Leadership today Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2008

If you suspect the leadership styles of the younger worker are different from previous generations, your instincts are correct. In fact, they are backed up by research, says Jon Briscoe, associate professor of management for Northern Illinois University.

“Workers today are much more self-directed and independent,” Briscoe says. “Compared to the baby boom generation, Generation X and Y are more interested in being their own leaders.”

Smart Business spoke with Briscoe about what these leadership style changes mean to companies.

How has the definition of ‘leadership’ changed?

For baby boomers, the traditional idea of leadership was to fill a company’s prescribed role. Younger workers are not as interested in only following someone else’s leadership vision. Instead, they are more interested in adding their own definition to the role.

For Gen X (those under 44) and Y (those under 30), the ‘vision’ of leadership is more a communal property, much like a Wikipedia entry, where it changes as others add their own definitions. Of course, even older workers want to add their two cents to their leadership role, but younger workers have this kind of thinking ingrained in them.

What has changed in the business environment that has altered the idea of leadership among Gen X and Y workers?

People are pressured by ever-increasing workloads and the lack of job security. In many cases, people don’t have time for outside activities and expect work to, in part, fulfill these other aspects of their lives. Therefore, the workplace is not just where you get money to pay the bills. There is more at stake emotionally in the work people do. It’s a whole life perspective.

Must generations then be managed differently?

You can’t have different rules for everyone; instead there needs to be a management philosophy that works across generations. To get there, I suggest open communication among the generations. I have found that the older employees are often scared of talking to younger workers because they don’t want to offend them, and they don’t want to appear ‘uncool.’ The younger generation wants to learn from the older workers, but they are unsure or awkward about how to approach them.

A good way to get the conversation going is to offer mentoring. But instead of traditional mentoring from the top down, present it as cross-generational mentoring, where the older workers learn technology from Gen Y, and the younger workers learn from the career experiences of the older generation. Reciprocity and respect are key.

How does a leader manage a group of self-directed workers?

Leaders need to remember that these younger workers want direction but also need to feel like they are contributing to a solution. EBay, Google and Harley Davidson are good examples of companies that are in tune with this new kind of leadership style where top management makes strategic decisions but seeks the involvement of trusted workers at all levels in informing and implementing those decisions. It’s important to point out that this kind of leadership is not a democracy but more of a symbiotic relationship. The key to creating this kind of system is to have an architecture firmly in place where people can lead themselves and the manager doesn’t have to oversee every decision; there is more responsibility and accountability among the workers.

This kind of freedom is possible because managers and workers are on the same page regarding their values and goals. Values must be agreed to, policies (which consider many stakeholders) still come from the top ultimately.

What is the incentive for companies to shift toward this new style of leadership?

This new type of leadership is likely to take companies in new and novel directions that may not have been pursued if the status quo was trying to be preserved. This is essential to remaining competitive in this market. Unfortunately, companies that are entrenched in their old ways will not be eager to embrace these changes and may be at a competitive disadvantage as a result. The problem is that there is a whole generation of people who think this way and companies risk losing a very large group of talent they need for their future survival. If not enough companies employ these independent thinkers, you can bet members of this entrepreneurial generation will cast off corporate America and start their own companies.

Will these tough economic times force companies to change leadership styles?

Unfortunately, our economic situation will exacerbate the old patterns. As long as jobs are scarce, the younger generation will stay put and tolerate old styles of leadership. But when the economy improves, these employees will flee — to more progressive companies or to start their own businesses.

JON BRISCOE is an associate professor of management at Northern Illinois University (www.niu.edu). Reach him at (815) 753-6305 or jonbriscoe@niu.edu.