Millennial Myth-busting: A quest to understand what millennials really think about leadership

Millennial Myth-busting: A quest to understand what millennials really think about leadership

The Five Practices

There are many myths, stereotypes, and opinions about millennials—a generation that is projected to be 50% of the global workforce by 2020. Depending on who you ask they are either lazy, entitled trophy kids or creative, aspiring difference-makers. However, one consistent perspective is that millennials are quite different from other generations in the workforce. And yet there is plenty of existing research to suggest that what we think we know about what motivates this generation, what values they hold, and how different they really are from others is much more complex than we might think.

As a millennial myself—and a mom who is quite literally raising the next generation of leaders—it has become part of my life’s work to help others separate fact from fiction when it comes to understanding the habits, values, and attitudes of millennials. I’m keenly interested in how perspectives of leadership are different for new generations. How does what my generation thinks of leadership compare to the generations that came before? How do I perceive leadership differently than my children will as they grow up? And what does that mean for us as practitioners in leadership development? How will those differences impact how we lead in the workplace (and, for those like me with children, parent the next generation)?

In my search for understanding and to begin to answer some of these questions, I began partnering with Certified Master Steve Coats in 2014 to investigate just how different millennial perspectives of leadership may or may not be when compared to others. Using the Characteristics of Admired Leaders (CAL) research categories (e.g., ambitious, honest, competent, inspiring, forward-looking, supportive) developed by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, we wanted to understand if millennials looked for similar or different attributes in leaders they admire compared to the overall historical findings Jim and Barry have been collecting for more than three decades.

Over a two-year period, we gathered CAL survey information from more than 2,000 individuals—mostly students attending a variety of universities and participating in a structured internship program. Representing a diverse mix of disciplines and ethnicities, all participants were born after 1977 (the U.S. Census Bureau’s official birth year for the oldest millennials). From the research we collected, we then compared the responses from our study participants with the latest data provided by Kouzes and Posner from their longitudinal database.

The results so far, as the graphic above suggests, highlight a few significant differences and areas for additional research and further discussion—especially among those of us committed to developing the next generation of leaders.

HONESTY… as an admired characteristic of leaders
Kouzes and Posner’s historical CAL research has consistently found “honest” to be the most frequently identified attribute when survey respondents are asked to select seven characteristics they look for if they are to willingly follow someone. The most recent data indicates that “honest” was selected by 89% of all survey participants.

Our collective millennial data is consistent with Kouzes and Posner’s findings, suggesting that honesty is undoubtedly important. However, our research found that this may be a declining trend since millennial respondents only made this selection 66% of the time. Furthermore, within the millennials we surveyed there was a significant decrease in the “honest” response between those born in 1977-1993 (Early Generation Millennials) compared to those born in 1994 and later (Late Generation Millennials). Older millennials selected “honest” 70% of the time, while younger millennials only selected “honest” 57% of the time.

Why is honesty on a declining trend? Do millennials have more doubt and distrust than older generations? My gut reaction is that the millennial generation, more than others, has witnessed dishonest leaders successfully keep—and even advance—in their positions of power. It certainly doesn’t mean that those leaders are any more or less effective, but it does seem to me that millennials have witnessed this phenomenon with more frequency throughout our formative years.

AMBITIOUS… as an admired characteristic of leaders
A more striking contrast between Kouzes and Posner’s historical CAL research and our millennial data is found when we compare responses from these surveys to the characteristic “ambitious.” Only 18% of historical survey participants selected “ambitious” among their top seven most admired characteristics of leaders versus 53% of our millennial survey participants. When we further analyzed millennial data by gender and age, the response rate remained consistent.

Why is ambition so important to millennials? Has “ambitious” simply replaced “forward looking” as the preferred language to describe an aspirational or future state? Or is there truly a desire to know that one’s leader is striving for the future versus merely envisioning it? My personal opinion is that millennials equate ambition to “grit,” as popularly coined by author and scholar Angela Duckworth in her book by the same name. With an economic recession already under our belts, we know what it’s like to have to fight for what you want—and we want a leader that’s willing to dream big and go to bat for us. Ambition implies action. And that’s the kind of intrinsic motivation we want surrounding us.

Differences among female and male millennials
As Steve and I explored whether there were characteristic preferences for male and female respondents to our millennial survey, we discovered an intriguing difference: while female millennials rated “supportive” and “dependable” among the seven characteristics they admire most, males selected “competent” and “intelligent.”

These are vastly different attributes: emotional versus intellectual. Why might that be? As women have increasingly entered the workforce over the past few decades, have their needs from a leader been different than those of their male counterparts? Do they admire “support” and “dependability” with hopes that those traits are the key to help them be an effective leader? From my own, personal experience as a full-time working, millennial mom, I’ve certainly found that supportive and dependable leaders make a greater difference in my work and life—regardless of their intellect on the job. Personal connection and individualized care make me feel more inspired, enabled, and empowered to do good work.

Our research moving forward
While our millennial research helps us understand one generation’s perspectives on leadership, we know our journey doesn’t stop here. GenEdge is already on the map as the generation following millennials (according to the U. S. Census Bureau, those born 1997 to the present) and they are sure to have their own unique traits and preferences.

The data we’ve collected so far raises very interesting questions that we hope to explore with further research to better understand both the “why” and the implications for all of us dedicated to leadership development. And we are on track and excited to continue data collection and analysis for our third consecutive year. We hope to gather at least 500 more survey responses to add to the database, as well as explore topics and audiences for focus group discussions. We look forward to being a part of leadership conversations with millennials and beyond!

As a mom, I’m committed to leading my family and recognize my privilege in raising future leaders. I am renewed daily by my children and their refreshing view of the world. May all of my colleagues in The Leadership Community also delight in knowing that our work matters for future generations.

Brittney Majka
is a Certified Master-in-Training with The Leadership Challenge and has been working in the leadership development field for more than 10 years. Recognized for her work building leadership development programs and communities for women and millennials, she currently leads Coaching Programs as part of the Enterprise-wide Leadership Development Team at Lockheed Martin Corporation, and can be reached at



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