Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Lost Generation of Leadership?

Okay. You're going to think I'm crazy or paranoid or both on this one. I've been slogging through a backlog of articles I thought I might want to comment on here on Hourglass. One that caught my eye is an interview with Bill George that was published on

You may remember Bill George from the ASAE Annual Meeting in Los Angeles. He was the featured speaker at the only general session I attended at the meeting. And he's saying the same thing in this interview that he said in Los Angeles--namely that we need a new generation of leaders to take over the organizations built by Boomers.

I'm with you, Bill. My question is--which generation are you talking about?

The interview begins with:

Q: You have said that the younger generation, people under 45 or so, should be taking over in business because they are showing stronger leadership and more focus on their "true north" than their seniors. What do you mean by that?

A: I think we are going through a massive generational change in leadership. We baby boomers were raised in an era coming out of two world wars and the Depression that our parents had experienced. We didn't live through that, but our parents' experience was very real to us. From that we developed a command-and-control mentality of how to run an organization.

The great corporations of the world in the 1950s and '60s were command-and-control organizations. With this new century, that concept of command and control has totally gone out, because employees today are knowledge workers, they have options, and they don't stay around. Most important, they're looking for meaning, not just money. I think today's great leaders will know how to empower people, all of us, to step up and lead. So it's not a command-and-control type situation, and it's not exerting power over the people. It's aligning people to a mission and values and getting them to step up and lead, and getting them to recognize that their job is to serve a certain customer first and not the shareholder.

That's what I think the younger generation, those under 40 or 45, really understands. I think particularly for my students who are in their late twenties this is a great opportunity. The global economic meltdown of 2008 and 2009 was a crucible experience for them in that they recognize that the way we were going until then was headed for sheer destruction. They have a chance to recover, whereas a lot of the older leaders of Wall Street are passing from the scene and have no chance to recover.

Note that the question starts with "people under 45." Well, that includes a piece of GenX, right? Strauss and Howe says GenXers were born 1961-1981, making them 29-49 today, so "people under 45" includes about 75% of Generation X. But then after a fairly lucid analysis, Bill modifies it in his answer to "those under 40 or 45." If he's talking about people under 40, then we're only including roughly 50% of Generation X.

And then there's the real zinger. "I think particularly for my students who are in their late twenties this is a great opportunity." Late twenties? That's so thin a slice of Generation X that it's hardly Generation X at all.

Bill then goes on to describe 2000-2010 as "the lost decade of leadership." He chronicles the collapse of the dot coms that started the decade, then the ethical problems at companies like Enron and WorldCom, and then the financial meltdown of the last two years. He's not explicit about which "generation" of leaders were responsible for all those disasters, but he clearly believes a failure of leadership is to blame.

But not to worry. There is hope. The interview closes with:

Q. Broadly speaking, what makes you most hopeful about today's leaders?

A. I'm very hopeful about the younger leaders who are stepping up and taking over. I hope that the generational change in leadership will come quickly, and I hope it will give younger people an opportunity to step up and lead major organizations as well as start-ups and new organizations. I'm most hopeful about the new leaders who have been appointed in the last three or four years at corporations large and small. I'm hopeful we can get a whole new generation that will step up and lead with a higher sense of ethics and values, not just for its own sake but for recognizing that that's the best way to build an organization and the right way to sustain success.

Sounds good, Bill, but again, which generation of leaders are you talking about? The age ranges you highlight at the top of the interview make me wonder how young you think this new crop of enlightened leaders are, but it only takes one look at the URL that assigned to this article to determine who they think those leaders are.

"baby-boom-millennial-leadership"? Where's Generation X in this whole leadership discussion? Lost once again.

Photo © Copyright Peter Ward and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Misfit Leaders

I mentioned Dan Pallotta a post or so ago as one of the bloggers at the Harvard Business Review that I always make sure I read. His posts sometimes sit in my "to read" pile for a while before I get to them, but I always get to them because, even though I don't always agree with him, I find his ideas challenging and inspiring.

Here's the latest case in point--Misfit Entrepreneurs.

