All Articles Leadership Inspiration The next generation is watching you lead. Here’s what they’re learning

The next generation is watching you lead. Here’s what they’re learning

The next generation is learning a lot from their older counterparts, and Marc A. Cugnon and Alaina Love outline the lessons they're taking to heart.

6 min read


next generation

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A recent discussion with a group of late millennial professionals led to some important insights about what the next generation wants to learn from their current leaders and what workplace experience they’re seeking. The group was remarkable in that they were all born in 1996, the last year of the millennial generation and have had life experiences that span major hallmarks of their generation and those of Gen Z. These young professionals have adopted the zeitgeist of an era marked by recession and one characterized by the digital age. They are a hybrid generation seeking to make their mark in the world. 


We had a lively exchange where the range of topics was both broad and deep. The group was thoughtful and reflective, devoid of any of the negative stereotypes that might be associated with the generations they straddle. They are worthy of a platform to share their ideas and experiences with a more significant leadership audience. So, this article features the voice of Marc Cugnon, one young professional who explores the insights he has gained about leadership through carefully observing those guiding his development. His and his peers’ experience suggests essential focus areas for leaders to consider when growing next decade’s talent, especially regarding appreciating the backdrop of their generational experience. It has shaped what they value in their leaders and the work cultures they inhabit. 

In Marc’s own words:

Although I consider myself very fortunate, many in my generation are experiencing feelings of hopelessness. Despite millennials comprising more than half of the US workforce, we control less than 5% of total US wealth. Many of us have student debts so large they’ll outlive us. And, for a large portion of my generation, the staples of the “American Dream,” like home ownership, parenthood or a comfortable middle-class lifestyle, feel increasingly unattainable. Perhaps that’s why so many of us are in the constant pursuit of meaningful work. If our legacies aren’t defined by the wealth we accumulate, then the people we touch and the impact we leave behind become vastly more important to our sense of self-worth.

As a young professional, I’m in my first few years of running teams and managing others. I’ve spent significant time and energy thinking about the type of leader I want to be and how I can make a difference by creating a work culture where people thrive. It has challenged me to consider how to shape my identity as a leader and marry my values to how I serve my team.  But I’ve been fortunate to have many leadership models around me. As I’ve examined the qualities and attributes of my career mentors, I’ve puzzled together a blueprint for effective leadership that aligns with those values and resonates in an increasingly diverse workplace. 

One of the realizations I’ve had over the past year is that the leaders I thought were good knew how to serve their teams and effectively prioritize work. But the leaders that I thought were great understood when to prioritize themselves. That might seem counterintuitive, as we often believe top leaders should pour all their energy and focus into the organization. Instead, they’ve taught me that you can offer more to everyone by focusing on the crucial beliefs and priorities that have shaped you and applying the insights you gain to how you lead. I’m early in my career, but I’ve been watching closely. Here’s what I’m observing in the best leaders around me:

  • They are adept at balancing the ledger of demands made by others with what they need to do for themselves to feel whole and authentic. That means taking time to reflect and center themselves even when things are chaotic in their personal or professional lives. They unwaveringly commit to their own physical, mental and emotional well-being. These leaders have taught me that the most important promises we make are the ones we make to ourselves. 
  • The behaviors of great leaders consistently align with their values. They operate with high integrity by walking the walk and rewarding actions that contribute positively to their organizations’ cultural development and core principles.
  • They recognize that the most important person you’ll ever impress is yourself. Great leaders understand the value of maintaining a positive self-image and seek to place employees in positions where they can feel pride in themselves and their work. To these leaders, mistakes represent opportunities for learning and reflection rather than indictments of competency and potential. 
  • They understand that their teams contain unique individuals with diverse lived experiences. These leaders know the limitations of their perspectives and appreciate that the intention and impact of their feedback may differ drastically. When developing others, they try to meet people where they are, not where they think they should be.
  • Great leaders honor the promise of their culture when times get tough. They make difficult decisions that respect employees’ commitment to their organization’s values. They carry out their choices with an abundance of respect and compassion.
  • Excellent leaders don’t treat their employees’ humanity as an obstacle to overcome. Instead, they seek more profound insights into their team’s unique passions and place people in roles that energize them wherever possible. They welcome moments of rest and establish healthy boundaries between office and personal time. They realize you won’t get very far on an empty gas tank. 
  • Most of all, great leaders inspire. They have learned that they stand far taller when helping others excel than when shining a spotlight on their accomplishments. 

The leaders who have inspired me most and from whom I’ve borrowed the most significant segments of my own blueprint are the ones who appreciated how critical it was for me to feel like I was not only doing well but also doing something good. I’ve learned the most from leaders who’ve helped me keep the promises I’ve made to myself. 


Marc Cugnon is a change and communications strategist.

Alaina Love is CEO of Purpose Linked Consulting and co-author of  “The Purpose Linked Organization: How Passionate Leaders Inspire Winning Teams and Great Results.” She is a recovering HR executive, a global speaker and a leadership expert with Fortune 500 clients. Follow Love on TwitterFacebook and YouTube or read her blog.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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