Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
March 30, 2021

Motivated, Diverse, Collaborative and Purpose-oriented: Next Generation Leaders Model a New View of Leadership

Business results and purpose — connection to larger social concerns — have traditionally been viewed as at odds with each other. The industrial economy of the 20th century prioritized commercial outcomes, often at the expense of longer-term societal outcomes, and rewarded top-down, financial, results-oriented management. Communication tended to flow in one direction, and work was typically siloed.

The 21st century, however, brings a new set of global challenges, and new tools and mindsets for combatting them. The challenges we collectively face — issues of global health, climate change and social justice, to name a few — are big enough and urgent enough that they have started to shift the priorities of leadership. Even before prominent business leaders drew attention to such issues (and business’ role in addressing them) in forums such as Davos, there has been a growing reckoning around the idea that commercial incentives should be blended with social ones, reflected in the theory of the “triple bottom line”: profit, people and the planet. Similarly, there is growing appreciation that answers to these big problems can emerge from anywhere, and require collective action, suggesting that diverse, multicultural stakeholder perspectives must be engaged and energized in developing and driving solutions.

Just as the triple bottom line is becoming more mainstream, so is the view of leadership evolving to reflect a more balanced, long-term societal orientation — a purpose orientation — alongside results. Animated by shared ideals, the desire to contribute to a greater cause and a drive toward action and results, these leaders are calibrated to deliver against the triple bottom line.

Addressing these complex challenges calls for greater collaboration and the participation of a wider set of voices and perspectives. Ideas and information can come from anywhere, and can be shared instantly. No one entity can solve today’s challenges. Indeed, one of the lessons from this pandemic is the need for sustainable solutions that leverage the ideas and efforts of the private, public and third sectors. The global ecosystem is far more complex and inter-dependent than at any other time in our history, and the post-pandemic new normal has already ushered in practiced time collaborating differently, setting us up to appreciate new ways to move global agendas forward with diverse voices more easily and equitably engaged.

The intractable problems of our world require that we gain a stronger understanding of how to develop and optimize the next generation of leaders (especially those under 40) who have grown up in an era of rapid change and technology innovation as the world awaits a massive “passing of the torch” of leadership. And, as the world’s population presents higher populations of youth, leadership, across businesses and country leadership, is getting older. More than half of the global population is under 35 years of age — 70 percent when Europe and North America are excluded. Yet the average age of political and business leaders has continued to rise in the past 10 years. Over the next five to 10 years, thousands of executives and elected officials will be replaced by younger successors with 20-30 years less experience than they have. Is the millennial and Gen Z leadership “bench” deep enough for this and prepared for this transition at this scale?

In some ways, the next generation of leaders appears to be well-suited to addressing the challenges we face. Numerous studies show that the millennial generation and Gen Z look for purpose in work and, as consumers, want to spend money with companies that share their values. In addition to their purpose orientation, these generations are much more curious about and eager to connect with people with different perspectives and backgrounds. They have a deeper appreciation for having diverse voices around the table and, having grown up with boundary-breaking technology, they are more instinctively drawn to partnering and collaborating to solve problems. Frustrated by the failures of the past to make progress on critical issues, they are driven to push for the change they want to see.

These young leaders have much to teach us. Motivated by our own belief in the power of leadership to build a better future, Spencer Stuart is collaborating with the Atlantic Council Millennium Leadership program to build a deeper understanding of the traits, mindsets and experiences that shaped the outstanding leaders in the program and the implications for leadership development. The Millennium Leadership program selects a highly diverse group of 20 high-achieving leaders, aged 35 and younger, from across geographies and public, private and nonprofit sectors, to collectively explore and work on solutions to our top global challenges.

Our research will examine the style preferences of these leaders compared with the styles of sitting CEOs to understand how purpose orientation differs in these groups and whether differences are due to generational differences, age or other factors. We also will examine the traits, motivations and experiences that propelled these exceptional young leaders so far in their careers at young ages. For example, what differences in motivation, emotional intelligence or agility do we see in these leaders compared with others?

Most importantly, our goal is to apply findings into how and why these high-achieving leaders are different to develop a framework for discovering and optimizing a greater supply of leaders willing and able to take on some of the world’s biggest, most intractable problems. If we understand what codifies the leadership of these next generation leaders, we are better positioned to help develop and deploy them in a rapidly changing world.