"There's a misfit in each of us," Pallotta says, "and it's the most delicate, precious thing that we have."

Sadly, most people make it their life's mission to hide it, to cover it over in the same clothes, the same work, the same "regurgitations," as Thomas Merton wrote, as everyone else. This virus of homogenization has infected the landscape. Our backdrop in real life now mimics the scenery repetition you'd see in a Fred Flintstone cartoon as he drove down the street. But now it's Home Depot-Walmart-McDonalds-Starbucks; Home Depot-Walmart-McDonalds-Starbucks; Home Depot-Walmart-McDonalds-Starbucks.

Why do we do this? Because, Pallotta says, "To embrace the misfit in oneself is to be vulnerable."

It is to forsake the easy acceptance that comes with fitting in and to instead be fortified by a kind of love, really. A love of life, a love of wonder, and, ultimately, a sustaining love for oneself. Far from egoism, that love for oneself is a measure of one's love for others, for humanity. And it is only from love that great ideas can be born.

And those who embrace their inner misfit, who turn this vulnerability--this love of a great idea--out towards the world? Well, they, Pallotta says, become the greatest entrepreneurs of all.

This kind of love cannot be taught in business school. It has to be felt. It has to be given sanctuary away from the noise and relentless assault of information. And then it has to be nurtured. It must be embraced, in the light of day, for all to see, for people to ridicule, to criticize, to laugh at. And the entrepreneur has to be willing to feel the pain of that ridicule and suffer the risk of the dream being stolen, or crushed by the meanness of this world. But the misfit doesn't worry about that. The misfit has a higher calling: to bring the unmanifest into being, no matter who is saying what.

"Vulnerability," Pallotta concludes, "is the absence of cynicism." And all the great entrepreneurs he knows have this willingness to be vulnerable, this abject lack of cynicism.

It's inspiring stuff. But it leaves me with a few questions.

Are GenX leaders willing to vulnerable? Yes, in my experience, they certainly are. As I've recently argued, they generally don't pretend that they know everything, and are far more willing to have their ideas challenged than leaders of previous generations.

But aren't GenX leaders cynical? You bet they are. I think it's their cynicism that makes them vulnerable. It makes them second guess institutions, other people, and even their own assumptions, and they're constantly seeking multiple options and fall back positions as a result.

So can GenX leaders be great entrepreneurs? To better define what he means by a great entrepreneur, Pallotta tells this story:

I used to visit the merry-go-round in Griffith Park in Los Angeles where [Walt] Disney once took his daughters, asking himself, "Is this all there is? There has to be a better place to take my children." And the rest is history. The great entrepreneur — the entrepreneur who really changes things — is the one who, in 2010, goes to Disneyland and asks the same question: "Is this all there is?" And the new world she or he will create as a result of that audacious inquiry is one that cannot possibly be conceived by people busy trying to fit into the world as it is.

Well, if that's the definition--some one who asks "Is that all there is" and then sets about to really change things--then yes, I would say GenX leaders can be great entrepreneurs. I'm cynical, but I still believe the world can be changed. Don't you?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Don't Forget the Baby Boomers

Not too long ago a friend sent me a link to this article about "Why Marketers Can't Afford to Ignore Baby Boomers." In a culture that endlessly focuses on youth, the article warns marketers not to overlook a group that has tremendous buying power: the 78 million Baby Boomers in the U.S. today.

My first reaction was less than sympathetic. Are you kidding me? I thought. Has the person who wrote this never watched television? Or flipped through a magazine? Who do they think all those prescription drug and car commercials are for? Millennials? There's a reason why Pfizer uses Queen to sell Viagra.

But ever since getting this message I've been paying closer attention to the advertisements I see and who they seem to be aimed at. And I must admit, I'm seeing more and more that are aimed at younger generations. But even those, I find, are being sure to include Baby Boomers in their campaigns, even when the products being sold appeal to much younger demographics.

