Generation Y has a lot of great traits, but classic, top-down leadership is not one of them. This is not a surprise: Because gen Y is the great teamwork generation. They did book reports in teams, they went to prom in teams, and they are notorious for quitting jobs in teams.
I know this first hand. Because the insult Ryan Healy loves to hurl at me most is that I'm a bad team player. At first I thought this was a joke: Of course I'm a bad team player. I am part of gen x – the most disenfranchised, neglected generation in history.
But as CEO of Brazen Careerist, I work pretty hard to be better at being part of a team. Not only to appease Ryan and his gen-y cohorts, but also because I think effective leadership in today’s workplace is about teamwork and following, not about standing out.
Here are five traits of leadership in the new millennium — traits I try to practice myself:
1. Make yourself a source of information
The key trait in a leader is the bravery to put forth an opinion and maybe be wrong. Jeffrey Kluger, writing in Time magazine, reports research that we value leaders not because they are smarter or right more often, but merely because they speak up. We want to be lead by people who take a shot at the answer — right or wrong. So if you want to be perceived as a leader, speak up. Often.
This means you need opinions. Today news is commodified, which means (newspapers are dying and) the real information we can offer is a layer of opinion and synthesis on top of the news. So you need to take a risk and put out some opinions that matter in order to be seen as leading people. Your peers, rather than some special gatekeeper will determine if the opinions are right or wrong.
2. Expect your ideas to resonate due to merit not rank
Gary Hamel has a great post on his Wall St. Journal blog about the impact of Web 2.0 on the workplace. The first thing he points out is that in the Web 2.0 world, all ideas are on equal footing. Which is to say that your rank doesn't matter as much as what you put forward.
He writes: “When you post a video to YouTube, no one asks you if you went to film school. When you write a blog, no one cares whether you have a journalism degree. Position, title, and academic degrees”?none of the usual status differentiators carry much weight online. On the Web, what counts is not your resume, but what you can contribute.”
3. Get good at following
I've been thinking a lot about Barbara Kellerman's book, Followership: How Followers are Creating Change and Changing Leaders. Kellerman argues that in order to learn how to be a good leader, you need to also understand the art of good following. Her research shows that the best followers have historically paid more attention to their peers than those holding rank above them. So it makes sense that leaders in the new millennium will look to their peers to elevate them rather than doing it by climbing up some external ranking system.
4. Get good at selling from the inside out
You cannot force an idea down peoples' throats. That top-down sort of leadership disappeared when the corporate ladder disappeared. This means that leadership is all about sales: selling a vision, and a common goal, and making meaningful connections. Leaders do this to convince people to keep going even though there is no promise of a safe future.
Today leaders sell by being part of the team. A great example of this is cheerleaders. Cheerleaders are infamous for being amazing salespeople and part of that is that they know how to work as part of a team instead of barking orders and insisting on being the leader.
5. Be authentic in situations where authenticity is most difficult
Authenticity is the new way of selling —rather than using the force of BS. And the leaders of the new millennium are judged by their ability to convey their true selves. Tony Hsieh, the CEO for Zappos is renowned for maintaining a popular Twitter feed that rings as authentic and fun. Mark Zuckerberg gets into the most trouble when his interviews seem stiff to the point of inauthentic.
One of the best ways develop your own leadership potential is through public speaking training. The best type of training for speakers isn't to memorize speeches and make rote eye contact, but rather to learn to be your true self in front of people. First you learn to do it in front of a few people — no small feat — and then you learn to do it in front of a lot of people. (I learned this at TAI Resources.)
Of course, you may discover that you are not really a leader. But the best thing about deciding to become a leader is that you learn what your strengths are and what your weaknesses are. And in the new millennium, the distinction between leader and follower is so fluid that the distinction between your strengths and weaknesses is probably more important, anyway.