A common refrain about Generation Y is that there is a dearth of leadership. It’s something I heard every day when I was a twenty-something at work, when people were saying Generation X were slackers. And, I have a feeling that while the Baby Boomers were high at Woodstock, their elders were saying there was a dearth of leadership in the younger generation.
So, instead of constantly complaining about the coming doom in the leadership realm, we should see the idea of leadership as dynamic, and the faster we can understand how it changes, the faster we can identify the upcoming leaders of our time.
1. New leaders are facilitators rather than dictators.
The world used to be hierarchical and you did what leaders said. You could climb closer and closer to the leader at the top of the ladder if you listened to the leader and put your career in their hands. Now, top-down leadership is completely out of fashion because it only works if the person at the top can take care of the people at the bottom. It’s a patriarchal way of life that is not tenable in an environment where companies lay people off every year.
So instead, leaders have to focus on helping people to be their best selves. The long-term vision that leaders promote has to involve the long-term vision of the followers’ dreams in order to get everyone on board. Today leaders are facilitators rather than dictators; they lead from the middle.
The result is, eventually, an organization with no official bosses. And, before you assume that doesn’t work, take a look at this article in The Wall St. Journal about Valve, a videogame company with 300 people and no promotions or titles, only projects and champions. The most remarkable thing about the article is the language the members of the company use to talk about office productivity. It is completely new—because when you change the top-down culture, you have to change the top-down language.
2. New leaders are not out in front.
There is a workforce obsession with entrepreneurship, which has led to an academic obsession with research into entrepreneurship to attract more students to MBA programs. Consequently, we have a lot of entrepreneurs who paid for MBAs and don’t need them, but also, we have a keen understanding the process of getting new ideas.
And we know that most often, the people who have all the new ideas are crazy. They live in their heads. They are control freaks. Leaders are people who can come in just behind the idea people and say, “Here’s a way that this idea works for you.” Leaders make the idea less about the person who thought of it and more about the people who grab onto it. Leaders come on second, or third, and the first thing they are, before good leaders, is a good follower. The best illustration of this I can think of is in this video, (which I love so much and you should click that link.)
Barbara Kellerman, at the Center for Public Leadership, outlines how leaders emerge organically in her book, Followership: How Followers are Creating Change and Changing Leaders. The important thing, though, is if you want to change the world, think about how to find that second person. That’s the one who will give your ideas traction. And if you want to lead, look for ideas worth propelling.
3. New leaders come to leadership in a roundabout way.
If modern leadership is not about command and control but rather about facilitation and inspiration, then today’s leaders will not be people who set out to lead. That’s the old-fashioned way, and it won’t resonate with people around you.
People obsessed with being leaders is inherently inauthentic anyway. Historically, truly revolutionary leaders don’t set out to be revolutionaries, but rather, they take actions that are completely natural to them, though contrary to what is expected by society, and in that moment, the people areound them are ripe for something new.
People who will lead today are people who facilitate collaboration and intuitively bring out the best in other people. If you are doing this, you might be a leader already.
4. New leaders are not groundbreakers.
We are in a conservative era. Not conservative like McCarthyism. But conservative like we are just trying to get by. The US is no longer a powerhouse, college is no longer a ticket to financial stability, divorce rates loom high and the chances of you earning more than your parents is low. This is all to say that Generation X is focused on creating family stability, and Generation Y is extremely risk averse. (Before you argue with this conclusion, click that last link, okay?)
We’re in an era of conservative leadership. Not politically. But in a broader, more classical sense of conservative, the idea of trying to keep change from coming too fast. A great example of this shift in leadership is Madonna. She built a career on being groundbreaking, new and shocking. That worked twenty years ago. But today, people are turned off. It simply doesn’t work.
Bill Taylor wrote an article in Fast Company titled, The Leader of the Future. In it he explains that the old kind of leader was a visionary. The new kind is one who helps people see reality and take action based on that. Taylor says that leaders of the future help people face the tough challenges that come their way.
5. New leaders lead online.
In the old leadership we could talk bombastically about our greatness and our future and it didn’t matter if we could connect in an authentic way to the leader. Today, stripped of our sense of grandeur, we need leaders to help us see the truth about where we are, which means we need leaders who are authentic about who they are as well. The emergence of the Internet – with it’s openness and non-hierarchical nature — coincides nicely with our need to be lead from the middle by people who are authentic. This is why the new leader will lead online. We saw this with Obama, funding his 2008 campaign online, and the CEO of Sun, resigning via Twitter.
Check out the story on NPR about Mitt Romney’s running mate. Mark Memmott says that you can judge who the likely running mate will be by whose Wikipedia page has the most edits. And Senator Rob Portman is winning by a large margin: 98 edits last Tuesday alone. It’s a metaphor for leadership today: you can’t edit your own Wikipedia page — the editors will take the page down if you do that. The page has to be edited by the followers, who attach their own name to the edit.
When you look at your own potential for leadership, look at your capacity for transparency, your ability to deliver difficult news to the people around you, and your interest in inspiring grand behavior in people who might not be feeling so grand. These are the tasks of leaders today. It’s a different challenge than leaders of earlier generations, which is why so many people fear there’s a leadership vacuum. In fact, we are entering a new realm of leadership that is collaborative and uplifting. And for some of you this will mean your time has come.