For the last twenty years, since my mid 20’s, I have been supporting executive leaders of global corporations. I have therefore spent most of my time working with baby-boomers (leaders in their 50s and 60s) and Generation X (leaders in their 40s). Fortunately, for me, and their organisations, I have found most of these leaders to be hugely magnanimous, intelligent and worldly wise.
Yet, in the last few years, the rules of the game have been changing. Boundaries have blurred, technology has become omnipresent and hyper-dependency has continued to increase. And, so has the age and worldview of those leaders that are now shaping the game.
Two touch points come to mind. First, I have been exposed to fast-growing, young companies in China and South America, where the average age of employees is mid-twenty and where senior leadership is in their 30s. And second, in my role as chair of the WEF’s Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership, I have come to know some truly inspiring Generation Y leaders who think and act very differently.
These ‘next generation’ leaders are digital natives. Emails are old hat. They don’t wear wrist-watches as it’s too analogue, and they are, in every moment, plugged into multiple social networks and online communities.
Their work ethic is also astounding. They are articulate and passionate, and I have caught myself on many occasions believing that the future will be bright in their hands.
However, I have also come to believe that we need to hand the future over to them with great care and attention. For I have also seen Generation Y too easily dismiss Generation X – making what came before ‘wrong’. This is, in any context, a dangerous leadership trait, one that lacks respect, experience and ultimately wisdom.
So while they think differently, in ways that are more diverse, inclusive and networked; they can also be less contactful, even individualistic (in spite of being part of many digital mobs and creative commons). And like the digital worlds they inhabit, they have come to expect immediacy. This means that they sometimes lack patience and are unable to work with ripeness, timing and, moreover, unintended consequences. Of course the danger of saying this is that it comes across as hugely patronising – a trap that Generation X is often accused of falling into.
One of the big questions of our time, therefore, is how we help Generation Y become unimaginably wise – despite the fact we have lost a large amount of their trust. While their naivety is beautifully unencumbered, and their brightness is truly infectious, and they have a creative fire within them that wants to change the world, this next generation of leaders sometimes lack an unimpeded understanding that helps them listen deeply to life.
Unfortunately, I don’t yet feel resourced to answer the question of how we might help. A few clues are just beginning to emerge. Yet it is an important creative dilemma we now need to face into, in business, and in society at large – for wisdom only comes from experience, and yet arguably it is our experience that is now in our own way.
Dr Nick Udall is co-founder and CEO of nowhere and the author of Riding the Creative Rollercoaster (published by Kogan Page).
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