Learn How Generational Values Influence Leaders

Learn How Generational Values Influence Leaders

July 1, 2012

Every generation will lead for about 20 years. GenX takes the helm at some point in the 2030s. See how each generation will shape future leadership.

First, the easy part: each Canadian generation takes its turn at the top.

Its millions of members leave their classroom years and begin their careers at entry level with the most talented, ambitious and fortunate of them methodically climbing the ladder during their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s.

And then for about two decades, their generation fills the overwhelming majority of leadership positions in business, government, education, religion—all of their nation’s major institutions and all of the minor ones, on virtually every block in every city of every province.

And while they enjoy such an overwhelming leadership majority, they thoroughly instill their generation’s unique and powerful core values throughout their organization and throughout their nation; core values that were burned into them by the unique times and teachings of their generation’s formative years, roughly the first 18 to 23 years of life.

These powerful generational core values, we now know from the relatively new field of generational study, move the nation in a direction that is almost always significantly different from the direction of the prior generation of leaders.

And then their generation retires and hands off that leadership baton to the next generation, whose unique values once again push Canada in a new direction.

How Generational Dynamics Work

The first twenty years of our life mold the unique and powerful “core values” that will influence our decision-making for life. Some generations come of age absorbing times and teachings that mold the core values generally considered essential for good leadership, while other generations come of age with core values that will set them up for poor leadership.

A generation’s leadership era begins when the oldest members of that generation reach roughly retirement age or about 65-years-old with the rest of their generation extending downward in age through their early 60s, 50s, and late 40s.

The Different Generations as Leaders

Today, much of the conversation in organizations about generations has centred on retiring Boomers and the emergence of GenY. However, the new study of generational dynamics reveals that Boomers are only now entering leadership positions. How is this going to affect workplaces today? Consider the brief portraits outlined below. The first profile is of the generation that led Canada during the 1990s and 2000s; next is the generation that, to the surprise of most, is only just now beginning its turn at the top; and then GenX and Millennials—the last two generations will follow.

The Silent Generation as Leaders

The current age in 2012 of the Silent Generation is 67- to 85-years-old. Their unique formative years are essentially the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and into the early ‘60s, an era marked forever by its extreme conformity. During their childhood they heard do-as-you’re-told and children-should-be-seen-and-not-heard. Then, in early adulthood, a workplace culture existed of don’t-rock-the-boat, respect-the-chain-of-command, absolute-
and your-loyalty-will-one-day-entitle-you-to-reward.

Not only that, but the Silents also worked under a brilliant leadership generation—the fearless, compassionate, ethical, legendary men of World War II fame, our war veterans.

And so the opportunity for young, aspiring Silents as they entered adulthood was not to lead. Canada, like the United States, had plenty of excellent war veterans as leaders. Instead, the opportunity for Silents was to facilitate, execute, help, and make the big, bold dreams of their veteran bosses happen.

In short, the only opportunity available to Silents was to follow.

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The white men of this generation enjoyed the smoothest career passage in modern history. Women of the Silent Generation faced suffocating gender discrimination as they entered adulthood. They lived and influenced the before-and-after of the modern Feminist Movement of the 1960s and ‘70s. Minority groups of the Silent generation faced brutal racial discrimination, and have lived through and influenced the before-and-after of the modern Human Rights Movement.

In their careers, Silents have distinguished themselves in the so-called “helping professions”. They have given Canada a bumper crop of excellent educators, healthcare practitioners, salespeople, religious leaders, and professional services practitioners: architects, engineers, accountants, and attorneys.

However, their core values of absolute loyalty to the organization, their sense of I’m entitled to reward, and their work history of “following” rather than “leading”, did not serve them well when their best and brightest advanced to the executive suites and took their turn at the top during the 1990’s and 2000’s.

Instead, their leadership era will always be marked by a certain indecisiveness and vulnerability to greed and with it, corruption, all of which seem to have been more evident with U.S. Silents than with Canadian.

In the States, American trust in leadership plummeted as a result of epidemic greed, corruption and remarkable indecisiveness. The relentless desecration of the once great middle class with layoffs while Silent bosses received unprecedented executive compensation marked the Silent leadership era.

Canadians, conversely, felt comparatively greater trust in their government and business leaders during the Silent era, but still a certain legacy existed of indecisiveness and, in some cases, unique susceptibility to greed and corruption.

Boomers as Leaders

Beginning in 2011, Boomers only began their leadership era to the astonishment of many. And because life expectancy is surging upward and we are all working longer, the Boomer era will likely extend into the 2030s before giving way to GenX.

The Boomers who came of age from the 1950s to the early 1980s, were molded by the first-ever youth empowerment era, the social-activist Consciousness Movement of the 1960s (Human Rights, Women’s Rights, Environmental Movement, et. al.), and a stable, secure, and prospering middle class.

Their parents drilled into them their own core values of idealism, engagement, compassion, nothing-is-impossible, dream-the-biggest-dreams, and work-hard-work-smart-work-ethically.

