Friday, June 24, 2011

Generation X Leaders

William Strauss and Neil Howe, coauthors of Generations, posit that each generation makes a unique bequest to those that follow and generally seeks to correct the excesses of the previous generation. They argue that the Baby Boomer excess is ideology and that the Generation X reaction to that excess involves an emphasis on pragmatism and effectiveness. Generation X - those born roughly in the 1960’s and 70’s - engender a deep admiration for their generational traits, particularly in the context of current challenges.

Future leaders in all spheres will have to contend with a world with finite limits, no easy answers and the sobering realization that we are facing significant, seemingly intractable problems on multiple fronts. Perhaps the biggest change from the past: leaders will have to listen and respond to diverse points of view. There will be no dominant voice. In this context, Gen X'ers will be the leaders we need. The experiences that shaped those who were teens in the late 70’s and 80’s, translate into valuable contemporary traits and perspectives:

· Their accelerated contact with the real world, for many through a "latch-key" childhood, has made them resourceful and hardworking. They meet their commitments and take employability seriously.
· Their distrust of institutions grew as they witnessed the lay-offs of the 80’s and has prompted them to value self-reliance. They have developed strong survival skills and the ability to handle whatever comes their way with resilience. X'ers instinctively maintain a well-nurtured portfolio of options and networks.
· A sense of alienation from their immediate surroundings as teens, coupled with rapidly expanding technology, has allowed they to look outward in ways no generation before could or did. They operate comfortably in a global and digital world. Many of they are avid adopters of the collaborative technology that promises to re-shape how we work and live.
· Their awareness of global issues was shaped in their youth, and they are richly multicultural. They bring a more unconscious acceptance of diversity than any preceding generation. Their formative years followed the civil rights advances of the 1960’s. High divorce rates during their youth meant they are the first generation to grow up with women in independent authority roles. They welcome the contributions of diverse individuals.
· Their preference for "alternative" and early experience in making their own way left them inclined to innovate. They tend to look for a different way forward. Their strongest arena of financial success as a generation has been their entrepreneurial achievements.
· Their skepticism and ability to isolate practical truths have resulted in rich humor and incisive perspective. They help us all redefine issues and question reality.
· Their childhood made them fiercely dedicated to being good parents, prompting them to raise important questions about the way we all balance work with commitments beyond the corporation.
· Their pragmatism has given them practical and value-oriented sensibilities that, will help them serve as effective stewards of both today's organizations and tomorrow's world.

The most difficult elements of their past may well be those that provide them with the strongest capabilities for today. They have traded the idealism of the Baby Boomer generation for realism, tempered by value-oriented sensibilities. At mid-life, they are well prepared to serve as pragmatic managers, applying toughness and resolution to defend society while safeguarding the interests of the young. They will force nations to produce more than they consume and fix the infrastructure.

In today's challenging world, their humor may be their most-valued asset. Czech leader Václav Havel said, "There are no exact guidelines. There are probably no guidelines at all. The only thing I can recommend at this stage is a sense of humor, an ability to see things in their ridiculous and absurd dimensions, to laugh at others and at ourselves, a sense of irony regarding everything that calls out for parody in this world." They help us step back…and remind us to laugh.

They will have the opportunity to change the corporate template and create organizations that are more conducive to their values. As leaders, they will be able to reshape the organizations they lead to make them better places for future generations and themselves; make them more humane, and break the cultural norms of corporate life - long hours, a focus on full-time work, heterogeneous perspectives and language of combat.

They will bring their desire to create better alternatives, including how to balance work with commitments beyond the corporation and finding meaning in work. Most importantly, their preference for the "alternative" and their inclination to innovate will allow them to look for a different way forward.

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