Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Tomorrow’s leadership – bridging the generation gap

“WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH, the tough get going”. Let’s be honest, it’s tough out there at the moment and many of our leaders are not measuring up – Mr Diamond just the latest casualty.

And it’s not going to be getting easier any time soon. Whether it’s hitting your numbers for the quarter or the year, or solving the broader macro economic and global sustainability issues for the generations ahead – the leadership challenges are not getting any easier.

In many ways what is required of leaders and leadership is unchanging. The ability to map out a path ahead, and make it seem plausible and attractive to followers. The courage to take on big challenges and risks, when everything is at stake, and to make the tough decisions. The quality of judgement and the emotional intelligence to make the right calls with people and decisions – to maintain motivation and engagement, to listen and look to hear and see the full story, the whole picture – and to be decisive and move on. These things were as true of leadership in Greek and Roman times as they are today.

Leadership has always evolved. Leaders have to be relevant to their generation, to their cohort of followers. And they must adapt to new ways of being, new ways of living and working, and they have to be in touch and at the vanguard of the latest thinking and demonstrate this through purposeful communication, mindful of how people want to be led, how they want to follow and where they really want to go. How well are our leaders of today doing this? How are you measuring up?

What’s getting in the way? Mind the generation gap

I recently attended the Tomorrow’s Leadership Conference at Brecon, which was attended by a strong cohort of young leaders from the Global Academy of Wales, together with a significant representation of an older, experienced group of leaders from many walks of life. The key theme emerging from the vibrant discussions was how to bridge the leadership generation gap.

Throughout history, there has been healthy tension between the exuberance of youth, the responsibility of middle life and the wisdom of older age. As the problems of the 21st century seem to be mounting, and as our lives become more complex with the breakdown of social barriers and new technology introducing new ways of thinking and being, the differences between the generations seems to be accelerating – with a trend to greater assertiveness of youth and more self doubt of the older voice of experience.

The questions that still needed answering at the end of the conference were:

How can the older generation re-define, re-clarify and re-assert the old wisdom in the new paradigm and in a way that the younger generation embrace it and do not discard it completely – so that the baton of leadership can be passed on to safe hands; And how can the younger generation simplify and explain in language that their elders can understand, the positive opportunities which can be realised from thinking and being in the new ways which are enabled by technology and continuing social liberation. How can they access the power structures to bring their new leadership thinking to bear on the current reality and the very real challenges ahead?

Many young leaders struggle with traditional organisations and ways of working, but they will be alienating themselves if they do not engage, and discover in a flexible way how to bring new thinking on networked leadership and more consensus-driven decision making. At the same time, leaders who represent the establishment must already know that the openness of their minds to new ways of thinking and being are fundamental for the long term sustainability and survival of their organisations and their followers.

In one sense it might be said that voice of youth has always been louder and more exuberant (witness 60’s love revolution and 70’s punk). But today’s generation of young leaders have something valuable to bring to the table – and they are going to have to do it quickly.

One area that the discussion did focus on is how decisions are made. The traditional approach orientates towards the “tell” mode – leaders should have the ideas and the answers and their job is to articulate this. Decision-making happens “behind closed doors” by those who have a handle on power. The new way calls for more consultation and sharing of ideas and thinking – a leader will be happy to admit he/she doesn’t have the answers – the leader’s job is to elicit the views of a wider group who know the reality of the situation and are well placed to come up with good answers. The age of modern social networking is breaking down traditional structures and ways of communicating, allowing more open, transparent and consensual decision making which happens in the public domain, with no secrets or hidden agendas. And this is what followers, people, and society at large want, expect and demand.

Ultimately we all share the same goal of making the future of our society more sustainable. The dilemma facing leaders of both today and tomorrow alike is to find a place where a true meeting of minds can take place, where the wisdom of both viewpoints can be heard, and the best leadership thinking can be forged on a clear path to a more enlightened future. Are you listening?

Stuart Pickles is the former FD of Foster’s EMEA. He now runs and is blogging regularly for Financial Director

Image credit: Shutterstock

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