Will Boomers be compassionate, ethical, bold, fearless leaders? Or have they abandoned their highly-principled core values in order to survive – and advance – the last couple of decades while working in a very different workplace culture dictated by their older Silent bosses? Stated differently, have they sold out?

We’re about to learn the Boomers’ answer to the question, How much of you is left?

Optimistically and for the first time in Canadian history, leadership is no longer the near-exclusive province of white men. Thanks to the women’s and humanrights movements propelled forward by their generation fifty years ago, the Boomer leadership era will now be dual-gender and multi-ethnic. And Canada will benefit enormously from the unique sensibilities, talents, and wisdom that Boomer females and minorities will bring to leadership and the governance of that leadership.

Canada is about to undergo significant transformation because of a massive leadership handoff now taking place—Boomers are replacing Silents. A major shift will occur because of the profound differences in their core values. It will take a while for Boomers to disentangle their organizations, government agencies, academic institutions, and nation from two decades of Silent culture, but they are up to the challenge.


GenX, currently aged 31 to 47, will lead Canada from some point in the 2030s to the 2050s, before giving way to the Millennials.

A significant percentage of X’er kids came of age with workaholic (thanks to the women’s movement, moms now had careers, not just jobs) and divorced parents, constant leadership scandals, the battering of the middle class and long-term job security, and Canada’s first-ever widespread, home-alone, latch-key upbringing.

The core values that emerged from this are self-focus, self-reliance, individualism, independence, skepticism of major institutions, financial and employment uncertainty, anti-workaholism, and now, as parents, a fierce core value of I’m-gonna-be-there-for-my-kid.

GenX is likely to deliver brilliant idea leadership. They’re proving to be especially creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial. So look for a blizzard of spectacular new products, services, processes, and workplace efficiencies.

And like the Silents, they’re excellent where the rubber meets the road. They will say to their boss, “Tell me where Point A is with this assignment, and where you want us to go, Point Z. Give me the tools and the technology, don’t micro-manage me, and I’ll get us from A to Z”.

And she or he will. It is the brilliance of their generation.

However, it is just as likely GenX will prove to be weak people leaders. In fact, it’s already happening. X’ers are very linear in their outlook – I want to get from A to Z as fast as possible – that the management of people is often viewed as a hassle to them because people management is more of a winding, twisting journey than a straight line.

At one of my training workshops in, a GenX woman shared this about her generation’s attitude towards leadership: “I don’t think our generation especially wants to lead. When we were coming of age, leaders were regularly getting caught lying and cheating and failing to deliver on their promise. To a lot of us X’ers, leadership is a dirty word.”

Millennials as Leaders

The first-wave Millennials have a current age between 18- and 30-years-old. Generational study is not trustworthy until we reach about age 18, so we don’t yet know in which birth year the Millennials will end and our next generation begins. Today’s 17-year-olds seem to be very much Millennial.

As part of a research study I was conducting for a very well-known department-store chain that employed 40,000 Millennials, I interviewed the company’s most senior HR executive, a woman in her 50s. I started with this question, “What has been your experience with Millennials now that you’ve been hiring and managing them for a few years”. She broke into hysterical laughter.

“Unlike any prior generation,” she started, “a day doesn’t go by when a Millennial new hire will somehow break the password code that is supposed to keep our executive floor doors impenetrable because she will have just thought of the breakthrough idea that is going to make millions for our company, even though she just started with us ten minutes ago! She’s ignored our chain of command, sneaked around her own boss and her boss’s boss, in order to get right to the top to share her idea.

“My first thought,” she said laughingly, “is to jump over my desk and strangle her. But then I look in those Millennial eyes and I see such spirit, such passion to dream big and make a positive difference. All I can do is laugh. Their generation is going to be great, but not before they drive the rest of us nuts.”

Across all types of industries, this same sentiment is repeated over and over.

The Millennials came of age with loving, over-protective parents who hosed them down with such constant praise that their generation has entered adulthood with unrealistic expectations about entry level pay, position and promotion, as well as a flawed sense of entitlement.

They’re also job-hopping more than any prior generation.

But the worldwide economic downturn of the past several years might be the best thing that could have happened to them. It has sobered them, helped to get their feet on the ground, and alerted them to the damage their rapid job-changing is inflicting upon employers.

These First-Wave Mils have mostly Boomers and older X’ers as their moms and dads. So they have absorbed their parents’ core values of idealism, empowerment, engagement, desire to make a big positive difference in life on earth, and the swagger to think they can.

Unlike individualistic, self-reliant GenX, Millennials grew up with times and teachings that make them a “we” generation, not a “me” generation. Team-think, group-think, us-think.

They will almost certainly become skilled People Leaders. They’ll lead by team decision-making, not by traditional corporate hierarchy. There will be multiple CEOs, not just one.

And yes, they are the technology generation, and what remains incalculable in 2012 is how, and to what extent, technology will influence their leadership and their world when they take their turn at the top in the 2050s and 2060s and beyond as we expect to live well past 100 by then.

Regardless the technological change, regardless the longevity of life, leadership in Canada will be guided by the unique core values burned into each generation during their all-important formative years.

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Chuck Underwood


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