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The Millennial Generation: A 'Different In Kind' Leadership Challenge

The American Workforce
The American Workforce


The Pew Research Center conducted a massive generational study in 2010 on how the American Millennial Generation (Millennials, b. 1982 – 2002) is reshaping the nation via its trends.*

It’s easy to see from Pew’s research that each generation has a ‘personality’ based upon its trends and that there are differences between the generations. Hopefully, the Pew study can help the generations understand each other; an understanding that could lead to healthier relationships.


Here’s a tidbit from the study: Each generation has a self-identity. Below are the top five answers for the Millennial Generation in response to the identity question: What makes your generation unique?

1. Technology use (24%)
2. Music/Pop culture (11%)
3. Liberal/tolerant (7%)
4. Smarter (6%)
5. Clothes (5%)

In contrast, the number one (#1) answer for Baby Boomers (Boomers) for this same question was work ethic (17%). Extending the research to practice, there are noticeable differences between Boomers and Millennials on how to work or how to work together – now that Millennials are working for, working over or working with Boomers.


However, the focus of this article is not on work practice, but elsewhere; i.e., the creation of shared meaning and purpose between and among Millennials and the other current living generations; mainly, Boomers.

Below are two (2) propositions upon which to think about how generations live, work, think, feel and act together, meaningfully and purposefully.

1) Generational trends are over-arched by one or more higher-order trends which can be called super-trends. A super-trend is a trend of trends. One type of generational super-trend connotes how each generation creates meaning and purpose in life; a foundational concept in human communication theory.

2) Creating meaning and purpose in life is both an intra- and interpersonal communication process. It happens 'within and without'…overtime… and is co-created by reality or WIGO (what is going on) with everyone and everything involved.

We can pinpoint the super-trend of meaning and purpose for the Millennials with a one-word description. Also, we can contrast and compare one-word descriptions for prior generations which will add light to the intra- and interpersonal process of creating shared meaning and purpose between and among all living generations, including Millennials.

One-word Descriptions for the Super-trend of Meaning and Purpose by Generation:©

1. GI Generation: Nationalists
2. Silent Generation: Traditionalists
3. Baby Boom Generation: Re-creators
4. Generation X: Restorers
5. Millennial Generation: Globalists


The Millennials are creating shared meaning and purpose at a time of not only great globalization, but also when the nation lacks alignment, culturally.

Ponder the following: No other generation of the current living generations in the USA has had to face a challenge as chaotic as the expansion of globalization and the lack of cultural alignment. Their challenge is ‘different in kind’ than those of prior generations; generations that were thoroughly anchored in the American world view of their time.


‘The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.’ Peter Drucker

What isn’t said by Millennials? – based on their unique identifier, technology (and other identifiers; especially music/pop culture) provided by Pew – here ‘tis: ‘Our self-identity is global.’ Millennial identity reaches to the globe – they are, in effect ‘global-citizens’ – an identity that includes, but is not limited to being American.

As with prior generations, the Millennials have a generational world view. Theirs is salient to understanding them. To wit, unlike that of prior generations in America their world is creative in nature rather than descriptive.

In social reality, each Millennial has a story to tell – or rather to create – a living story that is unique and one that matters. They live for purpose and passion – and for their place in a global world; a world in which they view themselves as socially egalitarian.

Millennials reflect a world view that is creative by nature, global and egalitarian – a far cry from the descriptive by nature, American and patriarchal world view of Baby Boomers et al.

The Millennial world view is one that is ripe for the chaos of the 21st century.


In 1978, M. Scott Peck, M.D. wrote ‘life is difficult’ as his opening sentence in The Road Less Traveled (Touchstone). Peck’s maxim is even more apropos today given the complex nature of social reality.

Why is life more difficult in the 21st century? Complexity (organized chaos) is unmanageable if controlled and manageable if uncontrolled; seemingly, a paradox.

Paradox is the sign of our times. Knowing how to live in the creative tension between opposing, yet complementary, forces is no longer left to spiritual outliers who have a calling to ‘divine’ expression – e.g., St. Francis of Assisi or Mullah Nasruddin.

Managing chaos – and the paradox inherent – is the crux of the challenge or generational call to global leadership faced by the Millennials in the 21st century.


In organized chaos or complexity, managing people, process and technology is a conditional capability – and it is a creative, not descriptive, process.** What works in one set of circumstances; may not work in another – or not work in the same way or even similarly because of one, two or all factors involved – especially the people factor.

For example, feedback interventions (FI) are generally considered to improve performance. However, the ‘how’ of giving feedback is as important as the ‘what’ in FI.

