I’ve been reading with great interest about collective leadership. In fact, Deloitte‘s biggest global project at this time is in studying effective collaborations–the idea that collaborative efforts and collective leadership are more effective than a ‘command-and-control’ approach.
Collective leadership is rapidly becoming the buzz as the new direction in leadership, and I think it’s resurgence in popularity has a definite generational link.
A couple years ago I was meeting with some members of the American Bar Association shortly after I had given a speech at an ABA annual conference. One attorney in particular was outraged. He shared with me that he had been grooming a young attorney in his firm to become partner. Then, on the day he extended the partnership invitation to this high-potential prospect, the prospect promptly turned it down.
‘What is wrong with this next generation?!’, the attorney asked me. I asked him if he had asked the prospect if he wanted to be partner. Indeed he had not, to which he added, ‘Who doesn’t want to be partner?’.
Herein lies the rub. Different generations define leadership in different ways.
For years our society has associated leadership with decision-making, privilege, opportunity, and prestige that is achieved by only a select few. There have been leaders and there have been followers.
Now we have generations coming to the table challenging this concept. They see leadership as a direct path to working longer hours, doing less meaningful work, feeling lonely and stressed, and having less personal time. For many, that’s a path they aren’t willing to take. They don’t want to be the leader and they don’t necessarily want to follow either.
A large number of organizations’ failures are linked to the failure of its leaders. Younger generations have been close observers of many of these failures, such as Enron and Worldcom. We are very distrusting of hierarchy and authority because we’ve watched the nation’s business leaders lie and fail to deliver on their promises.
So not only do we define leadership differently, we actually feel uneasy with the traditional definition and approach to leadership.
In collective leadership, the leader is celebrated for creating the conditions for others to succeed. It’s not about telling people what to do–it’s about motivating them and working with them as a team.
It’s not about a select few people making all the decisions and doing all the work, it’s about setting up an inspiring, team-oriented environment where people are clear and capable to want to work for themselves.
This is the kind of leadership that Generations X and Y can really get behind.
Actually, the concept of collaborative leadership isn’t that new. Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher, wrote about collaborative leadership 3,000 years ago stating: “Of our best leaders, their people say we do it ourselves”.
In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.
Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.
Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.
In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.
With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.
Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.
Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.
Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.
Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.
In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.
While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.
The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.
Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results. Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.
When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.
Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.
Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.
Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.
Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.
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