Now Is the Time for Gen Y Leaders

Posted 04.24.2012

Here’s a thought experiment for you. Take a deep breath, clear your head and think for a little while about what kind of leadership the world is going to need in the future. Need a jump start? Just think about the rapidity of change in the global economy, global politics and consumer technology in the past five years. Five years ago, most major economic trend lines were up and to the right. There were more entrenched autocrats in power in the Middle East than there are today. The iPad hadn’t been invented yet. A Harvard dropout named Mark Zuckerberg had just started Facebook. Tweeting was something that birds did.

If change continues at its current rate, let alone accelerates, leadership is going to get a lot more complex. It’s going to be less and less about authority and more and more about influence. It’s going to be less about solid lines and more about dotted or maybe no lines at all. Global collaboration will rule because cycle times will demand it and technology will continue to enable it.

Where will we find leaders who can thrive in this environment? One place we should look is to the digital natives. Also known as Generation Y, these are the folks who have been connected their entire lives.

As I wrote on my blog earlier this year, people over 40 more or less grew up in the command and control model of leadership. For instance, I learned a lot about leadership in the Boy Scouts, where you move from assistant patrol leader to patrol leader to assistant senior patrol leader to senior patrol leader. The chain of command is very clear. It’s a lot like the traditional org chart you still see in lots of organizations. Information flows down more easily than it flows up.

People of my sons’ generation (they’re 18 and 22) have grown up using technology to connect and collaborate with others to get stuff done. For instance, my 22 year old, Andy, used to spend a lot of time in middle school and high school playing a massive, multi-player online game called Planet Side. It used to drive me crazy, to be honest. Now, I realize he was learning leadership skills by playing the game. Planet Side involved organizing players around the world to collaborate and coordinate their efforts to achieve the same goal at the same time. As a 14 year old, Andy was influencing older people to join his team, share ideas and win the game together.

Last year, I saw that virtual leadership style play out in the physical world when he helped organize almost 1,000 students at James Madison University to participate in a day of service.

We hear a lot about Gen Y being the generation of entitled kids who grew up in the age of “everybody gets a trophy.” That’s not what I’m seeing. What I’m seeing is a group that has some serious chops for getting things done in a new world. I’ve been talking with companies lately who see the same thing They’re designing leadership development programs that mix leaders from across generations so they can learn from each other’s strengths.

Makes sense to me. What do you think?

This post originally ran on Monster Thinking.