Photo by Dino Reichmuth

Tuesday, February 18, 2014. That’s the day at my previous company when the reality of leading millenials hit me.

That morning, when I booted up my laptop, my calendar made me pause. I turned to a junior consultant sitting to my right and said, “I’ve been at this company for 17 years.” Then, trying to be funny, I added, “I started when I was five.” She stared at me for a beat before responding, “I was five when you started.”

Boom. In that moment, I knew I had to be a different type of leader.

Last year, Millennials overtook GenX as the largest percentage of the US workforce. Millenials think about work differently. Empirical evidence shows that when compared to other generations, they are more individualistic about their careers and more likely to want substantial support and time from managers.

With a workforce shift of both makeup and mindset, we must challenge the traditional management thinking on employee motivation, and, along with it, our leadership models.

Other forces also drive the need for change. New structures and ways of working, made possible by digital and social tech, demand modern leaders. Take, for example, the gaming start-up Valve, where nobody reports to anybody else and teams form and dissolve based upon the problem at hand.

Does leadership still exist at Valve? Absolutely. The difference is that it can come from anywhere and is expected of anyone (see the employee handbook: “Any time you interview a potential hire, you need to ask yourself not only if they’re talented or collaborative but also if they’re capable of literally running this company, because they will be.”).

Five Leadership Superpowers, Plus One That Didn’t Make The Cut

So what does it take to develop the leaders of a digital generation?

To define the attributes of the modern leader, we have analysed the alternative models to classic hierarchy and pulled from our experience with clients and our own teams. Think of these five as your Leadership Superpowers:

  1. Curious. A curious mind is the foundation for lateral thinking and innovative ideas. Respond to emerging threats by asking questions, not making snap judgments. Techniques like Go To Gemba and Theory U are practical ways to nurture the curiosity of your leaders.
  2. Serving. “Leadership is a gift given by those who follow. You have to be worthy of it.” This is my favourite quote on leadership from General Mark Walsh, former Chief of Staff of the US Air Force. Servant leadership requires that you support and develop your teams to perform better. Listen, empower, motivate, and coach. Remove barriers that stand in their way.
  3. Connected. Network-centric leaders get things done by using influence and persuasion within social networks, not just authority. A big part of building connectedness is simply being more visible. At our offices, all employees ‘work out loud’, including myself and the founders. By narrating our work on our wiki and in Slack, we get great feedback on our strategic direction. We also want this to give permission for our entire team to share and collaborate in a safe environment.
  4. Inclusive. Anyone can be a leader; leadership is not the same as management, and it can come from anywhere. Find it, nurture it, and encourage it. Techniques like Rotating Responsibility give more people the chance to take the lead.
  5. Situational. Team members have varying levels of skill and not every work situation requires the same direction. Situational leadership requires that you adapt your leadership style to the maturity of the team and the context. Sometimes this means driving to a goal; sometimes exploring the path.

Every CEO, HR Director, and team leader must have a plan for nurturing these attributes within their organisation and teams. And really, at a point when anyone can be a leader, we all benefit from the application of these models.

Our (free) Quantified Org Diagnostic Test measures your progress on these five leadership superpowers. It provides personalised recommendations for developing leaders within your teams and across your company. We spent many hours debating which leadership attributes went into our model. We made the call to leave out what is arguably the most popular model – Authentic Leadership. I have known a lot of jerks who are technically authentic. They do not make great leaders.

But the real problem with Authentic Leadership is the diminished power of value congruence (a fancy term for when a person behaves according to their values). Value congruence works well when you have a workforce that seeks to emulate the beliefs and behaviours of their leaders. It can break down when practiced across generations, because Millennials do not value the same things as their GenX and Baby Boomers colleagues. We are not encouraging inauthentic leadership, but, for this reason, we question any over-dependence on this model moving forward.

Make The Space For Leadership

Practically speaking, how do you build these superpowers in your organisation?

Ten years ago I was caught in a soul-destroying cycle. I did quarterly performance reviews for a team of 15. I usually enjoyed the review meetings themselves. I had a great team and spent these meetings discussing career goals and motivations. But the week that I spent beforehand in Success Factors? I was LOSING. MY. RELIGION.

Organisations must make more space for leadership. 

Today, in companies with more classic org structures, this means giving back time to middle managers. Managers spend most of their day enforcing policies, documenting performance, and acting as the water carriers of company information. New leadership models will remain nice theories unless we rethink the role of middle management in bureaucratic structures.

If you are an executive, HR Director, or team leader, it is your obligation to identify management tasks you can automate, such as reporting and even elements of performance management. In doing so, you give back time to activities requiring human touch and insight, such as high-performance coaching and mediating social trust between people.

How To Start Today

When I joined the workforce in the mid-90s – alas, I was not five – I worked as an administrative assistant within a unit of the US Department of Social Services. My job involved walking around departments to collect paper memos, which I would then type into emails to send to our State’s central office. Fast forward to now when I am publishing this blog post from a train heading into London.

Today, if you are not a Millennial, then pause for a moment and write down three ways your work has changed. Bring that to your next team meeting to discuss your leadership assumptions and what could change. And if you are a Millennial, stop and question if you are emulating what you think is leadership, or building these superpowers, which for many of you should feel more natural anyway.