Define Your Path

Do the Old Paradigms of Leadership Still Apply to the New Generation?

There are only a few things that we can be absolutely sure of. We can be sure that the sun will rise in the east and set in the west. We can be sure that there will be politicians claiming they are right and their opponents are wrong. We can also be sure that each generation will be somewhat different than the ones that preceded it.

One of the most obvious examples of this differentiation is when we look at how Millennials (normally considered those born between 1982 and the early 2000’s) compare to the Baby Boomers and Generation X in terms of their attitudes towards work, and their expectations about how they want to be treated at work. A quick Google search on the term “managing Millennials” turns up tons of articles on the topic. There is talk of their willingness and desire to work across teams, as well as their constant need for feedback and reinforcement. There is praise for their tech savvy, but also lamentations about their inability to focus on one thing at a time for very long. Depending on the author and the publications, Generation Y (an alternative name for this group) is either collectively brilliant bunch, or a bunch of spoiled brats. The one thing that all authors seem to agree on is that they are much more willing to speak up if there they feel they are not being treated fairly.

No matter how they are viewed, the simple truth is that they look at work dramatically different than even the generation that immediately preceded them. There is no question about that. The question is if they view work so differently, do they have to be led differently? Just like a lot of things with this age group the answer is not simply yes or no. It is sort of both.

Sure there are some variances in what Millennials want out of their work lives compared to earlier generations, but how we lead them to get there is not all that different. For example, if we go back to Warren Bennis’ On Becoming a Leader (1989), we find that there are some basic ingredients to leadership that are still resonate today. Those ingredients include guiding vision, passion, integrity, trust, curiosity and daring. Those are ingredients that speak well to all employees no matter what their age. If we go even further back to David Campbell’s If I’m In Charge Here Why Is Everybody Laughing (1980), we find that effective leaders take on roles like disseminator of valuable information and liaison between coordinating groups and colleagues. The exact kinds of interactions that are valued by high touch employees, such as Millennials.

Leadership styles that do not seem to work well with Millennials are the Tayloreque, Theory X, and command-and-control approaches that are really more managing and administering than leading. Those types of leadership are viewed as stifling and unfair and unwarranted. The truth be told, however, those styles have never been particularly effective. Just look at the number of books on topics like empowerment and employee engagement that came out long before Millennials ever entered the workforce. So when we get right down to it, the simple truth is that the leadership styles that do and don’t work for Millennials are the same ones that have and have not worked for the generations before them. They’re just much less willing to suffer in silence about it.


Bennis, W. (1989). On becoming a leader. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Campbell, D. (1980). If I’m in charge here why is everybody laughing? Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership.

About the Author

Jimmy Brown, Ph.D. is a senior level management consultant with seventeen years of experience leading efforts to develop and implement practical strategies for business performance improvement. Dr. Brown has held senior level consulting positions at leading firms such as Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Accenture and Hewlett-Packard. He is currently a Practice Area Lead with Beacon Associates.