Leadership for All Ages

When it comes to expectations of leadership, all generations want the same things in varying degrees: Leaders should be participative, team-oriented, charismatic and humane.

By now, we all know that organizations are experiencing a significant workforce shift as baby boomers retire. Gen Xers are being promoted, and millennials are entering the workforce in increasingly large numbers. But many organizational leaders have yet to decide exactly what to do about that. They question whether they should change their leadership approach to engage and accommodate shifting workforce demographics.

Do millennials, Gen Xers and baby boomers in the U.S. have different beliefs about what makes a leader effective? While it’s commonly believed that the generations’ preferences are substantially different, research from the Center for Creative Leadership (Editor’s note: The author works for CCL) shows when it comes to leadership, the generations are more alike than different.

Since March 2008, CCL has conducted the World Leadership Survey to provide information on trends in leadership, and participants contribute every month. To better understand the generations’ perceptions of what makes a leader effective, CCL asked more than 5,900 millennial, Gen X and baby boomer respondents how important each of the following attributes are:

  • Hierarchical leadership:Importance placed on social rank, following tradition and abiding by the rules.
  • Autonomous leadership: Self-reliance, and working and acting independently.
  • Humane-oriented leadership: Helping others, generosity and compassion.
  • Participative leadership: Collaboration and inclusiveness.
  • Team-oriented leadership: Helping teams deal with conflict, working together and developing cohesion.
  • Charismatic leadership: Strong enthusiasm, and by inspiring and motivating others.

BizIntel1214_Figure1_US Managers' Beliefs About Effective Leadership
Figure 1: US Managers' Beliefs About Effective Leadership
Source: Center for Creative Leadership, 2013

Effective Leadership for All
Respondents across all generations said effective leaders are participative, team-oriented, charismatic and humane oriented (see Figure 1), and they are less sure that being hierarchical and autonomous makes a leader effective.

While all generations believe effective leaders possess those four styles, they don’t all believe it to the same extent. The general perception is that Gen Xers and millennials favor participative, team-oriented and humane-oriented leadership more than baby boomers, but CCL data revealed the opposite. Older survey participants were more likely than younger respondents to say being participative, team-oriented and humane-oriented is important for effective leadership.

Similarly, CCL found that while all generations believe effective leaders use charisma to connect with their employees, younger people think it is less important for effective leadership than older people do (see Figure 2). This directly conflicts with the popular belief that young people place a substantially greater emphasis on charisma and showmanship than older people.

The data didn’t reveal why, but perhaps as people grow older, a leader’s charisma and perceived reliability become more important. This would be consistent with people’s increased tendency to rely on a leader’s trustworthiness and charisma as they mature, as though age brings with it a certain panache, credibility and wisdom.

Another explanation may be that younger people are less attuned to the effects of leader charisma because they grew up with more technology-mediated communication, which blunts the effects of charisma. Because of this, the younger generations have less experience with its effect. Older generations, with less technology-mediated communication, place more emphasis on charisma because of their firsthand experiences with charismatic leaders.

Millennials Don’t Hate Authority
While acting in a hierarchical manner was not as highly endorsed as being participative, team-oriented, charismatic or humane-oriented for any of the generations, it wasn’t dismissed either. Millennials were more likely to endorse hierarchical leadership than Gen Xers or baby boomers.

This suggests millennials are not more dismissive than Gen Xers and baby boomers of leaders who encourage following tradition and abiding by the rules. While this runs contrary to a widely held belief that younger generations eschew established structures and ways of doing things, it’s supported by additional data from the same study that shows millennials may be more accepting of authority. Specifically, millennials are substantially more likely than Gen Xers and baby boomers to believe they should defer to their manager (see Figure 3).

BizIntel1214_Figure2_How Important It Is For a Leader to Be Charismatic
How Important Is It for a Leader to Be Charismatic?
Source: Center for Creative Leadership, 2014

No generation wholly endorses one perspective regarding authority over the other, but data suggesting millennials’ beliefs on organizational authority do not match neatly with the stereotype that this cohort rejects authority.

So, preferring that leaders be participative, team-oriented, humane-oriented and charismatic is true for all generations. But contrary to popular belief, younger and older employees have similar ideas about what makes a leader effective. At the core, millennials, Gen Xers, and baby boomers want their leaders to be considerate of others.

Consideration is the Key
Leaders show consideration when they respect and invite others’ opinions (participative), help teams work more effectively with one another (team-oriented), inspire and excite others to do their best work (charismatic) and show compassion toward others in the workplace (humane). To live up to these expectations, leaders must learn to be: 

• More participative: When making decisions about how work is done or how to handle a challenge, leaders should be genuinely open to suggestions or clearly communicate when they are not. Leaders should ask their teams for ideas and make sure that others’ ideas are implemented. Note that asking for others’ input but never executing them is not participative — it’s a frustrating exercise in futility and a waste of employees’ time.

• More team-oriented: Teams benefit if they have time to support one another, address challenges, provide constructive feedback, reflect on lessons learned and celebrate accomplishments. Leaders should schedule meeting agendas with time built in to discuss what’s happening in the group. Helping the team connect will make it more effective over time. Providing employees with this time also will make leaders seem more team-oriented.

• More humane-oriented: Leaders should talk with subordinates and co-workers about their challenges and goals, and think about how they can help them manage these challenges and achieve their goals. It’s important to be understanding when employees have personal conflicts, even if it interferes with work. While it may cause issues when a team member has to attend to an unexpected personal need, being understanding of these hiccups will pay off over time. High-performing employees who feel they have to make too many sacrifices for work and don’t have the support needed when personal situations arise will become less committed or may leave entirely.

• More charismatic: Leaders must show passion for their work and respect for the people with whom they work. Emotions are contagious, so when leaders project enthusiasm, optimism and excitement, team members are more likely to feel the same way. Charisma at work is often about others connecting with a leader’s enthusiasm.

BizIntel1214_Figure3_If the Boss Says Do Something, OK; I Do It
Figure 3: "If the Boss Says Do Something, OK; I do it."
Source: Center for Creative Leadership, 2014

Many assume that successfully leading millennials, Gen Xers and baby boomers is about bridging the vast divides among them. While differences in stage of life, work experience and frames of reference do exist, the expectations and desires for effective leadership are similar across the generations. Managers at all levels should know that effective leadership is effective leadership for everyone — regardless of age or generation.

Organizational learning functions will benefit when they operate with the same knowledge. Rather than tailoring development and leadership programs to account for assumed generational differences, leaders should focus on developing specific skills and creating a learning culture that will support employees of all generations:

• Take a close look at the organizational culture and the formal policies and practices to make sure they encourage leadership behaviors that are participative, humane-oriented, charismatic and team-oriented — not autonomous or hierarchical.

• Rather than spending time, energy and funds creating solutions to address generational differences in leadership that don’t appear to exist, focus on helping all leaders and employees learn how to be more participative, humane-oriented, charismatic and team-oriented, and to be less autonomous and hierarchical.

• Find ways to communicate that, when it comes to leadership, employees are more alike than different in their opinions about effective leadership.

While there are surface level generational differences, leaders don’t benefit when they get caught up in assumptions about generation gaps. They benefit when they recognize what makes a good leader for all generations and set a learning agenda with that goal in mind.