The myth of the Millennial leader

We are experiencing a demographic shift in the United States — Millennials now outnumber Baby Boomers. In the coming years, Millennials in the workplace will increasingly influence decision making and move into leadership roles. The news media have already begun to characterize Millennial leaders in a negative way, but what kind of organizational leaders will Millennials actually be, and what could this mean for organizations of the future?

Implicit leadership theories are beliefs people have about what leaders are like. Previous research shows that peoples’ views of leaders — what makes them good, what makes them bad — tend to remain stable over time. In our research, we asked survey respondents from all three major generations to rate 21 sets of positive and negative traits to determine what they feel are characteristic of a business leader. The premise was that if Millenials hold beliefs of leadership that are different from other generations, then when they achieve a leadership role their own traits will be different.

However, what we found was that, despite media expectations, most traits of a business leader are rated very similarly across generations, especially the positive traits. You can see on the chart how aligned the bars are across generational perspectives. In other words, Millennials’ views of what defines a business leader are remarkably similar to what Gen Xers and Baby Boomers think.

In short, these findings suggest that the leaders of tomorrow will be very much like the leaders of today. And once again, generational differences at work are found to be much less important than the headlines would have us believe. To find out more, check out our new IBM Smarter Workforce Institute white paper Generational Differences at Work Are Much Ado about Very Little.

IBM WorkTrends Survey
Source: IBM WorkTrends Survey US Sample (N = 7,320)

The IBM WorkTrends™ survey was administered by the IBM Smarter Workforce Institute in 2015 to workers in 23 countries, in a cross-section of industries, thousands of different organizations and all major job families. This chart is based on the survey results for the U.S. sample.

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6 responses to The myth of the Millennial leader

  1. Michel Vandenberghe says:

    I think that it would have been more interesting to get the following analysis: Their opinion about the importance of each of these characteristics regarding people in the entreprise. How they fit into this kind of analysis grid? I’m curious to know 🙂


    • Sara P. Weiner, Ph.D. says:

      Hi Michael, thanks for your comment. I’m not completely clear on your suggestion so let me take a stab and feel free to comment back. The purpose of the analysis was specifically to address media attention on what millenial leaders will be like, and whether they will truly be different than leaders of other “generations.” Our conclusion based on the data is that they won’t be because the perceptions of leadership are very similar across “generations.”


  2. Tom says:

    Glad to see this. Many seminar speakers and book writers have made a living parsing differences in age groups, but our grandparents already knew all this stuff. They called it the “generation gap”. The graph illustrates how people mature and wise up as they age, generally speaking, especially visible in the wider spread between generations in undesirable traits at the bottom of the graph. People are people, there is nothing new under the sun. Thanks for posting!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sara P. Weiner, Ph.D. says:

      Hi – he chart represents some research with no information on how they conducted the research so I don’t know that we can trust those results, despite the nifty graphic!

      I listened to the Ted Talk and it’s interesting. I think it’s actually proving the point as the speaker mentions nothing about generational differences but rather how great leaders are inspirational!


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