You should lead from the middle


People talk about leadership like it's a business crisis, and the exit of the baby boomers leaves a huge gap, and there are no aspiring leaders in the younger workforce.

But what we have is actually a semantic problem rather than a leadership problem. The issue is that in the age of the Internet, what it means to be a leader is changing. And we need a new way to talk about leadership so we can talk about identifying leaders.

The old view of leadership is doing it from the top.
To baby boomers, leadership is a game where you try to get to the top and then everyone will follow you. Baby boomers have had to compete forever, for everything, because there were so many of them trying to get on the same “path for success.”

Tammy Erickson's book, What's Next Gen X, has lots of fun tidbits about generational conflict. To Gen X she says, “Your expectation to be treated individually — to be allowed to play the game by our own rules — contrasts with boomers' willingness to play by established rules in competition for individual rewards.”

Baby boomers competed for a big salary which they translated to a visual trophy: a McMansion. This gives us a visual for the lack of interest Gen X has in Baby Boomer style managment: McMansions for sale with no buyers.

Leadership style is generational.
Other generations do not compete with near the gusto of baby boomers. And we have, in our midst, a generation primed for leadership, faced down by a generation that does not understand that leadership is changing.

People lead in the way they would like to follow. This is why Gen X is notoriously hands-off in the leadership space; Gen X doesn't actually care who is in charge as long as the work gets done.

Like Gen X, Gen Y is uncomfortable with ranking and hierarchy, but for different reasons. Gen Y understands teamwork better than Baby Boomers or Gen Xers. Gen Y spent years being on a soccer team where everyone wins, and in study groups where people actually help each other. Leadership according to Gen Y: everyone is working together, in a non-competitive way.

Beware of BS books about women leaders.
Here's one that just came through my email: The Next Generation of Women Leaders. The book features the baby boomer generation of women leaders. There are women who climbed the corporate ladder like it's 1970. There are women who did not have kids. There are women who got MBAs it their late twenties when it has been shown that this is a good career move for men, but not for women who want to have children.

In general, I think you should stay away from most business stuff targeted at women. And this is no exception: Look for the next generation of women leaders among people who are leading collaboratively, in a non-linear way. Because while men and women can both lead this way, no woman ever got to the top of anything, with kids, without a innovative plan that relied on lots of people to help. (Cathy Benko’s book on Mass Career Customization a great starting point for non-linear career advice.)

The way to be a good leader is to lead from the middle.
The Internet has changed the idea of authority. The old ways of gaining authority, by jumping through corporate or academic hoops have been superceeded by the democratized and ubiquitous access to information. Changes in authority necessarily lead to changes in leadership.

I recently heard the term “leading from the middle” (thanks, Grady). There's a lot written about it. Here's one book: 360 Degree Leader: Developing your influence from anywhere in the organization.

And, lest you think trade magazines are dumping ground sub-par writing, check out Furniture World. Dan Caughlin writes about leading from the middle: “To be a leader, take a stand on a given issue, decide what you believe in, and work to influence how other people think in the way you believe to be most effective.”

I like this thinking — that leaders are giving ideas rather than giving orders. The idea that new leadership is about influencing rather than dominating makes sense because the generation that grew up on the Internet – Gen Y – is better than everyone else at expressing ideas as an influencer.

And I also like this because at Brazen Careerist we give people the opportunity to build a profile page that aims to make you known for your ideas, and not just your resume — which gives more meaning to your career and allows people to hire you for your real potential to contribute.

Get a tribe.
Seth Godin reshapes the idea of leadership with his book, Tribes: We You to Lead Us. At a recent TED conference, Seth talked about Tribes. He explains that the Internet has ended mass marketing and revived a human social unit from the distant past: tribes. Tribes come together based on shared ideas and values, tribes give ordinary people the power to lead and make big change.”

While I would never be called early adopter of technology (I didn't try twitter til it was in Time magazine) I like experimenting with tools for building tribes. My top three tools are this blog, my twitter feed, and my group on Brazen Careerist. All three allow me to shape a conversation, but also learn from the conversation, which is what leading from the middle is all about.

A lot of times I write about how if you are not learning something new when you write a blog post, then you are not writing anything that other people will learn from. I think this is true with leading, as well. If you are not inspired in a fresh way from the middle, then no one else in the middle will be inspired.

That's why collaborative leadership is exciting to me. As a Gen X-er it's hard for me to want to be part of a group. But as an intellectual, isolation scares me, and I love the idea of collaborative learning, which is what good leadership involves.

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  1. Dale
    Dale says:

    This is interesting, but it ignores the fact that this type of leadership does not work well for most situations.
    Participatory approaches to leadership are notorious for their less than efficient use of time. And while they do build consensus, there is also alot of research that suggests that upper level managerial support for decisions is more important to project/business success than any other variable.

