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Generation X
Generation Y

Great Leadership Requires Plenty Of Practice

The mass exodus of Baby Boomers from the workplace has already begun. According to the US Office of Personnel Management, between 2006 and 2010 Boomer retirement will have robbed American companies of nearly 290,000 full-time experienced employees.

The mass exodus of Baby Boomers from the workplace has already begun. According to the US Office of Personnel Management, between 2006 and 2010 Boomer retirement will have robbed American companies of nearly 290,000 full-time experienced employees.While the financial crisis has forced some to postpone retirement for a couple extra years, we can't count on the majority of them to be fully contributing members of the workforce much longer.Yet, Boomers hold the majority of major leadership roles in the workplace and their retirement creates a leadership gap that must be filled by the next generation.As an Xer, I'm often questioned as to whether or not the Xers and Ys can fill the Boomer's shoes. Are we loyal enough? Will we work hard enough? Are we, the Boomer's successors, up to the challenge?Our predecessors have little faith in us, and an increasingly downtrodden economy and shaky future mandates that we figure out why our future leaders are well-educated, tech-savvy, and brilliant multi-taskers, yet lag in such a critical skill as leadership.Here's some fascinating research from TalentSmart, a provider of emotional intelligence (EQ) products and services. TalentSmart researchers have been devoted to determining what exactly constitutes a high quality leader and discovered that EQ–the ability to recognize and manage your emotions and those of other people–is the single most important skill of a successful leader.TalentSmart tested a group of 10,614 people between the ages of 18 and 80, and broke down their score results into the four generations in today's workplace. When they looked at each of the four core EQ skills separately, a huge gap emerged between Boomers and Generation Y in self-management.When it comes to managing their emotions, Baby Boomers reign supreme. Essentially, they are much less prone to fly off the handle when things don't go their way than are the younger generations.TalentSmart reportedly debated the possible explanations for this chasm in self-management skill between the experienced and youthful. One possibility seemed that coming of age with too many video games, instantaneous Internet gratification, and adoring parents have created a generation of self-indulgent young workers who can't help but wear their emotions on their sleeves in tense situations.This result would closely coincide with our reputation for being ego-centric and uncapable.Then TalentSmart looked at the data from another angle and the picture became clearer. Self management skills appear to increase steadily with age-60-year-olds scoring higher than 50-year- olds, who scored higher than 40-year-olds, and so on.That means the younger generation's deficient self-management skills have little to do with things we can't change, like the effects of growing up in the age of iPods and MySpace.Instead, TalentSmart concluded that Generations X and Y just haven't had as much life in which to practice managing their emotions. That's good news because practice is something employers can give us, while a change in our upbringing is not.TalentSmart also advocated for accelerating the younger generations' development of core leadership skills, stating: "Today's ultra-competitive, fast-paced global marketplace won't afford us the time to sit back and wait for the aging process to run its course. Despite the slumping economy, most boomers will retire sooner rather than later. We need to prepare talented twentysomethings for leadership roles today."In other words, if we don't teach them how to manage themselves, and don't give them the opportunity to manage themselves, is it reasonable to expect Ys to lead us towards a prosperous future?

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

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.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

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.

Zs were raised to be competitive

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.

Zs are career-focused.

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 are seeking financial security. 

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.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

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.


Zs want to be challenged.

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.

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

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