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Is it time for Generation X to lead us?

Is it time for Generation X to lead us?

Look out Baby Boomer leaders, Generation X is about to take over. Generation X ("Xers"), born between 1960 and 1980, is not going to lead like the Baby Boomer Generation ("Boomers"). Xers are also leading in a very different world economy and in a very different business model than that of their Boomer counterparts.

What are the essential differences in leadership and work attitudes between the two generations? And what changes will Xers drive in the workplace, in collaboration with the dominant Boomers, or without their cooperation? This article will examine those questions along with insights from a representative Generation X leader--Jason McLean, President and CEO of the Vancouver-based McLean Group of Companies and Chairman of the Vancouver Board of Trade.

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Since the largest proportion of the work force is now under the age of 35, the kind of leadership required in organizations is not the kind that makes Boomers feel more comfortable. Xers are generally well-educated, independent and eager to learn, which requires a different leadership style than the Boomer "command-and-control" style with which they are most familiar.

In my article in the National Post, Generation X Will Change Work Culture, I argued that Generation X leaders' assets are their adaptability, technological literacy, independence and creativity. Generation X leaders thrive on change; are fair, competent and straightforward; are very adaptable, flexible; and hate being micro-managed.

Bruce Tulgan, an acknowledged expert on Generation X, argues, in his book Managing Generation X: How To Bring Out the Best In Young Talent, that employees with different work characteristics will be more effective and productive with different leadership styles. Studies by Tulgan, Douglas Coupland (author of Generation X) and Australian company HCM Global, show that Xer managers are typically mature beyond their years, and very team oriented.

A study by Personnel Decisions International (PDI) shows that companies face a substantial employee skills shift and knowledge void. The study surveyed the competencies of 24,000 mid-level managers, and found that Xer managers received higher ratings in self-development, work commitment and analyzing issues than Boomer managers.

Huichun Yu and Peter Miller, writing in the research journal, Leadership and Organization Development, compared the leadership styles of Xers and Boomers. They argued that one significant difference between Xers and Boomers are their value systems. Xers tend to be more independent, self-motivated and self-sufficient, whereas Boomers tend to be more diligent doing their assigned jobs and prefer stable working environments.

The most consistent finding in the research literature, when comparisons of work characteristics are made between Xers and Boomers, is that each group exhibits a different mixture of lifestyle values and work ethics. Boomers tend to work hard and are generally loyal to their employer. They accept the chain of command and expect their mangers to give them direction and lead them towards organizational goals. They are not highly technologically savvy, nor do they like change.

In contrast, Xers emphasize personal satisfaction with work as being most important. They look for opportunities to improve their work skills, not just doing the work assigned. They are loyal to their profession rather than their employer. They are more individualistic. They have a high need for autonomy and flexibility in their lifestyles and jobs and thus less need for directive leadership.

Xers have broken the traditional Maslow hierarchy needs rules and have challenged individual development progress schemes. Whereas Boomers have tended to follow a career path of education, career, marriage and promotion up the ladder, to a final mid-life self-realization, Xers compress this process. They require self-realization from their job and life at the same time and do not want work to impact negatively on their quality of life. For Xers, job satisfaction is more important because they focus on life outside the job. They are not prepared to make the sacrifices demanded by their organizations if it means becoming workaholics.

Xers place a high value on the importance of participative decision-making and job autonomy. They prefer a relationship-oriented leadership style, compared to the Boomers who prefer teamwork directed by leaders in positional authority, and a task-oriented leadership style.

Jason McLean, is a very accomplished, personable and charismatic 36-year-old Xer, reflects much of my research into Xer leadership style. When asked about his leadership style, he said, "I try to be non-reactive," and "I try to live the way that the people who I lead expect me to live," seeing no artificial separation between the ethics and principles of his work and personal life. McLean saw his job as a CEO as being enrolling, inclusive and relationship oriented. "I don't get threatened by including other people and perspectives in decision-making," McLean says, and "I'm more concerned about giving credit than taking it."

When asked what he saw as the most important part of his job as CEO, he said it was "ensuring that there is integrity between the organization's strategic direction and enrolling people to be aligned with that direction." In commenting on the differences between the Boomer style of leadership and his own and other Xers, he said, "command-and-control leadership can be effective in specific crises, but the problem with this style over the long-term is that you absolve the team around you of responsibility and accountability... and you give them an opportunity to fail."

McLean is a strong believer that one of the essential roles of leaders is to build a strong leadership team around him, including building from within and going outside for talent. When asked about the public's concern about the integrity of leaders, given the Enrons and Wall Street events, he said that a leader "can't be a complete moral relativist," and cautioned that legal perspectives "can't drive critical decisions, and they must be driven by basic ethical principles."

Refreshingly candid, McLean summarized his point of view about leadership by stating, " Good leaders don't have all the answers and understand their limitations. They must act with humility."

Generation X leadership style is consistent with recent research, which identifies "transformational leadership." as the most effective style for modern organizations. Transformational leadership has been described as managing energy, first in yourself and then in those around you; the ability to transform individuals and organizations; and representing the high moral road, involving a unique bond among leaders and followers

It appears as though we're moving into a time when the kind of leaders we need and the availability of Generation X leaders coincides. And a time when Baby Boom leaders need to step up and make room for Generation X leaders

 

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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