Millennials and the Leadership Gap

True leadership is the central challenge of our millennial age.





Matthew Wiebe

As the cadre of young people called millennials grow to become the largest group in the workforce, more attention is being directed to their perspectives, goals, and desires. In a series of reports I led in 2014 for Gigaom Research --- "The Modern Workforce" --- I tried to examine some of the differences in their thinking about workplace and work technologies.

One central finding: the millennials had similar patterns of communication --- using mobile devices, communications apps, collaboration tools, and face-to-face meetings, for example --- but they were less ambivalent about them than other demographic groups. The younger you are, it seems, the more willing you are to invest time and energy into new tools and techniques that promise higher degrees of productivity and connection.


Seventy-five percent of millennials believe that businesses are focused on their own agendas, and not on helping to improve society.


The Pew Research Center has estimated that 10,000 baby boomers will turn 65 every day from 2011 to 2030. As those workers leave the workforce their roles will increasingly be filled by millennials, so the next few years will start to shed light on what a millennial-majority workplace might be like. Other research has been published recently --- by LinkedIin and Deloitte --- that explores other facets of the millennial puzzle.

LinkedIn surveyed workers of all ages about workplace relations and found that millennials (defined for this study as those aged 18--24) are quite different in important ways from boomers (defined as those aged 55--65). Here are some examples:

  • Friendship at work is significantly more important to millennials, who report that such connections make them happy (57%), motivated (50 percent), and productive (39 percent). Boomers, on the contrary, say that friendship at work has no bearing on their work performance (45 percent). Sixty percent of millennials --- more than any other age group --- say that socializing with co-workers make the workplace environment better, compared to 40 percent of boomers. And almost one-third of millennials believe workplace friendships will help further their careers.

  • Millennials are more likely to discuss personal issues with co-workers. Forty-nine percent of millennials are likely to discuss salary with coworkers, compared to 31 percent of boomers.

  • Despite their inclination toward friendliness and openness at work, 68% of millennials would sacrifice a friendship with a coworker for a promotion, while 62 percent of boomers would not consider it.

Despite these differences, nearly 46 percent of all surveyed --- of all age groups --- say that friendships with co-workers make them happier at work. This underscores the central importance of workplace relationships, despite the apparent contrasts between older and younger workers.


The Pew Research Center has estimated that 10,000 baby boomers will turn 65 every day from 2011 to 2030.


Deloitte's fourth annual Millennial Survey was just released, and it sheds a great deal of light on millennials' aspirations at work. The most critical findings, in my view, are these:

  • Seventy-five percent of millennials believe that businesses are focused on their own agendas, and not on helping to improve society. This should be a clarion call to the business sector, because engaging the participation and talent of millennials is essential. The researchers refer to this as an impact gap: where millennials think that what businesses are doing is not what they should be doing.

  • Sadly, only 28 percent of millennials believe that their organization is taking full advantage of their skills, another area where disengagement is likely.

  • Six in 10 millennials say that a "sense of purpose" is part of the reason they chose their current employer, and among the "super-connected" --- those who are relatively high users of social networking tools --- 77 percent say so. Only 46 percent of the least connected agree.

  • Millennials have very different ideas about leadership. There is, the researchers say, a leadership gap: millennials as leaders would focus on people, while they believe that today's leaders are focused on profit and personal reward. The leadership gap is most obvious when the specific attributes of leadership are explored. Millennials place lower weight on leaders being visible (19 percent), well-networked (17 percent), and technically-skilled (17 percent), but consider "true leaders" as those that are strategic thinkers (39 percent), inspirational (37 percent), personable (34 percent), and visionary (31 percent). More Elon Musk, and less Jack Welch, I think.


Millennials as leaders would focus on people, while they believe that today's leaders are focused on profit and personal reward.


Barry Salzberg, the CEO of Deloitte, said of the study:

Millennials want more from business than might have been the case 50, 20, or even 10 years ago. They are sending a very strong signal to the world's leaders that when doing business, they should do so with purpose. The pursuit of this different and better way of operating in the 21st century begins by redefining leadership.

And, inevitably, leadership will be redefined in millennial terms, and probably for the better. Closing the leadership gap is imperative for the future of business, and of society. True leadership is the central challenge of our millennial age.