From Boomer to Gen Y Leaders: New Emperors Need Newer Clothes

New Clothes
David Shindler

In the 1990s, we Boomers were fretting over a previous economic downturn and whether or not the Internet was a passing fad (another golden age of myopia). At that time, management thinker, Charles Handy, told a memorable story as an analogy for change in his book ‘The Age of Unreason’.

A tribe of South American Indians would place a frog in a pan of cold water and then heat it to boiling point (cheap midweek dinner). The frog would adapt its body temperature to the rising heat and be unaware of its fate until too late. However, Handy reported that if you put a frog into a pan of boiling water, it leaps out (or if the frog is a little slow, you get an instant ready meal).

What has this got to do with business today and tomorrow?

The world is facing a massive demographic challenge as the number of Boomers reaching retirement age creates a yawning chasm in the workplace. The New York Times called it a looming ‘Elderquake’ as the over-65s now outnumber the under 5s.

If you took a straw poll of Fortune 500 or FTSE 250 companies to find out the average age of CEOs, I suspect it’s nearer the Boomer end of the range. The predominant leadership and management styles and approaches that many Boomers have clung on to for decades met their apotheosis during the banking crisis. Command and out of control.

Our banks, businesses and political institutions have behaved like Handy’s frog in the pan of cold water: eyes wide shut and oblivious to what was happening around them. The pace, amount of change and complexity in the world means the water is now pretty hot most of the time.

What and who will replace the old emperors? The Millennials and their Generation Z successors will have to step up and seize the mantle of leadership from those reluctant Boomers who refuse to go gently into that dark night.

The younger, new emperors need clothes that fit authentically and inspirationally… and to find their own unique voice in tune with the times.

How will Boomers avoid passing down a legacy of ‘well, it worked for us’? If they have to work longer than previous generations, will they hang around in positions of power and simply refuse to let go?

Looking into my half-full crystal ball, a logical extension of the demographic shift may be a floating resource of freelance experience working longer than current retirement ages, less people in static offices, greater diversity of contribution and a further squeezing of time and space not constrained by 9 to 5.

What and who will replace the old emperors?

Millennial leaders will have fewer people to ‘manage’ in the traditional sense, are likely to lead more remote teams and online collaboration tools will be omnipresent.

Stepping up and letting go are multi-generational challenges. We need radical change in business leadership practice – ethical enterprise with values and behaviors to match. We need a genuine dialogue among the generations to develop new models of leadership and management that both enable healthy transition and reshape capitalism in a way that truly leverages talent from all sectors of society.

The younger, new emperors need clothes that fit authentically and inspirationally… and to find their own unique voice in tune with the times. They must lead with eyes wide open while learning to swim in the steamy, uncharted waters of our new economy – or learn to leap like Handy’s frog.

Millennials, what’s your vision of leadership? Boomers and Generation X, what discussion between the generations is taking place in your business about succession planning for the next generation of leaders? What’s your vision for the future leadership of your enterprise?

David Shindler is the author of “Learning to Leap, a Guide to Being More Employable” and co-author of “Internships: how to get a job before graduation”. An experienced leadership and management coach and consultant, David helps individuals, teams and organizations build the people skills and mindsets they need now and for the future. He also runs the Employability Hub (free resources for students and graduates to bridge the gap with professional life).

  • Mic

    So you see leadership skipping over Gen X? Very disturbed you just ignored that group completely in your post.

  • Great input, guys, and thanks for responding.

    My issue is that it seems EVERYONE is overlooking Gen X. No one is writing about them. No one is talking about them. Heck, most people aren’t even acknowledging them.

    And, as is typical with many Gen X’ers, they aren’t getting too worked up about it. Because Gen X’ers, above all else, go with the flow and adapt. We never thought we had to change the world….we just did it (and continue to do it) in our own ways without calling too much attention to ourselves.

    Personally, I always refer to myself as a Gen X’er…with Y tendencies. I had some of the very same thoughts about contributing right from the start, having a REAL work-life balance, spitting in the face of political correctness, wanting to be a part of a collaborative team, wanting my voice heard, etc….I’ve had those thoughts throughout the majority of my career….but I worked in many corporate settings where Boomers were the “leaders” and they didn’t want to hear a “young guy with a voice”….So I kept moving and that’s why my last two stops have been with start-ups. Now, when I work with clients, “suddenly” I know what I’m talking about because I’m a “consultant”…and many of the people listening are…you guessed it, Boomers and Y’ers.

    Generally speaking, I believe Generation X is the BRIDGE generation. We have enough business experience to work with Boomers and Boomers respect us because we have that business experience and we aren’t “20-somethings”. Additionally, we see all of the energy, enthusiasm, passion and drive of Gen Y and can relate to it better than Boomers because we were there not so long ago.

    The difference is that, at least speaking for myself, I can look to a Gen Y’er and see all of that promise, energy, passion, and enthusiasm….and know that many of them are lacking the business chops….but I also want to help them understand the areas of business they don’t understand. Many Boomers don’t want to do that (probably based on an irrational fear that many of them have always have had that they were going to be replaced) and I certainly never ran into any Boomers that wanted to do that for me even as a Gen X’er.

    So Gen X’ers are the ones that can help everyone get along….and I believe many Gen X’ers will manage and lead much better than their Boomer predecessors because they are more inclusive, less fearful, and oftentimes have better communication skills…..which translates better into what Gen Y’ers are looking for.

    Again, I don’t mean to label entire Generations….I think most of us have a blend of at least a couple of the generational characteristics. The Boomers that will survive and advance are the “I know I need to change and I’m willing to ask for help” Boomers vs the “I know everything and I don’t want to change” Boomers.

    But I, for one, as a Gen X’er, am tired of hearing ONLY about Gen Y and the Boomers….I believe the next great business renaissance will occur when those ineffective Boomers retire or get forced out (unfortunately some of the most ineffective are the ones at the top)…I honestly think many X’ers and Y’s are ready for that to happen….but they’ll only wait so long…if those Boomer types don’t get out of the way, then X’ers and Y’s will go elsewhere…..start their own companies, etc.

    That said, there are many X’ers that are “stuck” because, like many of the Boomers before them, they have over-committed to “possessions” and “raising kids”, so they don’t want to rock the boat at work…they do their job, they keep their head down, and they’ve resigned themselves to the idea that their work life, as depressing as it is, is what they need to do. So they’ve given up on their passions and given up the idea of having a voice in their business setting.

    And finally, traditional old school leadership models….prevalent in many businesses run by Boomers (and in Washington, D.C. too, btw)….will eventually die…because Y won’t work for them…and more and more X’ers won’t either.

    That’s my $.02….er, maybe $.10….

  • Fung Yee

    Maybe its time to treat people as individuals.

  • David Shindler

    Hi MicJohnson – check this out Asking ‘where does Gen X fits in today’s workforce?’

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