Leadership Across Generations - Less Than Meets the Eye...



Much has been made of generational differences and the impact they have in the workplace and upon leadership. The generation view suggests that people, by virtue of the year they were born, share common experiences that shape their expectations of employers and leadership. It has also been suggested that these generational differences impact the way members of different generations lead. Depending on who you listen to, Baby Boomers were born somewhere around 1946-1964, Generation X were born 1965-1979, and Generation Y were born 1980-1994. The stereotypes then flow thick and fast - Generation Y's that can't focus, Baby Boomers that are scratching their heads wondering where the fax machine went, and Generation X's that are bravely trying to keep it all together (okay - that may have been a Generation X's summary). 

In my own experience as a manager, I've found the generational view to be pretty hit and miss as a practical way of understanding individual needs, particularly when it comes to effective leadership. While there are definitely some differences (a Gen Y requesting annual leave via Facebook was up there - and you know who you are!), in my experience the differences seem to be peripheral, or related more to the person's stage of career rather than their generation per se. For example, the desire for increased flexibility in the workplace is not the sole domain of any one generation - it's something people from all generations want, perhaps for slightly different reasons. In addition, most discussion of generations in the workplace completely overlooks cultural differences. For example, one research paper I recently read targeted at an international audience suggested that my life as a Generation X would have been shaped by Watergate, President Reagan, the Three Mile Island nuclear leak, and someone I'd never heard of that was particularly good at baseball. As a Generation X growing up in Australia, it is fair to say that none of these people or events had any impact on my life at all. The point being that even the societal shifts that occur are often specific to a particular country or region, so extending assumptions to other countries beyond ones own borders is fraught with risk. In my opinion, most generational models understate what we have in common by virtue of being human beings, and overstate the impact of societal events upon development versus individual differences.

Having said all that, it's always helpful to inject a bit of research into the discussion. So you'd expect from the generational view that managers from the three generations would have quite different views about what makes a leader effective, would demonstrate different leadership skills, and would have different development needs as leaders. After all, their experiences and expectations are presented as being so different. In fact a study* looking at exactly this with over 7,000 managers from the three generations concluded that these groups were more similar than different in regard to the leadership practices they thought were most important, and in their level of skill in these leadership practices as judged by their managers. Furthermore the main skill gaps were exactly the same across the three generations. The conclusion from these researchers was that the concept of generations isn't of practical benefit when developing leaders. 

So when it comes to leadership development, I think it's far more helpful to look at what we have in common independent of our generation - for example our shared needs for meaning in our work, the freedom to do things our own way, our desire to develop skills that matter to us, and our need for relationships. Then it makes sense to look at our different needs based on the the major transitions in leadership - e.g. first people management role, first leadership role, first executive role etc. Generational models are a helpful reminder of the diversity in our workplaces, but don't provide a lot of help when it comes to developing leaders.


* Gentry W, Griggs T, Deal J, Mondore S, Cox B (2011) A comparison of generational differences in endorsement of leadership practices with actual leadership skill level. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, Vol 63, No 1, 39-49. WUDAKUFDVQXX