    • Kathryn Rose
      Kathryn Rose says:

      I think Dale is missing the point that “leadership” and “executive decision making” are not necessarily the same thing.

      Companies do need executives. Someone needs to be definitively in charge to make sure that choices are being made efficiently and that the overall vision (for the project, company, whatever) is coherent. But as Penelope says, leadership can come in the form of ideas, not just oders. This is why she can still be leader within her company even though she is not the acting CEO.

      And everyone can contribute great ideas. HR staff understand people. Gen Yers understand technology. Sales people understand the bottom line. I think the best executives trust the insights of their employees and support idea-leadership throughout the company.

  2. sikakkar
    sikakkar says:

    You make a lot of really good points, and I want to add one thing. I think that when publications or people in general talk about leadership, it’s not just recently that they’ve been completely off.

    A leader has never been someone who can just climb a corporate ladder or order others around, I think the true definition of a leadership has always been in the power to influence people.

    If we take a look at organizations in the past several decades (the baby boomer years), the organizations that have been most successful are those lead by the kind of leaders that influence others.

    As Andrew Carnegie’s tombstone says “Here lies a man who knew how to enlist the service of better men than himself.”
    That is the true essence of leadership.

  3. jen
    jen says:

    Someone finally said it. The business stuff aimed at women is pure junk. I am an independent PR pracitioner. Every day, in dealing with Gen Xers who own small businesses, I am reminding of the brilliance of our generation. And, I can’t tell you how many men tell me they order their days around their kids. So, I am building my own small biz, now, and I do hate groups, but I can’t resist intellectual collaboration. I value it more than the power to decide alone.

  4. Alex Lickerman, MD.
    Alex Lickerman, MD. says:

    I especially like the idea that to be a leader we should “take a stand on a given issue, decide what [we] believe in, and work to influence how other people think in the way [we] believe to be most effective." Leading is about inspiring, not ordering. If you inspire someone to do a good job you’ve internally motivated them and they’ll likely exceed your expectations. If you order someone to do a good job, they likely will (if they’re capable) but do no more, being externally motivated.

    On the other hand, to run a business effectively, you can’t always (or even often) lead from the middle or through collaboration. Seems to me the best leaders know when to spend the time creating a consensus and when to make executive decisions.

    You might enjoy reading the following link:

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.



    • Lori
      Lori says:

      Alex – spoken like a true Gen Xer! as am I… and you and P both make the good point that is behind much of our pov – as P says, “If you are not inspired in a fresh way from the middle, then no one else in the middle will be inspired.” and you said, “I now understand that without quality leadership the environment in which those front line people perform will often become poisoned, sometimes dramatically impairing the quality of their work.” So many of us wouldn’t be so bitter if Boomers (managers) adopted these attitudes our our Gen Xers (managers) learned them (instead of emulating the Boomers). You do see them out there, but now they are dealing w/ Gen Y who so often cannot follow instructions w/o group planning.

  5. Ben
    Ben says:

    Look for the next generation of women leaders among people who are leading collaboratively, in a non-linear way.

    Damn skippy. When I think about the women managers and peers I’ve worked for and with, almost none of them get things done the way they’re “supposed” to.

    It’s only when they stop and try to reformulate their natural communication into an MBA-approved “assertive” statement that they seem to stumble and lose confidence.

  6. LisaF
    LisaF says:

    I agree with Alex, and don’t think this is strictly a generational mindset. It may be more of, on average, a gender mindset. Being a female baby boomer and one that has taken on leadership positions, I see a marked increase in loyalty and decrease in resentment when leading from the middle.

    Another mindset I find interesting in the Baby Boomer/GenX/GenY discussion is how Digital Natives are shaping how the business world gives/receives information…and subsequently how leadership roles are shifting. Digital Immigrants of the Baby Boomer generation will adapt and continue to survive in this high-tech, corporate world. Those that don’t will eventually be forced into another line of work! But that’s another post. :-)

  7. Maureen Sharib
    Maureen Sharib says:

    I saw a tweet the other day that leaders are just people who want to get something done. Maybe it was “get something done fast” or something that equated to they just (badly) wanted to get something done. It stayed w/ me.

  8. Jim C.
    Jim C. says:

    There are different situations that call for different kinds of leadership. That is why publicly-traded corporations have boards of directors but also have chief executive officers. The board works collaboratively, and the board chairman leads from the middle. (The board votes, after all.) But the company also needs someone to make important day-to-day decisions and give people their marching orders. That is what the CEO, COO, and the vice presidents do. Coporations have executives and boards because they need both kinds of leadership.

  9. Jay
    Jay says:

    Pen, I’m definitely a Boomer, but have always hewed to a collaborative, cooperative, rather than competitive style.

    Need to work on building my “tribe.” Own that book by Seth, and have received an advance copy of for review.

