workplace compared to the other generations because they lack some of the confidence required to reach out and make personal connections — even over the phone. For all the data Millennials consume and make sense of in an average day, communication — itself a central pillar of leadership — might be in decline.
In this way, the Millennial generation’s ascension in the workplace represents a double-edged sword. Young people today desire, and know how to find, the information and data that will make them better at what they do and, therefore, more valuable as employees and leaders. They’re just not always that great at relaying what they’ve found to others so that they might benefit from it.
But here’s the takeaway and the opportunity: Even though Millennials will soon be stewards of a world with both familiar and brand-new challenges, Millennials still aspire to achieve leadership in vast numbers. According to research compiled by WorkplaceTrends.com and others, 91% of Millennials wish to become leaders. An additional 43% feel they already possess the motivation to inspire leadership interest in others.
If high-quality leadership is a snowball, Millennials are giving it a big push down a long hill.
Shared Leadership = Shared Prosperity
With numbers like these, it’s clear that Millennials are ready to bring their own brand of excellence to small businesses, nonprofits and massive corporations alike. Given the degree to which young people today wish for leadership roles and open doors to be shared equitably, it’s enough to make us question conventional definitions of leadership itself. Leadership is on some level self-serving, but this promising young generation might already be pointing the way toward something better.