My favorite example is Verizon's Rule the Air ad campaign. I see these ads everywhere--magazines, airports, bus stops--even online (I don't watch much TV). They always seem to feature young people as the models we should emulate. This video clip contains a line that pretty much says it all. Air..."does not filter out an idea because I'm 16 and not 30." Gosh, 30, huh? That is old.

But if you go to Verizon's website and check out all the faces they're using in this campaign, you see that they are, in fact, covering all the generational bases. There might not be any Silents in their montage (but they, after all, have their own special cell phones), but everyone else is there. And if you start paying really close attention, you discover that the faces change depending on the media outlet the ad appears in. Those that cater to younger audiences get the younger faces. Those that cater towards older audiences get the older ones. And why shouldn't they? The marketing folks at Verizon, after all, are no dummies.

But having said all that, I still see no evidence that Madison Avenue has forgotten about the Baby Boomers. I tried but couldn't find statistics that show what percentage of advertising is aimed at each generation, but from where I sit Baby Boomers are still the champs. Like every generation, they have products that are pitched directly to them but, as the Verizon campaign shows, they're also included in campaigns for products that skew younger. In other words, you'll find ads for cell phones in the pages of Newsweek, but you won't find ads for prescription drugs on

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Generations, Leadership, and Default Modes

Eric's last post about the Generation X approach to leadership has me thinking. It makes sense to me that generations will view the idea of "leadership" differently, and the point Eric raised--is it okay for a leader to be unsure or admit he or she is wrong--is a good one. As an Xer, I agree it's a "duh" moment, though I'd probably also agree with that being a strong "P" on the Myers-Briggs scale (always looking for more data!).

But I doubt that would be a "duh" to previous generations. When I speak on this topic and talk about the Silent Generation, I tell the story from Saving Private Ryan where Tom Hanks' character is talking to a glider pilot. The pilot recounts a story about how a General demanded to have his own jeep bolted to the glider so he'd have it when they landed on D-Day. This made the glider impossible to fly, however, and dozens of soldiers died as a result. Tom Hanks and his crew simply responded with shaking their heads and saying "FUBAR" (an acronym, meaning Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition). "Leadership" for that generation was about winning a war and getting out of the depression and it was NOT something that was challenged, either in the moment or afterward even if it didn't work. There was simply too much important work to be done--you had to just move on.

And Boomers are known for being very focused on "the cause," and are sometimes conflict averse, because you would never want to reveal that your cause is splintered. So in the moment, you stand up with conviction and push your vision clearly and strongly.

Those are the "leadership" models that they grew up with. So it's not that they would necessarily disagree with a single statement, like being a good boss is a mix of confidence and humility, but that's still not likely to be their "default" mode. Similarly, there are times where the humility and open-ended approach of the Xers is not going to work. We'll recognize that in the abstract, but OUR default mode may be to go back to questioning, and that might not serve us.

So any time you find yourself in a "well duh" moment, it's both an opportunity to explore the perspective of people who don't see it that way AND it's an opportunity to look at where your own "default" modes may get in the way of you being effective.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The "Well, duh" Generation

I've been following the Harvard Business Review blog now for as long as I've been blogging at Hourglass. I find it informative and insightful. I don't read every post (they have a lot of bloggers over there), but have developed the habit of following certain ones that I find especially relevant to my world and, dare I say it, inspiring. Bloggers like Umair Haque, Dan Pallotta, and, increasingly, Michael Schrage.

But every once and a while I come across a post that leaves me thinking nothing but, "Well, duh. Doesn't everyone already know that?"

Case in point is this post from Robert I. Sutton titled "A Great Boss is Confident, But Not Really Sure." In it, Sutton has a model for those who aspire to be a truly great boss to follow:

...the people we consider wise have the courage to act on their beliefs and convictions at the same time that they have the humility to realize that they might be wrong, and must be prepared to change their beliefs and actions when better information comes along.

To which I react with a big "well, duh." In fact, tying this more to the theme of The Hourglass Blog, I suspect that nearly everyone in Generation X with any measure of leadership experience would respond with a "well, duh."

Since when is this a revolutionary idea--that leaders don't have all the answers and may in fact be (gasp!) wrong from time to time?