    Need to keep on blogging, and not being intimidated about being wrong. Moving that way.

    PS Loved your tweet yesterday about the farmer not knowing Woody Allen’s Jewish.

  10. Jay
    Jay says:

    Bad html. Have received an advance copy of Seth Godin’s latest, Linchpin, to review on my blog, thanks to my donation to Acumen Fund.

    Look for my review of Linchpin in two weeks, to coincide with general release on 1/26.

  11. davidburkus
    davidburkus says:

    Good post. I do believe that Gen Y is still comfortable with hierarchies, so long as those are based on merit and not seniority. But you did hit the team aspect on the head.

    Oh, and as a Gen Y I have one request: stop bringing up the everyone wins or gets a trophy stuff. Or at least, don’t blame Gen Y…Baby Boomer parents are the ones who signed us up. ; )

    • Elizabeth
      Elizabeth says:

      “Gen Y is still comfortable with hierarchies, so long as those are based on merit and not seniority.”

      Spot on, David.

  12. Ray Atkinson, ABC, APR
    Ray Atkinson, ABC, APR says:

    These are excellent observations. Leadership is not about authority. In fact, asserting authority can be detrimental to leadership, especially with Gen X/Y. I’ve always thought that leadership is more of an inherent quality or way of thinking, rather than something you could earn by climbing a corporate ladder. I think many people don’t even realize they are leaders until after they are already performing in those roles. The highest purpose of a leader is to bring out things in people that they don’t even know they are capable of, which in itself can foster and encourage future leaders.

  13. therapydoc
    therapydoc says:

    This is great stuff, Penelope. I read your interview at DaMama, that’s why I’m here. It’s all about one’s paradigm, no? Do you buy into the conflict paradigm (people just gotta duke it out) or a functionalist paradigm, (go with what works) or a social interactionist paradigm (go with what you learn from others). With leadership, it’s mainly, just GO, 90% of it is showing up.

  14. Grady Locklear
    Grady Locklear says:

    Some “leaders” take the charge so fast they lose sight of the people they are actually leading.

    So, it’s not that every decision has to be made by consensus… instead, a true leader has to walk among those being led, finding – as sikakkar alluded to – people who are better in their niche than the leader is. Using everybody’s strengths to move a cause or idea forward… that is true leadership.

    Penelope, thanks for the mention! This is a great post.

  15. Andrew S
    Andrew S says:

    Generational leadership desires or expectations have not changed, nor will they change for the next generation. How leadership is defined by a generation may change to fit a new crop of “experts”, but leadership in and of itself is consistent and constant. Collaborative leadership by its very definition is rarely leadership at all. Collaboration definitely leads to success, but it is the accountability from a leader that allows a group to succeed. Success without leadership rarely if ever exists. Where would Brazen Careerist be without your leadership? In the Techcrunch Deadpool most likely. Your idea, your focus and ability to lead the team you assembled (who in turn leads their respective areas) produced the success you have today. Without a leader Brazen Careerist does not exist. Isn’t this why you brought in a board member to be the leader of the organization? What I took away from Seth’s book is that groups of people need leadership, and the opportunity for groups to be led has not been more accessible than it is right now. I by no means think Seth was saying that leadership is collaborative or that Gen X or Gen Y does need nor desire leadership. In fact, Gen Y needs leadership in order to achieve more than other generations due to the ‘everyone’s a winner’ culture of their childhood. The ones who thought that was crap will be the leaders of their tribes. Rosabeth Moss Kanter has written multiple articles and books on this topic and to me has been a defining figure on leadership. Leadership is now and always has been about influence, and influencers dominate, just in a less obvious way. And those members of Gen Y who you believe do not desire financial independence or success or value compensation as a top priority, well they just have not gotten married, or had kids, or have had to take financial care of their parents yet, or are in a position financially where they do not now nor ever have to think about how to pay for college or the next kid activity or care for their parents. Just because it is not a priority to them today does not mean it will not be a priority for them tomorrow.

    And the comment about the leadership books for women? They are all crap. Leadership is leadership. The books just for men and just for women are just crap.

  16. Tzipporah
    Tzipporah says:

    What about those of us who don’t WANT to lead? who don’t give a rat’s ass whether other people are doing things our way, so long as they leave us alone and let us do what WE want to do?

  17. Bill Robinson
    Bill Robinson says:

    Good threads! I published a book in 2002 entitiled “Leading People from the Middle.” Its republication is due out in a month. I published another book in 2009 entitled “Incarnate Leadership.” The idea is that any Christian leader should pattern her/himself after the way Jesus “dwelt among” those he led. I have tried to lead “in the middle” as a college president for 24 years. I’m still waiting for a student or employee to tell me I’m not sufficiently aloof. In the middle is the best place to empower the people by disempowering the hierarchy. It works!

