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Success, significance and empathy: 'Millennials' on leadership

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Currently, one of my goals as an organizational communication researcher is to discover the success patterns of "leading-edge" business and professional "Millennials" (Millennial Generation: b. 1982 – 2002) – especially ones who are in leadership roles in their respective career fields.

What is becoming apparent as I conduct interviews for my current project ‘Leaders, at the ready!’* is a consistent theme of "Millennials" wanting more than success. They want significance.

Significance as a "felt need" in the Millennial Generation:

To "Millennials," significance has a generational meaning. It’s not about money, title, position, power or celebrity. It’s about making a difference to others in their communities.

Here’s what four "Millennials" have to say about significance and what it means to him or her:

Jason B: "I am interested in personal success – the leader I can become – not solely material gain."

Becca V: "I make hand puppets and give them away to kids who are sick when I want to take a break from my job search. When the kids put on a hand puppet, they start to laugh – and laughter is healing."

Gretchen S: "I always thought I was born in the wrong generation because I care about people, but I'm beginning to think I'm not alone. I’m studying to be a nurse and I’m thrilled to be working with patients – especially women and children."

David H: "I love teaching English. The kids are difficult at times and the parents can be even more difficult, but being able to speak and write English well is important to the kids and their futures. I know I matter."

The quotes above are indicative of what most "Millennials" are saying to me during the interview process to date. They are eschewing the well-worn patriarchal path to success of the Baby Boomers and following their hearts. They appear to have a group "felt need" to create a life worth living and one that does more than serve the self, i.e., a significant life.

Yet, as a researcher (and a futurist), I have to ask: ‘What if "felt needs" are not enough to make a difference in the 21st century?

"Felt needs," a basic concept from 20th century community development, is losing pertinency in contemporary times. "Felt needs" are changes deemed necessary by people to correct deficiencies perceived in their community.

Given the global challenges of the 21st century, the concept of "anticipatory needs" – or what needs to be done to move toward a specified future – is critical to building community – and it can be applied to building community in organizations.

Empathy as an "anticipatory need" in the 21st century workplace:

What is empathy? According to Simon Baron-Cohen, Ph.D., "empathy is our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion" (The science of evil: On empathy and the origins of cruelty, Basic Books, 2009).

Empathy is crucial to becoming a great leader or developing a winning organizational culture in the 21st century. We can either anticipate the need to develop greater empathy in the workplace – the benefits of which are multi-fold** – or we can act in a perfunctory manner and develop an empathically muddled culture with empathically muddled leaders – both of which result in one variation or another of organizational pain.

Let’s choose wisely.

A challenge to "Millennials" in leadership:

Corporate America is geared toward action. Goals matter; results matter; the "what we do" is an imperative.

Yet, as a communication*** consultant, I am reminded of the decades spent attempting to convince C-levels, middle managers and employees that the "how we do" is as important as the "what we do." Mostly, I was met with deaf ear.

As "Millennials" move into leadership roles****, empathy – the core function that describes "how we do what we do" – is rapidly being seen as a paramount leadership capability by business leaders, corporate citizens, and organizational experts.

Without empathy, leaders are doomed to unsuccessful circular attempts at raising performance from moribund states. It seems empathy is a driver of, connecting link to, and feel-good factor in organizational performance. Furthermore, empathy can be developed – e.g., leaders or cultures.

Millennials, the gauntlet has been thrown down. Will you pick it up?

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


*See Leaders, At The Ready! 7 Communication Capabilities for the 21st Century in my LinkedIn posts.

**For example, Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., Father of Emotional Intelligence Theory (EQ), describes some of the benefits of empathy in the workplace in Primal Leadership (2002): "Empathetic people are superb at recognizing and meeting the needs of clients, customers, or subordinates. They seem approachable, wanting to hear what people have to say. They listen carefully, picking up on what people are truly concerned about, and respond on the mark."

***The field of communication (intra/interpersonal and organizational) is grounded in the study of "how we do" what we do as much as the study of "what we do." Contemporary communication practices derive from the and/both; not the either/or.

****POV on leadership: A leader in the 21st century is emergent within a culture depending upon WIGO (what is going on). Leaders do not necessarily have official rank.



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