Sutton continues as if he is imparting sacred wisdom, even citing famous innovation consultants who share the view that great leaders effectively balance "confidence" with "doubt."

This balancing act between confidence and doubt is a hallmark of great bosses. The confidence inspires people to follow them and believe in them, but the doubt helps ensure they get things right. They are always listening and watching for evidence that they might be wrong, and inviting others to challenge their conclusions (albeit usually in private and in "backstage" conversations).

As I wrote in my last post about Generation X (dubbing them the "IF" generation because their natural tendency to keep their options open makes them uniquely suited to deal effectively with the uncertainties and "ifs" of leadership), this advice to be "always listening and watching for evidence that they might be wrong, and inviting others to challenge their conclusions," will strike Xers as so obvious as to not be even worth mentioning. And what's this business about challenging conclusions "in private and in "backstage" conversations"? What management era is that idea from?

If this is the level of leadership insight Xers can expect to get from the Harvard Business Review, I may need to stop calling them members of the "IF" generation and switch to the "Well, duh" generation.

Exactly who is this "be a human being not a marble statue" advice for anyway? Maybe the Tom Petty reference at the start of the post is a hint. It seems to me that Xer leaders aren't having any trouble making decisions when the way forward is unclear. What they struggle with is being taken seriously by older leaders when they do.

Photo Source

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The "IF" Generation

I recently listened to a webcast sponsored by the Harvard Business Review where Tammy Erickson discussed "The Leaders We Need Now: Are We Ready for Gen X to Take Charge?" It's all part of pitching her new book, What's Next, Gen X?, which I've not yet read.

I've talked about Tammy Erickson here before. I generally find her to be one of the more positive voices about Generation X and its leadership capabilities. Indeed, Erickson's thesis is that Generation X, because of its formative experiences in the 1980s, has a unique set of leadership traits that are precisely what organizations need today to see them through the difficulties many of them are facing.

This is a theme she continues in the webcast. I don't remember if this is a phrase she actually used, but I came away from her comments thinking of Generation X as the "IF" Generation--a group of self-reliant option seekers who habitually explore multiple strategies and go with what works rather than what is idealogically determined. In other words, "if" something bad happens, the Xer leader will naturally have (or seek) multiple options for moving forward, whereas leaders from older generations may be more rigidly constrained.

There wasn't much time for questions on the webcast, so Erickson responded to some in a couple of posts on the HBR blog (here and here). Given the thesis she has laid out, here's the one I found most interesting:

You asked: How do we blend our strengths with the Boomers' experience so we can be perceived as "ready" to make a smooth transition into leadership? How do we collaborate with Boomers and minimize their resistance to accept us as "equal partners" instead of threats?

This is an important question. You're asking, How do you convince someone that you'll do "it" well, even though you'll do "it" differently. In many ways, that's the challenge X'ers face: convincing Boomers that they'll be great leaders, even though they will probably approach the role quite differently.

President Obama offers a useful model: His operating team comprises primarily X'ers, but his Cabinet is dominated by Boomers. He seems to rely on them for their experience and knowledge, as well as their relationships with other critical players. As you build your teams, I'd recommend that you adopt a similar way of thinking about partnering with Boomers — tapping their strengths.

Can the experience of Boomers be blended with the option-seeking leadership style of Xers? From the Xer perspective, I would say yes. Leveraging Boomer knowledge and experience can provide Xers with lots of options "if" things go wrong. But from the Boomer perspective, I think the question is more problematic. I think many Boomers still view members of the "IF" Generation as not equipped for the challenge of leadership, and view the option-seeking that Erickson describes as evidence of a wishy-washy demeanor and an inability to make a decision and stick with it.

I've already done more generational generalizing than I know some of my readers are comfortable with, but it's almost as if your typcial Boomer believes there is always one best solution to every problem and it's the job of the leader to find it, while your typcial Xer believes there are often multiple solutions and it's the job of the leader to keep as many of them in play as possible.

If that's an accurate description, is it any wonder that Boomers are less accepting of Xers than Xers are of Boomers?