  18. Mneiae
    Mneiae says:

    I am a Gen Yer. Business school is still a race to the top. Just because we’ve been taught to collaborate since we were in diapers does not mean that we don’t have some bloodlust. Believe me.

    What I’ve learned from the recession is that the McMansion means nothing if you can’t pay for it. I grew up in a community where there are a lot of McMansions. They stand lonely and empty. There are “rich” sections that are like ghost towns now.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Here’s another way to think about business school: It’s not a race to the top. It’s leaving the race.

      You don’t need to go to business school for most jobs. And at the very top, aside from Fortune 500 CEOs, are entrepreneurs, and many people have argued that business school is actually an anti-entrepreneurial move (Guy Kawasaki says this a lot). So you could argue that the people who are most unable to structure a path for themselves and trust themselves to find success on their own terms take themselves out of that game and go to business school.

      This makes sense because applications to business school, over the past decade, are down.

      Here’s a post about that:


  19. Jim
    Jim says:

    There are 3 elements to leadership. Leader, Followers, and the Situation. Without followers, there are no leaders, and regardless of technology, human factors decide leaders.

    Just because a platoon sergeant is a leader on the battlefield, doesn’t make him the leader. The battle situation and his platoon dictate it. Audie Murphy was the most decrated soldier in US History. When he was a private, he showed leadership skills on the battlefield. Yet he was a Private.

    If followers don’t buy into it, you’ll never be a leader.

    Leader from the Center? Situation dictates when where and how to lead.

    Not everybody wants to be a leader, some people are happy being a team player.

    • jrandom42
      jrandom42 says:

      Speaking as an old broken down infantry platoon sergeant, I’m reminded of something another old platoon sergeant, who fought his way across the Pacific, through Korea, Vietnam and other “police actions”.

      “Leadership is being the first to put your butt on the line to get the mission accomplished, and the last to reel it in.”

      That’s why the Infantry School’s motto is “Follow Me”. A leader, whether he or she is an NCO, Platoon Leader or field grade officer has to lead from the front, that he or she is going to be the first to come out of cover to lead the advance, and know that their unit will follow them.

  20. Gen X Cathy
    Gen X Cathy says:

    All your posts are interesting but that doesn’t mean I agree with a lot of them. But this one is interesting and I agree! What resonates with me is that you don’t need to be at the top to lead, or to put it another way, to influence. And the concept of building a supportive team/group that you can influence from anywhere in the organisation – or from anywhere at all, even if you’re not in an organisation. (This is the situation for many influential bloggers, eg Pioneer Woman springs to mind).
    But if you happen to be in the middle of an organisation, you can still have enough influence to determine/control the sphere around you/the sphere that matters. And really, how much more influence do you need? As a marketer, I couldn’t care less about getting to the top and having to manage the accounting or HR departments. As long as I have enough authority built on personal relationships to ensure these people are not obstructing me, ie to influence them, then that gives me all the power/control I need to do what I enjoy.
    Also Penelope, you didn’t specifically mention how perfectly this applies to women (and men) who have chosen to jump off the corporate ladder to spend more time with their families. I now work part time, get to do the things I love and not the things I don’t (cos there isn’t time). I have a lowly job title, great per-hour pay and answer to someone younger than me with less experience. But because I have spent time developing relationships (influencing) with people I need to support me (from CEO down) and because I have valuable skills and experience, I am able to structure my job my way, and achieve my goals ‘from the middle’. I hadn’t thought about it this way before but the desciption is a great fit for a modern ‘opt-out’ worker.

  21. Gen X Cathy
    Gen X Cathy says:

    PS I forgot to say that I got my job through my relationship network.
    And, PPS, I hate ‘working in groups’ too, in the old-fashioned sense where someone else tells me what to do, or where I have to lead by nagging a bunch of sub-standard moochers to do the job right/on time.
    Modern work groups are loose, flexible and ever-changing. They come together informally, via a personal network of talented people inside and/or outside the organisation, to achieve a specific task.
    They are influenced by a ‘one-time only’ leader, and the ‘leader’ is in turn influenced by the skills and ideas of the team. People determine their own responsibilities based on their ability, and the leader is a coordinator/collaborator in the true sense. Once the job is done, the ‘group’ is no more.
    It is possible to be part of dozens of these groups at one time, and they are all ever-changing. No-one sits down and writes a list of the ‘members’ or takes minutes. Thank God.
    Sorry for rambling on…..!

  22. Simon Hay
    Simon Hay says:

    I think you have to lead by example. Display potential, show possibility, not demand it or expect it. It’s not lack of education or information, but apathy and the ideal I’m owed something that makes for poor leaders. Its Gen’s Y children I worry about, and this may only be in Australia, but our children have no respect or motivation. Everything has been handed to them. You can lead from any corporate social position, but only if you have will.