As Stolovitch writes in Human Performance Technology: Research and Theory to Practice (Human Performance, April 2000), the question ‘Does feedback improve performance?’ is the wrong question to ask. The right question to ask is ‘What must one do so feedback improves performance?’ Given complexity, the question is more specific: What must one do so feedback improves performance, conditionally – or depending upon WIGO (what is going on).


The global leadership challenge facing Millennials is ‘different in kind’ because of the preeminent change in world view that has taken place culturally and in the workplace in the 21st century – i.e., a change in world view from static linearity to complexity, from Americanism to globalism, from patriarchy to egalitarianism, from life as descriptive to life as creative.

Millennials in the American workplace are the first generation to face:

1. the call to leadership at a time when a global worldview is on the rise;
2. the challenge of leading as Americans who view themselves and are viewed by others as ‘global-citizens;’
3. work-life with an egalitarian world view – rather than a patriarchal one;
4. the challenge of leading in a world in which complexity or organized chaos permeates the workplace;
5. the challenge of managing people, process and technology as a conditional – and creative – capability.


‘Get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. Then, figure out where you’re going.’ Jim Collins

Collins’ prescient (and now thoroughly famous quote) from his 2001 research Good To Great (William Collins) reflects how the concept of leadership in the 21st century is being re-framed because of the developing creative, global and egalitarian world view of the Millennials.

Leadership was primarily a perfunctory nod to an institutional grip in the 20th century. Now, it’s a dynamic, yet focused, metamorphosis of human creativity – with an empathic face.

For Millennials, empathy drives the leadership bus. The Millennial call to empathic leadership comes from ‘within’ – not ‘without’ – given their generational sense of self as significant. Their want of shared meaning and purpose in life is a generational need to lead – and to lead with empathy.

Empathy implies recognition of the other and an appropriate response (Baron-Cohen, Simon. The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, Basic Books, 2009). Empathic leadership is by definition conditional and creative because it reflects a personal recognition and response to WIGO (what is going on) – emphasizing who, not what.

The Millennial leadership challenge – both generationally and personally – is finding the right bus (purpose) with the right driver (empathic leader) and the right people (talent) in the right seats (roles).


Two case study overviews of Millennials who are accepting the call to empathic leadership and personally excelling at managing chaos in the particular – because of their unique ability to create results from paradox – are provided below.



Aliya is an intelligent, educated, talented and emotionally well-balanced Millennial. She recently graduated from Johnson and Wales University with a bachelor’s degree in Culinary Arts.

Aliya, a restaurant manager in Denver, CO has a passion for the hospitality industry and she is particularly good at managing front of house and back of house crews; crews that are diverse in ethnicity, race, gender, age, religious values and beliefs, cultural world view, etc.

What makes Aliya good at managing diverse crews? – a natural ability to manage chaos with employees whose goals are unaligned. Aliya knows her employees are not aligned as a team*** and never will be. A lack of alignment does not deter Aliya from motivating employees. Her motivational tools and techniques – grounded in establishing trust and building relationship – have substance, savvy and style.

First, she engages each employee – personally. She knows who they are, what they want at work (and in life), how they work (performance), when they prefer to work and where (role) they prefer to work.The employees as a whole feel needed, wanted and appreciated. Aliya has leverage in the minds and hearts of her employees unlike other managers at the restaurant.

Aliya’s choice – to face down reality, search for meaning even when there doesn’t appear to be any and create interpersonal rituals between and among herself and her staff – are the exact tools and techniques she needs to embrace the chaos of her particular circumstances.

Aliya acts as a ‘Beneficent Dictator’ for organizing the chaos inherent in a diverse crew. Work gets done. Results are good. However, there’s a tipping point for negative performance: if Aliya leaves her job, the crew’s performance falls to average or below because it lacks alignment.

Aliya’s continual presence is needed to maintain or improve performance because she manages (people/process/technology) the creative tension between multi-dimensional needs; namely, the needs of crew, the needs of the restaurant, her bosses needs, her career needs, etc. Creating results from the lack of alignment between two or more needs – a continual ‘push/pull’ – is her bailiwick as a people-manager of a crew.

The risk to Aliya in her role is ‘burnout.’ Her enthusiasm and empathy could drown at a future point depending upon her resilience. The next case study overview contrasts a whole team approach to managing chaos that lowers the risk – especially, the risk of manager ‘burnout’ – of a ‘Beneficent Dictator’ approach.



