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The Definition of Leadership for a New Generation

It's time to let go of the top-down hierarchy.

The definition of leadership is changing. Societal expectations of the workplace, fed by economic and demographic trends, are morphing the leadership job description. From emerging organizational structures like Holacracy, to changing expectations of the millennial generation, your kid’s boss isn’t going to resemble the one you reported to the first day of your job.

A recent Global Workforce Leadership Survey commissioned by WorkplaceTrends.com and Saba uncovered a shift in perspective among the under-30 workers: The C-suite is no longer coveted. The lure of fancy titles and senior management perks no longer provides a draw for the majority of the up-and-coming generation. This notion isn’t all that new: I wrote about the challenge of filling the leadership pipeline in this Huffington Post article last year.

We’ve heard this “generation” stuff for years, so why are we stuck with the “there aren’t any suitable leaders” meme? According to the global workforce study, “46 percent of companies said ‘leadership’ was the skill hardest to find in employees.” Moreover, respondents said filling executive leadership positions was especially difficult.

Everybody has jumped on the “generational differences” bandwagon, but few are willing to examine what that means for succession planning. I wonder: If those in charge of succession planning—typically human resources directors and senior management—were to redefine “leadership,” would they then suddenly find more qualified candidates for their pipeline?

We have been heralding the death of the command-and-control management style for a long time. In many organizations, it’s more or less dead and buried. Yet, every day, I talk with people for whom this style of leadership still lives. It might not be fashionable to talk about the traditional top-down hierarchy, but it’s still firmly in place. And because of this stubborn adherence to an outdated workplace structure, the people in charge still look for leaders who behave like them.

Leadership must still exist, even in a primarily self-directed workplace. But it will look different than we currently see in the majority of leaders today. Tomorrow’s leaders must:

  • Understand that leadership in this new way of working is fluid; they may be asked to step aside and let others lead.
  • Learn to lead without the crutch of a title.
  • Connect their company’s mission to the greater good.
  • Gain comfort with a workforce that shifts continually.
  • Fully support employee development—and the technology to enable just-in-time learning.
  • Connect the dots for employees by saying “here’s how what you do affects our mission.”
  • Provide real-life, immediate opportunities to contribute rather than expecting employees to pay their dues.

If our organizations are truly getting flatter, and if we are really teaching employees to self-organize, there are plenty of leaders out there. Maybe we’re just looking for the wrong attributes.

Jennifer Miller is a writer and leadership development consultant. This article originally appeared on her blog The People Equation. Follow Jennifer on LinkedIn and sign up for her free tip sheet: “Why Is It So Hard to Shut Up? 18 Ways to THINK Before You Speak.”

(Image via Feng Yu/Shutterstock.com)