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. March Madness Bracket
    March Madness Bracket says:

    Good to great also points out some metrics that Seth Godin leaves out but in my eyes leaders are the ones that end up proving themselves outside and in the battlefield because they actually make a difference in society and prove it with their actions think steve jobs or any past president (want say any names for argumentative purposes.)

  2. Dirk
    Dirk says:

    I had the good (or bad) fortune of living and working in different countries and while I love the concept of leaders leading by ideas (which could turn anyone into a leader), in my experience, it would not work in the Arabian Gulf, Germany, or France, which are much more hierarchical and authority-driven than the UK or the States.

    Still, worth thinking about!

    Best wishes,

  3. Arlene Marie Daniels
    Arlene Marie Daniels says:

    This is a very, very informative read. Thanks! I believe what you said about the power of influence rather than force. I also believe in the trend of not going on the “traditional” career path.

    Since we’re on the topic of management and work here, I’d like to add this resource, it’s for those managers and even employees who are under the office-corporate setting.

    Gen X and Gen Y get depressed quite easily I think and it’s great to know how they can be helped if push comes to shove. :)

    Thanks again for the great post!

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  5. Dolores
    Dolores says:

    I completely buy in to the idea of leading from the middle. I presented a paper at the Chair Academy conference early 2012 titled “Tops, Bottoms and Middles”. While the focus was on the academic environment, the concept is the same. I introduced the idea of “sliding” – how each person in an organization takes on the role of leader by sliding into the role. This sliding is followed by the “new” leader taking on the role of champion – in other words leading from the middle to create their own followers. I came across the concept of sliding in one of my graduate Leadership courses. If you are interested, here is the reference from my paper: Sales, Michael J. “Understanding the Power of Position: A Diagnostic Model.” Organization Development. Joan V. Gallos, Ed. Jossey-Bass, San Franciso: 2006. 322-343.

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