It was 6:00 a.m. when I rolled out of bed. Only 72 hours earlier, I was waking up to life as a college student. On Saturday, as I walked across my alma mater’s commencement platform, my thoughts were enamored with the enormity of the future ahead of me, symbolized by the mighty blue Pacific Ocean extending into the horizon. It was now Wednesday morning, and my thoughts were focused on the morning rush-hour traffic in Los Angeles and the uniform I had seen my baby-boomer father put on nearly every day of my childhood life: a freshly starched dress shirt, slacks and, on this occasion, the best tie I could find.
I was a fortunate outlier. Amidst historic times of economic recession plaguing the futures of my fellow college graduates, I had finished college not just with my diploma in hand, but also a job. I was finally joining “the big boy working world.”
My job hunt brought me to the management team of a nonprofit agency. My responsibilities required managing staff, coordinating volunteers and developing programs for clients. In other words, in a matter of days, I had transitioned from undergrad student to professional leader. But I soon learned it wasn’t quite as simple as that.
From my undergrad experience, I thought I had a pretty good grasp on what it takes to lead. Whether it was serving on student government or representing my high school classmates on the city school board, I was used to leading people. You agree to serve, run for a position, and more times than not, you have some title to hold. This naiveté oozed from my Millennial self as I drove to work that first day, ready to begin the next chapter as a “director.”
The simplest of questions radically challenged my notion of my place in the office when my assistant, a baby boomer, turned to me and asked, “Andrew, how old are you?”
This first job gave me a crash course in the challenges of leading as a Millennial in an intergenerational workplace, and I had to recognize different approaches to learning and living that I hadn’t considered before. Without a doubt, the meetings with my baby-boomer assistant, daily conversations with my Gen-X boss and other interactions with clients and colleagues taught me and challenged me more than I could have ever imagined after spending most of the previous four years around people my age.
After nearly a year and a half in the position, I realized there was a lot more to learn in order to contribute my best in developing people and serving organizations. The next step in my Millennial journey, then, took me to graduate school, beginning a M.A. in, of all things, leadership.
Leadership has been a focal point of our cultural consciousness for centuries. We’ve debated whether or not leaders are born are made. Countless articles and books have been published to help leaders with easy tips and quick solutions for our most common problems. This is especially true in the Church, where leadership is often considered the capstone of spiritual maturity.
Yet with recent movements and revolutions from Wall Street to the Middle East, we have shown that followers are an even more significant element in the leadership equation than had been previously believed. It’s the followers who comprise the fuller movements that pave the way for real change.
Additionally, organizational structure is shifting. Different generations of leaders in companies have transitioned from largely organizational cultures of hierarchy and bureaucracy to new atmospheres of collaboration with flatter structures.
In this new reality, the emphasis on authority, position and title has been diminished. By 2020, many expect that we will have an unprecedented five generations at work together. As today’s record numbers of Millennials appear on the workplace scene, they have big aspirations and carry the expectation, often, to rise to the top in a position of leadership.
Our culture has long prized leadership, usually praising achievement of position or applauding titles and authority. But with these new developments and changing workplace realities, we have an opportunity to change the way we think about and practice leadership, especially across the growing generational spectrum at work.
Catholic priest and writer Henri Nouwen names this new opportunity well: “I am also getting in touch with the mystery that leadership, for a large part, means to be led.” My experiences, and maybe yours as well, have quite poignantly aligned with his countercultural words. Through leading as a Millennial fresh out of college, my eyes have been opened to the great possibilities of learning and living when you realize there is much that you don’t know and much to be learned.
By learning how to follow well, we learn how to better lead. Despite entering the workplace with limited experience, Millennials have a unique opportunity to contribute to the organizations where we work and serve. Alongside colleagues from across the generational spectrum, who have already seen great change in the workplace, my fellow Millennials can contribute the most by leading and living with an attitude of perpetual learning. When we recognize and live with this attitude, we continue the journey of never arriving. This is the best kind of leadership we can offer.