If baby boomers are the “Me” generation, then millennials are fast emerging as the “We” generation. With a focus on service, global leadership, diversity, and emotional intelligence, they are taking on leadership roles faster than any cohort since the Greatest Generation.
During the past 12 years, I’ve taught more than a thousand millennials at Harvard Business School, spending countless hours to help them understand their aspirations and motivations. To attract the best talent and motivate millennial workers, boomer-run businesses need to understand them and create opportunities for them to lead now, so the baton can be passed.
In putting together my new book, Discover Your True North, I learned even more about this generation. Here are four key lessons I picked up along the way, along with four star millennials who embrace each one.
Millennials are committed to serving others rather than pursuing their own self-interests. Many are looking for opportunities to serve in immediate ways and help solve social problems.
Look at Seth Moulton, one of the youngest U.S. Congressmen at 36 years old. In his Harvard commencement address, he challenged his peers to commit to service. But it wasn’t just lip service: After graduation in 2001, Moulton joined the Marine Corps and served four tours of duty in Iraq—the last as special assistant to Gen. David Petraeus during the Iraq surge. Seven years later, he upset a long-standing Massachusetts incumbent after trailing by 32 points the summer before the election. In his victory speech, he talked of Congress’ misunderstanding of the military and lack of support for veterans, declaring, “I am going to Washington to change that.”
Millennials’ perspective is more global than any other generation. They engage deeply in global issues, especially in developing countries.
As a teenager, Abby Falik traveled to Indonesia and was overwhelmed by the extreme poverty there. She then spent a summer teaching in Nicaragua and took a year off from college to return to build a library, an experience she said “broke me down.” Falik then created non-profit Global Citizen Year (GCY) in 2008 to create a bridge year between high school and college for high-potential leaders who want to do service work abroad. Thus far, GCY has sent 500 students to live in developing countries and has secured donors including the Arnhold Foundation and money manager Shelby Davis, who have each contributed a million dollars or more.
Millennials celebrate diversity. They welcome people of different ethnicities, religions, genders, national origins, and sexual orientations, recognizing that these differences enrich their lives.
In 2009, Brian Elliott founded Friendfactor, a non-profit organization that recruits straight people as visible allies to their LGBT colleagues in their workplaces and campus communities. The group’s flagship program, the Friendfactor MBA Ally Challenge, tries to get business schools to engage as many students as possible in building LGBT-friendly campus cultures. Since 2012, Friendfactor says the Challenge has included 23 MBA programs and more than 11,000 students, and improved the schools’ cultures with 50% more LGBT students feeling comfortable being out to everyone on campus.
Millennials rely heavily on emotional intelligence (EQ). The old notion of leaders as the smartest guys in the room has been replaced by authentic leaders with high EQs. Millennials yearn to see their leaders as authentic people, with whom they can relate on a personal basis.
Tracy Britt Cool, a mentee of Warren Buffett, exemplifies the importance of EQ. Britt, who grew up working long hours on her family farm, stood out in my MBA classes with her insights into the human dimension of business problems. Upon meeting in 2009, she and Buffett connected instantly, as he sensed her talent and integrity, and she immediately accepted his offer to join Berkshire-Hathaway (BRK-A). Five years later, Britt oversees investments worth billions, sits on the board of Kraft Heinz, and is CEO of Berkshire company The Pampered Chef.
With all the differences emerging among millennials, it remains to be seen whether they will stay committed to serving others into their middle years, or fall prey to using their newfound power for their own benefit. The boomers of the “Me” generation were kids of the Kennedy era, who were equally idealistic in the 1960s, only to have their idealism squelched by the Vietnam War and their desires for increased financial stature.
Will the millennials face a similar fate? Only time will tell. Nevertheless, it’s time to give them the opportunities they seek to lead now. They will change the face of America and of our business, non-profit, and government organizations.
That will be good for all of us.
Bill George is Senior Fellow at Harvard Business School, former Chair & CEO of Medtronic, and author of four best-selling books. His latest book is Discover Your True North.