I have learned while working with leaders at all levels across many industries, many leaders tend to lead the way they were led. Perhaps it is human nature to do what we know. There are a variety of leadership styles and “one size does not fit all.” Effective leaders today need an awareness of generational uniqueness and have self-awareness of their generational values and work ethic.
Having a leadership approach that considers one’s own generational uniqueness can help a leader step out to be what they need to be for everyone across the organization. This can allow leaders from various generations to consistently increase engagement and productivity, enhance innovation and creativity, and support solid succession planning and retention. It begins by understanding each generation and of course oneself. This also allows for effectively managing up as well as down and across the organization.
Leadership development capabilities can vary across different generations due to differences in experiences, values, and work expectations. Generational cohorts are a starting place as a basis to serve as a foundation for observing, predicting, and strategizing. It is important to note these are generalizations and not certainties.
Let’s begin by introducing each generation with some strengths and opportunities defined by each, then a few capabilities that can make that generation effective as a leader in the modern workplace. Individuals within each generation can have unique traits, here are some general characteristics and leadership development competencies that may be relevant for each generation.
Baby Boomers (born approximately 1946-1964) – Expert Strategists
Boomers work to live. They are the post World War II and Depression Era babies that saw a lot of growth and economic prosperity. They learned to save. They often define themselves by the work they do. This was a large generation and part of the “Great Retirement” movement.
These leaders often bring their experience and expertise to leadership. They often have a wealth of industry knowledge and extensive work experience, providing them with valuable insights and expertise. In addition, they can demonstrate a solid work ethic and commitment. They are known for their strong work ethic, dedication, and loyalty to their organizations, which can inspire and motivate their teams.
Their leadership opportunities to ensure effectiveness include technological proficiency with the ability to adapt rapidly evolving technology, which can impact their ability to leverage digital tools effectively. This can also be related to a resistance to change. They may be more resistant to change due to their familiarity with established processes and may struggle with embracing new ways of doing things.
Essential Leadership Capabilities for Boomers:
- Experience and expertise: Baby Boomers often have extensive industry knowledge and experience, which can contribute to their credibility as leaders.
- Innovative thinking: They may excel in strategic thinking and long-term planning, considering the legacy they leave behind.
- Tiered leadership style: Boomers may be more comfortable with traditional leadership structures and prefer clear lines of authority.
- Mentorship and coaching: Many Baby Boomers are eager to pass down their knowledge and mentor younger generations, fostering growth and development.
Generation X (born approximately 1965-1980) – The Balanced Adapters
Gen X-ers tend to work to live. This was a much smaller generation. Therefore, retiring boomers are vacating roles and there are not enough X-ers to fill them. This generation introduces technology into the workplace.
They are often known for their adaptability and resilience since they have navigated various economic and societal changes, making them adaptable, flexible, and resilient in the face of challenges. They also prioritize work-life balance and can promote a healthy integration of personal and professional life, creating a supportive environment for their teams.
Considerations to be aware of for Gen X might include managing communication gaps where some Generation X leaders may sometimes face challenges in effectively communicating and bridging the gap between different generations due to differences in communication styles and preferences. Another gap might be a leadership pipeline gap, with the shift from Boomers to Millennials, there can be a gap in leadership pipeline development, resulting in a need to actively focus on succession planning and grooming future leaders.
Essential Leadership Capabilities for Generation X:
- Adaptability and resilience: Generation X members have experienced economic and societal changes, making them resilient and adaptable leaders.
- Work-life balance: They often prioritize work-life balance and may encourage flexible work arrangements for their teams.
- Self-reliance and autonomy: Generation X leaders tend to be self-starters, capable of taking initiative and working autonomously.
- Results-focused mindset: They often emphasize tangible results and may appreciate practical solutions to problems.
Millennials (born approximately 1981-1996) – Technical Collaborators
This generation does not know a world without the internet. They were exposed to technology much younger than prior generations. Their brains are literally wired for using technology as it is shaping up until age 25.”
So, Generation Y can often bring a high level of technological proficiency as digital natives, comfortable with technology, and can leverage it effectively for communication, collaboration, and innovation. This has supported an inclusive and collaborative mindset. They value inclusivity and collaboration, often fostering a hands-on leadership style that encourages diverse perspectives and teamwork.
As younger leaders, Millennials may have limited experience compared to previous generations, which can pose challenges when making complex decisions or handling high-stakes situations. They Millennials’ desire for rapid career growth and development which may lead to impatience and frustration if they feel their progress is not aligned with their expectations. Their emphasis on technology often created an opportunity to develop social skills for effective personal interactions essential for leaders.
Essential Capabilities for Millennials:
- Technological proficiency: Millennials grew up with technology and can leverage it effectively for leadership and communication purposes.
- Collaboration and teamwork: They value collaboration, inclusivity, and tend to emphasize a participatory leadership style.
- Concise communication: They have the ability to leverage technology and communicate in a concise manner.
Generation Z (born approximately between 1997 and 2012)
They have been shaped by the digital age, climate change, economic volatility, and the pandemic. Having learned a lot from their parents on technology, they tend to value their privacy.
They are therefore known for a level of sophisticated technological fluency. This generation of young leaders have grown up in a highly digital world and are adept at using technology to drive innovation, streamline processes, and connect with others. They also bring a fresh perspective possessing a strong entrepreneurial mindset, embracing innovation, and bringing fresh ideas and perspectives to the table.
On the flip side they innately have limited workplace experience due to their younger age which can pose challenges in terms of managing and leading teams effectively. There is a need for these leaders to proactively balance confidence and humility. This means finding balance between confidence and assertiveness yet remaining open to learning and incorporating feedback from more experienced associates.
Essential Leadership Capabilities for Generation X
- Technological fluency: Generation Z has grown up in a highly digital and technologically advanced world. Their proficiency with technology can be a valued asset in leadership roles.
- Adaptability and agility: Generation Z has experienced rapid changes in technology, society, and work environments. They are often adaptable, quick to learn, and open to change.
- Inclusion and diversity: Generation Z values inclusivity, diversity, and social justice. They have a strong desire for fairness and equality.
- Collaboration and teamwork: Generation Z tends to be collaborative and appreciates collective decision-making processes.
- Purpose-driven mindset: Generation Z is often motivated by a sense of purpose and making a positive impact. They seek meaningful work and want to contribute to a better future.
- Continuous learning and personal growth: Generation Z understands the importance of lifelong learning and personal growth.
This knowledge can help to develop leaders within the organization as a part of a development plan. It can become part of the DNA in the Job Description to attract and grow the right talent and ensure a fit. Remember that these strengths, weaknesses, and capabilities are generalizations, and individual leaders may possess a wide range of abilities and limitations regardless of their generational background.
* NOTE: Not everyone has access to technology throughout society.
- Book: “The Remix: How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace” by Lindsey Pollak
- Research Report: “The Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2021: Millennials and Gen Zs in the post-COVID-19 workplace”
- Article: “Leading the Four Generations at Work” by Jim Finkelstein and Mary Gavin