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What Generation Z Wants in a Leader

Think you have what it takes to connect with a team member from Generation Z?

Key points

  • Generation Z tends to want fundamental change, not incremental change.
  • Young people know something’s wrong and are not sure that current leaders agree.
  • There are four qualities that make leaders more attractive to Generation Z: humility, perspective, courage, and people skills.

In the last mid-term election, I met a young 25-year-old candidate for city council. He was a first-time candidate and seemed to have the ear of the local public. Voters really liked him. He stood for change—and he represented a new generation of leaders. When I asked him if he was running because he enjoyed politics, he said he didn’t. He admitted it was exhausting and cruel. After reflecting for a moment, he explained his involvement. He said, “With all due respect, I’m running because I’m tired of older candidates monopolizing the ballot.”

If nothing else is clear, one reality rings true. In the political elections over the last seven years, Generation Z voters (and Millennial voters, for that matter) voted for change. The candidates whom they felt represented more of the same were unattractive to them.

They Want Fundamental Change

Just before the pandemic, the Barna Research Group surveyed young adults, 18-35 years old, in 25 countries. This represented a cohort of both Millennials and Generation Z. Some of the most important leadership insights from the study are below.

  • Understandably, young adults recognize a leadership crisis. They perceive deep and wide systemic problems facing the world’s future and feel current leaders are not up to the challenge. Eighty-two percent believe “there are not enough good leaders right now.”
  • One-third (33 percent) believe that “what it takes to be an effective leader seems to be changing.” Those in power are often old and unwilling to adapt to the needs of the world today. (Consider the age of presidential candidates in the last two U.S. elections).

In every focus group I’ve witnessed, I hear young adults respectfully begging for fundamental change, not incremental change. While employers often propose tweaks to their current systems, today’s kids have been exposed to the “dirt” on leaders in nearly all industries and, like young baby boomers in the 1960s, they want big changes to today’s failing systems.

The Importance of Social and Emotional Intelligence

More than anything, however, members of Generation Z desire leaders to cultivate emotional intelligence — soft skills that overcome our human arrogance, stubbornness, and gaslighting. One of the members of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations summarized this research case at a recent meeting in Boston with three statements:

  1. Emotional intelligence correlates with leadership effectiveness as much or more than general cognitive ability (or IQ). It’s not just about smarts but about social smarts.
  2. Emotional intelligence predicts leadership performance better than IQ or personality traits alone. The good news is IQ doesn’t change much but EQ can develop.
  3. Research data shows emotional intelligence is the most powerful predictor of: 1) satisfaction with your job; 2) commitment to your organization; 3) intention to stay with your organization rather than leave; 4) helping co-workers out beyond your own job duties; and 5) working well with others rather than being unruly or creating problems.

What You Can Do Now

Based on my research, let me offer four qualities that will make you winsome to young team members as a leader, and for that matter, any staff member today.

1. Humility

Many young team members would describe older supervisors as a bit stubborn and even cocky. Humility communicates we are teachable, still growing, and aware that we are incomplete without a team around us. We model this when we ask questions of young teammates, when we apologize for mistakes, and when we admit we need to learn.

2. Perspective

Because you’re likely older than members of Gen Z, you can provide wise perspective based on your years of experience. They need this since they lack experience. While we need to avoid slipping into “professor mode,” young staff desire life hacks and shortcuts to success. We model this when we offer tips that will benefit them even when they won’t benefit us.

3. Courage

My studies of Generation Z reveal that they long for courage in themselves and in leaders. They feel they often lack resolve and bravery and yearn to see moral convictions in their leaders. When we embody perspective (as mentioned above) and courage, we gain moral authority. They’ll follow those who make conventional decisions over following protocol.

4. People Skills

Because EQ has diminished in the general public, and especially among young people, those who embody high emotional intelligence stand out. Leaders who embody self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and the ability to manage relationships are rare. It’s time we improve at “reading the room” and show young staff we understand people.

More than anything, Gen Z team members want their leaders to hear and understand them. This means frequent check-ins and trusting them to pull off innovative projects.


The Baron Research Group, Ventura, CA.

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