  23. Sketch Country
    Sketch Country says:

    Interesting post, especially on generational changes in management style.

    I suspect it’s the generational changes in business model (new business vs old business) rather than an individual employee’s generation that affects managerial style. A ‘gen Y’ at a city law firm will manage and behave very differently than that same ‘gen Y’ at Google.

    Interesting point about business schools, though it’s a touch cheeky to use a decline in business school applications to back up your point!

    If I make the argument that bad pink pixies (employed by the mail service) have been stealing people’s MBA applications en route to their destination then say:

    This makes sense because applications to business school, over the past decade, are down.

    – does that make me right? : )

  24. Wizard
    Wizard says:

    How generations like to be seen as different and yet they are all the same – they think that other generations are wrong and that their “way” is new, novel and so much better. Wrong! Dead Wrong! There have always been leaders of all generations who have followed “from the middle”, who have built teams – real teams, not just in name, and who have followed the very formula that you now think belongs to Gen X or Y or any other generation. Plenty of baby boomers followed an “involved” team formula and so did many generations before. These kinds of articles are divisive and actually promote what is claimed undesirable “heirarchy” – heirarchy through discrimination, misunderstanading and a total lack of knowledge and understanding “how” other people have functioned in their roles. I can tell you I’ve worked with all generations and some of the Gen Y and Gen X are more hierachical than any generation prior. Generalizations are very dangerous in their inaccuracies!

  25. Jenny
    Jenny says:

    Interesting, but what if you work for an organisation that is resolutely in the dark ages, populated by boomers who hang on til they just about die in the chair? You can want to lead differently til you’re blue in the face, but the organisation, its culture, its very fibre, will not change.

  26. Paul
    Paul says:

    There is a large impending problem that is perfectly illustrated by Tammy Erickson’s quote (“Your expectation to be treated individually – €“ to be allowed to play the game by our own rules – €“ contrasts with boomers' willingness to play by established rules in competition for individual rewards”). The expectation to be treated as an individual is in direct confrontation with the traditional/established corporate structure. At the same time, Gen Y’s desire for success of the team fits extraordinarily well with the traditional corporate structure (no matter how collaborative something is, there is always someone that steps into the roll of team leader).

    Couple the above with the fact that the Baby Boomers will be extending their working lives longer than their parents (longer life spans + economic disarray = later retirements) and you are creating a perfect storm for an impending leadership crisis.

    On one hand will be the Gen Xers; though they are not “in it for the money” and though they don’t care who is in charge as long as the job gets done, they will be prepping their now new bundles of joy for college and that added expense will have to change their formula about what is important in terms of career advancement. On the other hand are the Gen Yers; though younger their team attitude has, in many cases, resulted in them actually working more closely with the Boomers than Gen X has. Those Gen Y “team leaders” have no qualms about seeking advancement as we see it benefiting the team as a whole.

    The end result will be, in some circumstances, massive organizational conflict as younger, and seemingly less experienced, leaders take the reins from the Boomers as Gen X gets passed over.

    This won’t happen universally, but it will happen some places and could really change the landscape of many companies.

  27. MariaH
    MariaH says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!! I having been thinking and saying these things for a while but you put it much more elequently. I am so sick of reading intelligent people say there is a huge leadership gap because once the baby boomers retire there is no one ready to be a leader! WHAT! I am a Gen-Xer and all you need to do is read my Alumni magazine. People my age and younger are doing amazing things both on their own and at corporations and they are leaders – shock!

    Also, now that most companies have gotten rid of layers of management, you don’t need to have a “leader” title to be a leader. I am slowly becoming the manager support guru at my company because all my projects deal with this area and there is no one else to do it. Every day I learn more about it and now have people calling me for advice and guidance. So what is my title? Training project manager. I am influencing the way we help our managers from a project manager position. And this is how we get things done now, not through a specific hierarchy. There is work to be done and we are all doing it the best way we know how.

  28. Kareem
    Kareem says:

    Thanks for the information. These are great ideas for the unconventional work relation models, but for the more traditional models (which a good majority of us still work under) leading from the front tends to still work. I would say if you are in the latter working relation model, continue to lead from the front, but incorporate some of the ideas expressed in this post.

  29. Philotera
    Philotera says:

    I think there can be a confusion between management and leadership. Management is hierarchical. True leadership is not. Anyone with a good idea who can build support and then get the idea implemented, is a leader. No matter whether they are a clerk or a VP.

    A company that honors true leadership is a company that will succeed, because everyone is respected and has a voice. It’s team oriented, quick to adjust, and versatile.

