When I first got listed with the International Coach Federation (ICF) as a certified executive coach, I was surprised that the first referral was from a early 20-something in Detroit. What could a recent college grad possibly want with professional coaching?
Just about all of my clients to that point had mostly been mid-career professionals seeking to reinvigorate their lives, generate more enthusiasm for themselves, and realize greater meaning in their chosen endeavors.
I asked ‘the kid,’ “What’s up with wanting coaching?”
“I understand that it can help me get into the kind of great work I really want to do in the world,” he told me. “It’s better to start early, right?”
I couldn’t agree more.
Coaching him and other millennials (or Gen Ys) like him has taught this Gen X guy to see the new kids on the block as a vibrant new hope for the world. Here are the top three leadership qualities I see in millennials that could represent the world’s best generation of leaders yet.
#1 – They're Intentionally Directed
Millennials understand the importance of purpose-driven lives. They aren’t merely drifters like the flower children of the sixties, nor are they fiercely goal-driven like Gordon Gekko, from the investment banking Wall Street culture of the Reagan era. Millennials are intentional about what they do. Take my young client who contacted me for coaching. He came to me with the intention of leveraging his teaching and law clerk background with his interest in innovation to create relevant and impressive credentials for applying to law school in order to eventually help educational startups. Whew!
The key is that he isn’t setting hard goals or just seeing what comes next. He’s working through an intention that employs his skills and talents in a way to help assist the world at large. He’s open to different possibilities for what that might look like. In order to explore his options, he’s done what many other millennials have done: turned to others for assistance.
#2 – They're Collaboratively Minded
Tim Dean is a fellow Gen X who focuses his coaching practice on millennials at Coaching Dean. He told me in a recent conversation why he believes this younger generation is most fit to receive the extraordinary benefits that coaching has to offer. He explains that they are “the first raised from birth by helicopter parents” — parents who hover over their kids’ every move.
Frequently this over-involved child-rearing is understood to be unhelpful. Ironically, Dean notes that it also makes them “very collaborative. They work together and are team-oriented,” he says. “Collaboration is in their DNA.” This makes millennials superbly suited for the increasingly integrated global world we inhabit. Combine their intentionality with their ability to collaborate, throw in their values, and well, we might be able to see politicians working across aisles and cultures more than ever.
#3 – They're Pragmatically Idealistic
The third, and probably the most exciting reason why millennials may end up being our best leaders to date, is they are “adamant about working for companies that share their same values,” says Dean. This is vividly demonstrated by the comments of a vice-chairman of financial services firm UBS Warburg Ken Costa, who is quoted in John Whitmore’s book Coaching for Performance as saying, “In the last round of graduate recruitment we did, a surprising amount of people asked ‘what are your policies regarding social responsibility.’ That has never happened before.”
These Gen Ys are not pie-in-the-sky peaceniks. “We’re not hippies—we may share their ambitions, but not their starting point,” writes millennial Nathan Lyons in “Coaching for Leadership.” Values begin the process, he notes, but they are informed by pragmatism. In order to make a difference, Lyons and his peers understand that it takes resources, not just dreams. For his generation, he explains, money, in particular, is “a helpful means, never as the reason for that journey.”
One of the young people I’ve had the privilege to work with at the Cambridge Innovation Center, Daniel Faggella, when asked who he most wanted to have dinner with, didn’t mention Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, but rather, the Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius. Why him? Because, says Faggella, he’s “exactly the embodiment of good and great, with dedication to great causes, insight, and leadership with ethical considerations.” Still in his 20s, Faggella is working on creating his fourth company. This one, TechEmergence, is dedicated “to technological potential to alter human potential.” This is a generation that wants to make a difference.
I can hear some naysayers out there. “This generation is selfish and self-centered,” they say. “The Occupy movement was all about unrealistic expectations!” And so on and so on. But Tim Dean warns against paying too much heed to these dismissals. Every generation, he says, has been portrayed as selfish and self-centered when it came along. And he’s got a collection of Time magazine covers — like one of Gen X as “lost” — to prove it. This isn’t a millennial problem, it’s a generalized youth problem. Young people grow up.
And while I wouldn’t want to get too carried away in singing the praises of millennials, early signs are good. Perhaps the collaborative, do-good, intentionality of this cohort could break through the logjams in Congress, or create new opportunities for peace in our time that is tied to pragmatic realities rather than stubborn, unyielding idealism that leads to logger heads and precious little positive movement.
Whether or not this generation can rise to the occasion is of great importance. Dean notes that in order to fill the leadership roles of the retiring baby boomer generation, the smaller Gen X generation can only fill 64% of those positions — leaving many big shoes for a whopping 36% of young people to begin filling.
“There are 77 million of them,” notes Dean. “Imagine the potential of that many people having focused, purposeful, targeted, career development at a such a young age.”
You may not agree with me that millennials are our great hope. But with so many critical issues facing humanity over the next several decades — climate change, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, poverty, and so on — it may be worthwhile to believe it anyway.
In the meantime, my hat’s off to the new generation. Keep up the good work! Really! We need it!
James Lopata, co-founder of innerOvation™ LLC, is an executive & entrepreneurial coach. He brings over two decades of business experience — including in digital media consulting, in the music and entertainment industries, on Wall Street, owning and operating two businesses, and in journalism — to his work in focusing professionals and business owners on what they need to do differently to create a long-lasting impact. He holds degrees from Miami and Harvard Universities. Even with all that, not much gets him more excited than Zen meditation.