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How to Lead a Young Generation

The new generation that is just now entering the work force may find the nature of life forty or so years ago hard to imagine.  We are dealing with the pressure of work as never before. Recently the South China Morning Post (March 10, 2018) presented an article on the matter of the long working hours experienced by many Hong Kong workers. The article reported that some are working up to 75 hours per week.  This impedes a positive family life, contributes to health issues among the work force, and is a significant source of stress in workers.

In all of this there are also changes in the concept of morality, often driven by western-oriented media, but there is another aspect of modern life we need to be aware of, and which many will have to find a way to address: how the new work generation relates to leadership.

While certainly this is not an issue for all of this new generation, it is however a clear trend witnessed by many employers.  The “millennial” generation tends to value individualism, while relying on someone to organize things for them and provide explicit instructions.  Many are from a one-child family, who have been looked after and have had all decisions made for them.  There is a tendency not to accept the authority of another who is in a position over them and yet desire direction and nurturing. One can add that it is a generation addicted to the internet.

So the question becomes: To what kind of leadership do Millennials best respond?

Research has shown that many in this age category want to be able to ask questions, sometimes hard questions, what we might call disagreements, and leaders need to provide answers for them. They will respect a well-prepared, polite response, which deals specifically with the issue and does not attack them for their impertinence in asking, but treats their concerns as sincere and deserving of a reply. This will go a long way with this group, as it will build their trust.

Strong, polite leadership, which can provide explanations for instructions, will also develop a sense of loyalty, that some have not developed in the cultural milieu of the modern world. The type of leadership we must provide to be successful in this age, is that which encourages, teaches and develops. Loyalty must be built through the building of trust and confidence and through the example of hard work from the leader.

Gone are the days when we faced a population accustomed to accepting authority, or accepting an idea because someone in authority said it. Today, in companies or organizations, if people get offended they leave. They walk out of marriages, or don’t get married so they will have no commitment. That is the mood of society. We are all potentially affected by this mood to some extent.

Successful leaders today are those who can be classified as knowledgeable, firm, fair and supportive. Interestingly, a study recently reported to the board of one of Canada’s largest school systems the results of a large survey indicating that hundreds of younger employees felt they were not supported by leaders.  At the same time older workers were quite content. This clearly showed there was a difference in expectation between the two groups.

Those Millennials who identified with and liked a leader were looking for someone who would seek some input on a situation before issuing an order.  Not that employee input was necessarily followed, but at least it had been heard. They found a supportive leader was accessible, was a source of encouragement, and built confidence in the new employee. He was also defined as someone who was consistent and reliable, and was an example of the hard work he requested of others.

The supportive leader fostered a high level of trust, and lower worker absenteeism.  There was also higher staff retention and more willingness to put in extra time and effort on the job.

Leadership is powerful, and a good leader will bring out the best in those under his authority. He will be a person who is a good example of what those under him should be. He will be a positive person. He will be consistent and polite, and be open at least to listen to and sometimes welcome new ideas.

Long ago Confucius was asked by a scholar: “How do you make people reverent, loyal and mutually encouraging?” Confucius’ reply was very insightful. He stated: “If you preside over them with dignity, they will be reverent; if you are filial and loving (footnote: ‘I.e., filial to your parents and loving to your children.’), they will be loyal; if you promote the good and instruct the incapable, they will be mutually encouraging.” (Analects 2:20)

The idea that Confucius expounded was underscored by an instruction on the characteristics of Godly rule by Jesus Christ, who taught his followers about real leadership thus:

"And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave [servant], just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many”. (Matthew 20:27-28)" 

In other words, the leader should serve the employees in such a way as to ensure they can be as productive as possible, while being an example of how they should be working. Rather than diminish his authority, this actually enhances authority, loyalty and productivity.

Real leadership is one of ensuring those under the leader are treated kindly, fairly and respectfully.