  30. todd
    todd says:

    wow… you make some good points, but i feel a lack of understanding about the boomers. “leading from the middle” is something that true leadership has always been… even in the boomer generation. it’s the corporate world of the boomers, not the boomers as individuals, that prompted the reputation of climbing the ladder for the big paycheck is what success was about. i think the most significant leaders in our nations history have been boomers. i work in a world of both generations, but i must say that i see apathy in the Gen X-er’s, and not a huge difference in Gen Y-er’s. one of the top singer-songwriters of today, john mayer, sings kind of an anthem of those generations… which causes me great concern for our nation. check out his words:

    me and all my friends
    we’re all misunderstood
    they say we stand for nothing and
    there’s no way we ever could
    now we see everything that’s going wrong
    with the world and those who lead it
    we just feel like we don’t have the means
    to rise above and beat it

    so we keep waiting
    waiting on the world to change
    we keep on waiting
    waiting on the world to change

    it’s hard to beat the system
    when we’re standing at a distance
    so we keep waiting
    waiting on the world to change
    now if we had the power
    to bring our neighbors home from war
    they would have never missed a Christmas
    no more ribbons on their door
    and when you trust your television
    what you get is what you got
    cause when they own the information, oh
    they can bend it all they want

    that’s why we’re waiting
    waiting on the world to change
    we keep on waiting
    waiting on the world to change

    it’s not that we don’t care,
    we just know that the fight ain’t fair
    so we keep on waiting
    waiting on the world to change

    and we’re still waiting
    waiting on the world to change
    we keep on waiting waiting on the world to change
    one day our generation
    is gonna rule the population
    so we keep on waiting
    waiting on the world to change

    we keep on waiting
    waiting on the world to change

  31. Mariana
    Mariana says:

    Hey P,

    Zappo’s Tony Hsieh was interviewed for the NYTimes (“On a scale of 1 to 10, how weird are you?”), very interesting stuff related to leadership. Quote: “I think of myself less as a leader, and more of being almost an architect of an environment that enables employees to come up with their own ideas, and where employees can grow the culture and evolve it over time, so it's not me having a vision of "This is our culture."”
    I’m from Brazil, so I have a hard time buying the baby-boomer/genX/genY thing, it just doesn’t “translate” very well. Besides that, I do believe that “what we (you) have is actually a semantic problem rather than a leadership problem”.

  32. Diana
    Diana says:

    I like the idea behind this post. I see what you’re saying, but when I read “To baby boomers, leadership is a game where you try to get to the top and then everyone will follow you”, then I had to comment.

    Don’t be so hard on us, P! We couldn’t help ourselves, and I’m glad.

    1. We (baby boomers) are the children of a generation that took us to the moon and beyond! That didn’t happen without the directive from President Kennedy to all Americans to Step Up. We were children in a age that propelled us forward in so many areas it is dizzying. The directive was that we ALL could contribute, en masse, not blindly or sheepishly follow. We were also the generation that was primed with a fitness message, both physical and mental. Our access to education was unparalleled and it shows in our achievements. It also shows in our obsession with personal growth and success.

    2. We (baby boomers) are not a collective. You cannot talk about us without recognizing that many of us (though we were not the first to do so) were adventurers, dropping out of the rat race and off the grid, looking for meaning beyond a paycheck. We had seen our fathers get the gold watch (or the heart attack) and nothing more for a lifetime of punching clocks. Sadly, once our children were old enough to go to school (and soon college), many of us were forced to rejoin the establishment, albeit often in our own rebellious way, so that we could give our children bed and board and the same educational advantages we had enjoyed.

    Look deeper, P. There was a chasm of immense proportions in the boom generation. One that spawned the freedoms that Gen Y and Gen X enjoy, just as the depression and war generations gave boomers an edge with advantages they themselves had never dreamed of.

    The boom generation’s children and grandchildren did not invent the idea of globalization or collaboration. Boomer parents treated them with respect and gave them autonomy, freedom, and friendship. Vietnam changed what we taught our children about the world and our place in it.

    I celebrate the contributions of the generations that follow us but it’s clear – no generation pushes forward without something to push against.

  33. Gene
    Gene says:

    Here we go again, yet another post about hoorah for Gen X (or Gen Y), and hanging the boomers in effigy. Generalizations for everyone! If you think that greed and egocentrism are not among you, that these qualities haven’t existed for thousands of years, you’re mistaken. You are misinformed if you think an entire generation possesses only those qualities. You also apparently missed the memo about the percentage of boomers who own their own businesses in response to their own experience with corporate greed. One day I hope to come to this forum and find that logic and insight prevail for once.

  34. Ben
    Ben says:

    Gene–I agree that greed and egocentrism are pretty evenly distributed across the human race.

    As long as the culture continues to idolize the 1960’s, and by extension, the people who carried out the “revolution,” some younger people are going to get ther kicks pointing out the gap between that fantasy and the reality.

