Five Styles of GenX Leaders: Which One Are You?
Leaders aren’t what they used to be, and that’s a good thing. But that doesn’t make it any easier for leaders today to find their style and niche. In fact, it’s harder.
Let me start by saying that I’m a Generation Xer. (Thank you Douglas Coupland for naming us so ambiguously.) En masse we are rising to the top positions of companies, with the power to leave our imprint and legacy. We’re already shaping work policies with broader definitions of career tracks, entrepreneurial mindsets, and work-life balance expectations, to name a few. A recent, widely publicized, study examining Gen Xers found that while we may have started as introspective slackers, we’re generally happy, value hard work, and actively participate in a variety of communities. We live full lives and expect them to be multidimensional.
Our views of leadership are clearly shaped by our experiences.
We entered the workforce in a recession, with no expectation of anything except the ability to prove ourselves through hard work and to repay our student loans. Our pop culture models of leadership were hard-charging, no-excuses, all-in kinds of (mostly) men. This proved to be fairly accurate in real life. In the early 90s hard work reigned supreme, dues were paid, and personal lives were kept separate. For women, many of our predecessors who had made it to leadership roles seemed hardened by the time they got there, and didn’t seem all that happy to see us nipping at their heels. We got together after work and took comfort with the refrain that at least we had jobs. (Note the aforementioned student loans as well as scores of underemployed friends.)
Fast forward, and much has changed since those formative work years. The aspirational prototype of a leadership has gone from work-obsessed to empathetic. The need for leaders to collaborate, be inclusive, and communicate openly is a foregone conclusion. We’ve become a global, connected society which values adapting to change and innovation. And often we Xers are the bridge between the Boomers and the Millennials, trying to find our own unique leadership style that’s part the success-driven one that we’ve seen, and part the empathetic one the Millennials expect.
It can be a struggle. We may buy into the empathetic leader idea, but we’re not ready to double down on it. We’ve seen different styles achieve results, and it needs to feel authentic to us.
Skills such as listening, collaboration, communication and supportiveness are wonderful human traits that we should all aspire to. However, over steer on one trait and it quickly feels forced and ineffective. Underneath it all, the heart of empathetic leadership is acknowledgement and understanding. We want to know our leaders have our backs.
Luckily, and notwithstanding many DIY management books, there are many ways to be a leader who wins hearts and minds, without resorting to group hugs. (Or you can, if that’s your thing. No judgment.) You don’t have to match the dorm-room casualness of Mark Zuckerberg, the incisiveness of Meg Whitman, or the inspirational appeal of Steve Jobs.
Consider these types of empathetic leadership styles and see which one feels right to you.
The Coach: Shows empathy by a mixture of tough love and strong support. Not afraid to push you because they see the best in you. Has a good sense of what’s going on in the rest of your life and isn’t afraid to mention it as it relates to your performance and potential.
The Mentor: Makes you feel that your success is always top of mind, and they have your back to guide you along in your career. Will act as a confidante as you hash through ideas and won’t hold it against you as you iterate. Has done well and operates from a point of helping others do the same.
The Truth Teller: Believes that you treat employees as adults and free agents who have a right to hear it straight. Doesn’t sugar coat as a matter of principle, and can be counted on to let you know what you’re doing well and where you can improve. You always know where you stand.
The Buddy: Eschews hierarchy as a structural imperative. Seeks to be considered a colleague first and foremost and as someone who stays in the trenches to keep a bead on their team. Operates from the idea that we’re all in it together. Frequently socializes with the team and can easily approach others with feedback as part of daily interactions.
The Relater: Has an intuitive ability to grasp the emotions of others. Whether from personal experience or keen observational skills, they tap into the hopes and fears of those around them and relate what they see to their own experience. They are self-revealing through shared stories. Even if you don’t know them personally, you feel that they get you in the abstract, and you know what they’re about.
Perhaps one of these examples felt most right to you, or a mixture, or none of them. It’s all okay, the point is that you don’t have to conform to any one mold of leadership, but instead focus on the outcome — making sure your team knows you’re both in front of them and behind them. There are many ways to be empathetic, and our experiences provide fertile ground to pick and choose what feels right to us.
That’s the beauty of “X”: it can mean anything we want it to mean.
Thoughts on GenX leadership? Comment here or @kristihedges.
This column also appears on Forbes.com.
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