The Leadership Gap Beyond the Generation Gap

A recent study spotlights a generational divide over defining leadership. Don't discount other reasons for the divide, though.

People can disagree on what makes a good leader—and countless books fill the shelves of airport bookstores to address or exploit that disagreement. But we can agree on what leadership is, right? It’s a mix of decisiveness, organization, management, and imagination, perhaps with a dash of charisma.

Even the definition of “leadership,” though, isn’t set in stone. The differences may to some extent be generational. Back in 2010, I wrote an Associations Now feature about rising generation X leaders at associations who had to get past the cultural feeling that the very idea of leadership needed to be kept at arm’s length. That made “leadership” a term more rooted in skepticism about leaders, and demanding more transparency from them.

“Does the leader care about me personally? Have high standards? Offer an appealing vision of the future?”

And a similar dynamic is at play today. Earlier this month, my colleague Emily Bratcher wrote about a new study about millennials’ perspective on leadership, and how that perspective sometimes clashes with that of older leaders. “Millennials think future leaders should place a higher importance on adroit interpersonal and interaction skills, while current CEOs feel the best future leaders are those with efficient decision-making and business acumen,” Bratcher wrote.

There’s more. According to the study, “Divergent Views/Common Ground: The Leadership Perspectives of C-Suite Executives and Millennial Leaders” [PDF], millennials place a higher priority on technology, are more risk-avoidant, and are more likely to hop to another perch, especially if they feel they’re not growing in their current role.

The authors of the report, produced by The Conference Board, Development Dimensions International, and RW2 Enterprises, sounds an alarm (as so many reports on millennials do) that older leaders neglect these distinctions at their peril. “It is imperative to better understand the views and values of millennial leaders and to ensure that existing C-suite leaders, composed of several generational cohorts including millennial leaders, appreciate both the areas of divergent thinking and the common ground that exist among leaders.”

That’s fair, to some extent. But the fixation on generations risks neglecting a more straightforward and cross-generational distinction: People in leadership roles simply have a different perspective on what the job involves than the people who aren’t in those roles.

The perspective gap is made clear in title of a recent Harvard Business Review article by business-school professors Nathan T. Washburn and Benjamin Galvin: “Followers Don’t See Their Leaders as Real People.” They write, “CEOs may be flesh and blood to the senior team and the assistants in the C-suite, but to people in outer orbits, from operational departments to business units, they are imaginary constructs. Employees create pictures of what leaders seem to be, based on the bosses’ accumulated emails, tweets, speeches, and videos, plus whatever tidbits are picked up here and there.”

Washburn and Galvin are writing mainly about large organizations where rank-and-file employees rarely see, let alone interact with the executive—a situation that’s relatively less common in the association world. But I think the writers’ conclusions about leadership apply to organizations of all sizes. Everybody wants to set high standards, but those below the CEO want the autonomy and trust to meet them; they also want transparency about where the organization is going; and they want the kind of communication that makes everybody feel positive about what they’re doing.

“Employees look for answers to a few specific questions,” Washburn and Galvin write. “Does the leader care about me personally? Have high standards? Offer an appealing vision of the future? Seem human in a way I can relate to?”

Some of what the writers recommend when it comes to bridging the gap is unintentionally comic, as biz-speak sometimes is. “People look for unexpected moments of candor and unbiased third-party accounts, communicated through unscripted and informal channels,” they write. In plain English, this breaks down to “be honest with people.” But the fact that HBR needs to spell this out speaks to the communication divide that leadership often creates. A CEO doing his or her job can be certain they’re doing what’s best for an organization, but the ability to clearly articulate that vision to others—and hear their vision too—is matters as well.

Yes, some of these gaps have to do with differences in generations and what they tend to culturally prioritize. But I suspect just as often they involve the place where the leader is sitting, not just the age of the leader.

What do you do as a leader to understand the needs of employees, especially your rising younger leaders? Share your experiences in the comments.

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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