    Generalizations may not always be valid, but they are typically useful, and that’s what keeps them alive.

  35. Gene
    Gene says:


    The same generalizations can apply to other generations as well, for instance, Gen X and Y. Shall we go there?

  36. Ben
    Ben says:

    Gene: the media have typically portrayed Generation X as sarcastic, cynical, and dour. Is this a useful generalization? Yup. When dealing with the average X’er (including me), it’s healthy to prepare for a good deal of sarcasm and negativity. It doesn’t apply to everyone, but it’s not too bad a rule to keep in mind.

  37. Terri Griffith
    Terri Griffith says:

    Interesting arguments for and against — but I’m going to side with Penelope. I think the tide is turning. Participation has been a good idea since at least the 70s, but now we have more efficient and broad reaching ways to practice it. Our environment is also now so complex that it demands the full engagement of all levels of the organization for success. Great book just came out “The New How” – big focus on value of transparency

    I reviewed it and discussed some of the above at

  38. Faryal Humayun
    Faryal Humayun says:

    Leadership is an attitude, a style. Some managers have it some don’t. I believe it is an innate talent that can and should be enhanced to become more influential and make your workers more productive.

  39. Lance
    Lance says:

    Penny, GREAT post on leadership, this crystallized some ideas I’ve been having on the subject for both business (at work) and personal (sports coaching). Thanks, may try to blog about this to share more thoughts.

  40. Gene
    Gene says:

    Dear Ben,

    Since you are so enamored of generalizations, let’s try these on for size.

    – €¢ Self-absorbed and whiny
    Entitlement issues on a large scale- Got used to getting what you wanted as children and never grew out of it – until the economic reality hit; never grew out of the egocentric stage.

    Arrogant, frankly for no apparent group or individual reason

    Blissfully unaware that your sarcasm and negativity is neither original nor interesting, nor useful.

    Eminently proud of your skills with the electronic tools other generations developed for you, while you simultaneously criticize their designers. Anyone recognize the irony?

    Reality Stardom and the pursuit of it through whatever ridiculous and humiliating means to get there, no talent required; so many examples, where to begin? Ah, Speidi, Kardashians, Jersey Shore, etc.

    You're adults and you're still complaining like tweens.

    Criticizing how prior generations worked with the goal of making things easier for you.
    – An example is the "take your children/daughters to work program" this forum has raked over the coals. Yes, you absolutely can judge it to be outdated and stop using it/do something different, but to dis it all together is ignorant. This program originally allowed women, especially single mothers, to demonstrate to their children, their daughters that women had value outside the home.

    – Generally dissing what women achieved in the – €˜70s and – €˜80s so that you could sit on your arrogant female arses at work—with your feet up on your desk, gum in your mouth, and iPod or iPhone attached to your head (oh yes, Gen Yrs, this has been witnessed over and over again)—while you judge it. This behavior is also very ignorant and terribly disingenuous.

    – Forgetting all the people who worked long and hard during the – €˜70s and beyond to respect the planet and try to make others more responsible. You did not invent this cause.

    – Acting like Boomers all take it in the arse at work like wimps while all of you are so, so outspoken and independent. You're clueless. Many boomers spoke up and worked for change, and paid the price. And would do it again. Oh, and those who did and do take it, made it possible for your generations to buy things. Lots of things. So stop deluding yourselves you're un-materialistic. Check consumer marketing demographics and see for yourself. Here's an example:

    Apathetic Materialists tend to be under the age of 40, with most in their 20s, and fewer than 10 percent in the Decitica study admit to being very focused on value. They’re the least changed in their spending habits and future intentions.

    – Criticizing boomer parenting ad nauseam, when most families needed two incomes to provide everything you now expect—unlike the – €˜50s and – €˜60s when one income generally managed to support the family. And now you blame your parents for setting unrealistic expectations (on this one I may have to agree, given your level of high expectation). And yet you're all so brilliant and enlightened. So how is it you were so easily swayed?

    All this said, believe me, I do know the contributions many of you make. I know what I presented above is about generalizations. But you know what? You have it coming.

    Meanwhile, I applaud your entrepreneurism. I applaud your efforts to leave a minimal imprint on the planet, to respect its resources. I applaud your contributions to Haiti aid. I applaud the Gen X people I know personally who do not whine like those on this forum (at least to my knowledge). They are spectacular people who are wise, talented, grounded, and responsible.

  41. Ben
    Ben says:

    Gary–I enjoyed the post. You had about 500 words of criticism and 100 words of praise. Lots of self-righteous anger in there. (I find “self-righteous anger” to be pretty evenly spread out across the generations, don’t you?)

    Here are my gut reactions:
    Check. Definitely whinier than Boomers.

    No more than Boomers. Gen Y folks might be a little less, actually. (They always seem to be involved in some cause or another, though of course that might just be another form of self-absorption.)

