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


Shelly Alcorn, CAE said...

Eric - I'm with you on this one. I get so tired of the boomer/millennial drum. Affected by the recession? A crucible for them? How about watching corporations decimating our families with layoffs in the 80's, Black Friday in 1987, recession in 1991, recession in 2001 and then the circus of 2009?

Leadership vacuum...Enron? One look at Kenneth Lay should tell you - he is no Gen Xer and neither were his cronies.

Lloyd Dobler had it right....maybe there is still a future in kick-boxing for us.....


Eric Lanke said...

Thanks, Shelly. I don't think Bill George is blaming GenX for the financial debacles of the last decade. I mean, he knows some of those guys weren't Xers, were in fact Boomers just like him.

What bothers me is the assumption that the Millennials are the solution to the leadership crisis. If the Boomers can just hold for a few more years, and if the Millennials can just get up to speed a little more quickly, then we just might be able to save this thing. As if there isn't another group of leaders out there already getting things done day in and day out.

Anonymous said...

Friends and I have talked about this as well. One specifically expects us to be "squished like bugs" as the boomer-populated boards jump over us to hire the Ys/Millenials while we've been slogging in the trenches trying to change the system from within.

Eric Lanke said...

Your friend might be right, Anonymous. As we've explored the issue here on Hourglass, it seems to break into two trains of thought. The first is the supposed reality of the numbers. There are just so few Xers compared to Boomers and Millennials, that it's not realistic to expect Xers to fill every leadership position currently held by Boomers. The second is the affinity the Boomers have with their Millennial children, and their wish to see their world re-envisioned through Millennial eyes rather than the cynical and alien eyes of the Xer.

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