Stacey is the Clinical Director of MICU at a small medical center in Raleigh, North Carolina. She’s focused, committed to excellence and knowledgeable; highly articulate, Stacey, a Millennial with ten years of clinical experience, is warm, personable and capable.

Stacey’s employees (direct and indirect) number fifty-six. Diversity is a consideration in the following ways. There is a smaller population of highly-educated professionals as well as a larger population of uneducated, non-professional employees in MICU. Ethnicity, race, age, religious values and beliefs, and cultural world view are also diversity considerations, but less so than the educational divergence of the team.

There are three clinical managers who report directly to Stacey. Stacey and her managers are the definition of a team – each is clinically competent, the knowledge, skills and abilities of each manager complements the others, the managers share values and beliefs, purpose and goals, etc.

There is another salient quality about Stacey and her management team. They like each other and enjoy working together. There is, in fact, a ‘feeling of joy’ that permeates MICU – amid the stress and strain of patient care – that can be attributed to Stacey herself.

Stacey and her managers use many of the same motivational tools and techniques as Aliya – personally engaging employees, making use of interpersonal rituals such as storytelling to foster emotional bonds between employees, speaking directly and honestly about performance at individual, team and organizational levels, etc.

The qualitative difference in managing chaos as ‘Orchestra Conductor’ from that of ‘Beneficent Dictator’ is grounded in mindset – a mindset of sharing the responsibility for performance with all involved. For example, Stacey, her managers and those on her team share a patient care orientation. Patient care, the organizing principle of MICU, is embedded in the culture. The responsibility for maintaining high-performance standards on patient care is shared across the team as a whole.

Yet, paradoxical tensions exist within high-performing teams such as MICU because people are organic (living) in nature; not mechanistic (inanimate). They are also complex (multi-dimensional). People have needs and wants, make choices for better or worse, think this and feel that, etc. All of which creates tension – paradoxical, or not.

For example, as a people-manager, Stacey selects employees – and manages and develops them with an eye on patient care. Nonetheless, ‘people are people,’ – and although rare in MICU, processes are thwarted for short cuts and technology breaks down.

The key to high performance when ‘work goes wrong’ under a shared responsibility mindset is resilience within the team. Aliya, for example, was highly resilient in and of herself. Her crew, however, wasn’t. Aliya set performance standards for the crew and closed gaps when necessary. Responsibility for results sat on Aliya’s lap – not at the crew’s table.

However, Stacey, instead of assuming control of MICU, wields herself as an ‘Orchestra Conductor’ – not only of patient care standards – but, of resilience. Her team is resilient in a continuously chaotic, but organized workplace in which unceasing high performance is the standard for a diverse team. If Stacey chooses to leave her job, MICU will continue to function as a complex, whole, and resilient high-performing team.

The risk of managing as ‘Orchestra Conductor’ is front-end – at start-up or when the team, including the manager (s), is created. Selecting (or re-selecting) for an organizing principle (patient care in the case of MICU), is crucial. If missed during selection, there are few interventions (coaching, training, feedback, etc.) that will close the gap.


Aliya and Stacey in their respective case studies represent but two ways to manage chaos and people empathically. The ‘Beneficent Dictator’ (#1) and the ‘Orchestra Conductor’ (#2) are common enough, yet effective models that can be found in various types of organizations.

To sum, Aliya’s and Stacey’s promise as well as result is in the ‘who’ – not the ‘what;’ so to the Millennial Generation and their call to empathic leadership in the 21st century American workplace.

* The Millennial Generation: Confident. Connected. Open to change. (Millennials. Portrait of Generation Next, Pew Research Center, 2010).

**Conditionality in people management is not favoritism. Nor is it overstepping interpersonal boundaries, disregarding organizational rules or ignoring emotional ‘acting out,’ etc. Managing chaos conditionally is a human performance-based concept in which results are achieved depending upon WIGO (what is going on.)

***By definition, a team has one goal; e.g., a sports team has a goal to win the game. In a typical restaurant, a team does not exist; a crew does. Crews are made up of employees – each having his own goal. Employee goals are not aligned to each other or to that of the restaurant as a whole except by happenstance.

©Treat Consulting: The Millennial Generation and The 21st Century American Workplace: A ‘Different In Kind’ Leadership Challenge – White Paper 2. February 2014. All rights reserved.

©Treat Consulting: One-word Descriptions for the Super-trend of Meaning and Purpose by Generation. February 2014. All rights reserved.

Organizational communication maven by day. Food, wine and beer buff by night. World traveler. Entrepreneurial spirit. Contact Eroca Gabriel, a former Fortune 100 ‘people and culture’ consultant, at

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