How to overcome the challenge of multi-generational leadership

Diversity is often viewed as holding the most potential for disagreements, conflict or misunderstandings at work. While that may be true from our experience, it is equally true that sameness holds a matching potential. There is a natural order in reporting to and learning from those older than us, and while experience and knowledge remain invaluable to an organisation’s intellectual property, the fast pace of technological progression is resulting in younger generations leading older generations and leaders leading team members of the same age.

Leadership approaches of old have largely reflected a parental style of managing and mentoring. Drawing from the Transactional Analysis model, what we know about the results of speaking from a parent perspective is that we place the recipient in the child position and in turn wonder why we need to keep treating our employees like children. If from the outset, we communicate and collaborate from an adult to adult perspective, with its focus on staying in the present, being free from bias or emotion, we give the opportunity to the other to respond from their adult position. Herein lies the key to effective multi-generational leadership.

Newly-promoted managers, leading similarly-aged team members are particularly susceptible. Managing the transition of role, and the transition of leading those who were recently on the same level, holds the potential challenge of finding a balance of engagement. We often see that with a new title and job level, comes the shadow side of positional authority. We also equally see that no change at all occurs, where the new leader continues to engage in a ‘buddy’ manner. The risk here is of crossing professional boundaries, where focus remains on the relationship at the expense of performance.

For those who are facing the challenge of multi-generational leadership, the following focus areas may assist:

• Consistency in communication and behaviour remains the antidote for falling into the potential buddy trap. Remaining truthfully yourself, while effectively managing the additional complexities of performance management, creating purpose and setting context, and leading by example is essential for success.

• Influence: Understanding the difference between and impact of positional leadership and influential leadership is akin to understanding that leadership itself is an embodiment of organisational values, a commitment to unlocking individual, team and organisational potential as well as an ongoing opportunity to learn and grow. This is in contrast to positional power which translates to sentiments such as ‘do what I say because I am the boss’.

• Emotional intelligence: In order for the integration to succeed, leaders need to remain committed to their own development through an ongoing focus on their emotional and social intelligence for personal and interpersonal effectiveness. This is Leadership from Within, which enables authenticity rather than conscious effort to be the leader’s guiding force.

• Boundaries management: While investing in relationships with our team members is imperative for successful leadership and management, we need to be mindful that performance needs to be upheld. Temptations of sweeping mediocrity under the carpet, covering for friends or general unfair treatment is in contrast to organisational employability.

• Self-awareness: Knowing ourselves, our leadership styles, as well as our strengths and weaknesses, is paramount for effective leadership and management. We cannot manage what we do not know, therefore knowing our triggers and our blind spots, and our sensitivities is essential for authentic and influential leadership.

• Situational leadership: While fairness and consistency are respected leadership traits, we need to realise that we cannot motivate, manage or engage with all people in exactly the same way. Leadership calls for adaptability and flexibility in approach so that honouring the uniqueness of what each team member brings is valued.

If we hold the perspective of Leadership from Within, with its focus on commitment to ongoing work on ourselves, our teams and our investment in the organisations that we serve, we come to realise that our work is not necessarily about learning how to manage different generations, but it is about our own development journey of consistency, fairness and authenticity.

Sue Bakker is the Academic Head at the TowerStone Leadership centre.

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