By Keith M. Eigel, Ph.D.
Co-Author of The Map: Your Path to Effectiveness in Leadership, Life, and Legacy
I am not a Millennial. Born in ’62, I’m sort of a tweener—end of the Boomers, start of Gen X. Whatever my generation, I am someone who has spent nearly a quarter century focused on leadership effectiveness—researching, writing, coaching, training. In this role, over the last 5 years especially, one of the most frequent questions I am asked is, “What do you think about the Millennials?”
For many Boomers and X-ers there is a genuine concern about the readiness of the Millennial generation to lead. To many, they seem too “me first.” To some, too presumptive or arrogant. To others, unwilling to pay their dues.
I can understand the concerns. Never has there been a generation so equipped with information. The curious among them have had instantaneous internet access to every question they have ever thought, and with average or above intelligence, have been able to acquire and put to use the best thinking and teaching across the entire globe without leaving their sofas.
However, many Millennials have mistaken their mental capacity for leadership capacity. Thus, the presumptive arrogance perceived by so many who have gone before. The problem is mental capacity isn’t enough to be an effective leader. How many really smart people do you know that don’t lead well?
Think of the people who have had the greatest influence in your life—the ones who have led you to a better place, which is what great leaders do. If I asked you to describe their characteristics, and I compiled a list of every answer that each person reading this article listed, it would be long and diverse. Every personality type would be represented. Various levels of IQ and EQ (emotional intelligence) would be reflected. Different sexes, attractiveness, communication ability, listening ability, expertise, experience and even body type would all make the list. Some of these characteristics would be innate (are leaders born?) and some would be learned (or are they made?).
So what gives? Can we even know who or what is required to lead well? Here’s what the research shows: given a threshold level of the knowledge, skills, and abilities required to preform in any given industry, leadership capacity and effectiveness is best predicted by a leader’s developmental maturity.
Think again of the leaders who have had the greatest influence in your life. Did they (or do they) know who they are and what they stand for? Would you characterize them as self-aware? Could they clearly articulate their values and what was important to them? Were they more proactive than reactive in responding to challenging circumstances? Did they take responsibility more than they blamed? Did they have a self-authored way of responding to the world?
I bet you responded yes to most, if not all, of the questions in the previous paragraph because these are the characteristics of developmentally mature leaders. Coming to this place is not easily won. It requires of us transformational (maturing) responses to that which challenges us. In other words, we have to bump up against some hard stuff to gain developmental maturity, and bumping up against stuff takes time. Most Millennials haven’t yet had the time—but they will.
Fortunately, we don’t have to wait around on developmentally appropriate, challenging, growth-producing circumstances to find us. We can go find them if we know where to look, because we grow in a knowable, predictable order. So, what is developmentally appropriate for a Boomer is probably not developmentally appropriate for a Millennial, but to know what is appropriate we need to understand how we grow.
Our developmental journeys into and through adulthood start with a “me first” orientation and understanding (Level 2). This gives way to a more connected, but other-defined understanding (Level 3). Level 3 is statistically where most Millennials are—a developmental maturity characterized by two things: knowing but not yet owning (which results in a false confidence often perceived by others as arrogance) and being overly concerned about what others think (how many “likes” did I get?). Both are viewed as naiveté or immaturity by those who have matured beyond this Level—thus the concern of the forty and fifty somethings who fret the readiness or capacity of this generation to lead us in the future.
What growth will look like for the Millennials going forward is that challenges will bump up against what they know and how they understand themselves, and a more mature, more self-authored, more inside-out understanding will emerge (Level 4). Ultimately, there will even be the potential to realize Level 5 maturity and wisdom—an understanding of the world that integrates our differences into a more cohesive whole. For all the Boomers and X-ers out there, think back. If you have grown to a more inside-out, self-authored understanding (Level 4) or beyond, you have done so because you have faced challenges in your life that took you beyond knowing to owning—beyond caring what others think to living into your own standards.
Be patient. Growth and maturity will come for the Millennials. When it does, watch out. Never has a generation been more equipped with knowledge, had more access to training, or been more exposed to the world. When the Millennial generation grows through and beyond the outside-in understanding of Levels 2 and 3, and realizes the inside-out effectiveness of Levels 4 and 5, they are going to change the world. That’s why I’m bullish on Millennials.
Keith M. Eigel, Ph.D., is the founder of the Leaders Lyceum, a leader development organization that focuses on growing next generation and executive leaders. He co-authored The Map: Your Path to Effectiveness in Leadership, Life, and Legacy. Go to LeadersLyceum.com or TheMapTheBook.com to learn how to proactively accelerate your growth and the growth of others on purpose.