    Quite possibly more arrogant than Boomers, yeah.

    Unaware about the unoriginality/unamusing aspect of sarcasm?
    I’d say that Generation Xer’s are pretty aware of how pathetic our sarcasm and negativity is. Doesn’t seem like we really care how Boomers or Gen Y perceive this, however. We’re not doing it for you. (The lyrics to seminal hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, if you can decipher them, are enlightening on this point.)

    I can’t say I’ve ever observed X/Y criticizing the designers of electronics. Maybe we just run in different circles. (Xer’s created Google and YouTube, by the way.)

    The pursuit of reality stardom seems to be intergenerational. Lots of Boomers on those silly shows as well. Ratings for those shows are pretty good among Boomers, too.

    Complaining like “tweens.”
    Well, it gets back to the whinier thing, I guess. (By the way, who can we blame for inventing the term “tween”?)

    I haven’t observed a lot of criticism of taking your kids to work day. I also don’t hear a lot of dissing of early feminists’ accomplishments, though there is a pretty strong backlash against feminism’s shriller aspects.

    I agree that we’re even more materialistic than Boomers in general, though I think the stats you’re showing off probably have more to do with the fact that people in general become less materialistic as they get older because they get better “stuff” (families, sense of pride in accomplishment, etc.) Unless something changes drastically, I think every generation of Americans will become more and more materialistic.

    Criticizing Boomer parenting?
    Yeah, but it’s probably deserved. While it’s true that we got used to a higher standard of living than any previous generation, it’s also true that we didn’t ask for any of that. While not wanting to turn back the clock on women’s rights, most of my friends say they wish one of their parents would’ve stayed home; there’s little doubt in my mind that this would be better than having more resources as two-income families provide. (And making the two-income family the ‘default’ is most certainly a Boomer thing.)

    I think my original point still stands. Generalizations are sometimes useful as long as you’re not too dogmatic about them. No amount of listing negative generalizations about my generation is really going to budge me from that point. :)

  42. Adrian
    Adrian says:

    This is really an interesting piece, I don’t know that I ever would have considered that there was a generational difference in leadership styles, but it seems there is!

  43. Jim Sutton
    Jim Sutton says:

    Interesting post. I think you are correct that this is coming (and here now in many organizations) and people who pointed out that is not here yet are correct.. it will be gradual and likely not 100%.

  44. Gray
    Gray says:

    I work for 4 Boomer Bosses: The Boss, The Big Boss, The Bigger Boss and The Biggest Boss. I work in defense-engineering, the stuff you see on Discovery Channel, Modern Marvels. Whatever…. The Land of Dinosaur.

    However, I am the only guy on the project doing “direct labor” in that my service to the project customer actually pays their bloated salaries while I make 1/2 of what the Biggest Boss makes on Overhead. Those impecunious bastards can never retire. The latest kooky investment advise has ruined each of them. I am the most junior engineer in my division. I am 42! There is no one younger than me. I will never be a Boss–the younger guys have been chased out by the difficult schooling and extreme lack of opportunity and promotion.

    I will be the junior guy until they start dropping dead, then I will be in charge of what is left of the company. I will squat in their McMansions. With their boomer lifestyles and divorces, they have all completely alienated their kids–maybe I will visit them in the old-folks home. I’m the only friend they’ve got and I can’t wait until they drop dead so I can see the first real promotion in 10 years!

  45. Johanna
    Johanna says:

    This is incredible–I do this all the time! I’m a Gen Y, and numerous times I’ve found myself leading from the middle. Not exactly the way other commenters have been describing this type of leadership–they seem to have pictured this sort of leadership from a corporate hierarchy perspective, where all the stakeholders are in a meeting together trying to reach consensus.

    Of course that won’t work–it’s a corporation! It’s hierarchical! The places this leadership method DOES work is by finding your tribe. In college, I wanted themed housing. Actually, I wanted an Ecohouse. But I talked to Residence Life, I talked to green-minded professors and staff…and before I knew it, they were all doing their thing, making it happen–I was just the catalyst!

    Now, I wanted to participate in Earth Day by constructing picnic tables out of salvaged building materials. So I talked to people in the school district and the college engineering department and the Habitat for Humanity ReStore…and before I knew it, they’re all doing their thing, making it happen.

    All I’ve done is supply the energy and the direction. I found people excited about some aspect of my idea and they are using their own expertise to pull it together. There’s no way I could have done this on my own, but with a group of like-minded people with diverse talents and resources it works! It’s unnerving how little work each of us actually does…and how it doesn’t actually feel like work.

    Leading from the middle is an amazing experience. It’s empowering, exciting, and a whole lot of other positive adjectives. Just don’t expect this to work in a corporate atmosphere–it works best when you’re reaching out to people in a community rather than a single company.

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