Many organisations create multi-generational teams. But do they respond to the same leadership styles?

Can you lead a multi-generation workforce?

In most organisations, there are a variety of people, cultures, and age groups who come together to achieve a shared purpose. When leaders don’t have essential leadership skills, these differences can become problematic. As a leader, it is your job to ensure that everything gets done, but also that everyone is on the same page.

While we all know that everybody is unique, similarities often exist across generational cohorts. But is there a rule-of-thumb for effectively leading groups with different ages, perceptions and preferences?

Fair-mindedness and competence are preferred across generations.

Generational preferences for leadership

Lisa Spence assessed whether there were generational differences in leadership preference. Her paper, submitted as thesis for a MA in Communication and Leadership Studies found that overall, people from the silent generation (born circa 1945) through to baby boomers, Gen X and Gen Y all had an overt preference for their leaders to be democratic.

While the liked participating in groups, there were some differences between the generations’ preferred leadership characteristics. Listed here in order, these are the top three most commonly cited traits for an ideal leader.

  • The silents: Competent and fair-minded
  • Baby boomers: Honest, competent and broad-minded
  • Gen X: Inspiring, forward thinking, and competent
  • Gen Y: Fair-minded, ambitious and straightforward.

The silents viewed loyalty as an extremely important leadership characteristic with subsequent generations also ranking it highly. However, Gen Y was somewhat different, seeing loyalty as significantly less important but ranking ambition far higher than previous generations, who did not see this as essential or even necessary.

Transformational and transactional leadership

Rebecca Baker also investigated generational preferences in a Psychology Masters Thesis. She found that, across generations and gender, followers tended to prefer transformational over transactional leadership styles. But what does this really mean?

Put simply, transformational leadership includes a variety of core characteristics which have been modelled off successful leaders. The basic idea is that leaders should be visionaries and proactive change agents, able to articulate a dream and motivate subordinates to help them realise it. A truly transformational leader empowers followers by setting expectations through their own behaviour, and encourage development through coaching and mentoring. Essentially, it is the people side of leadership.

On the other hand is transactional leadership, and this is more the task-related side of leadership. It more comfortably fits the definition of management, comprising mainly of stick-and-carrot supervision to enable the completion of day-to-day tasks.

Workers prefer a combination of transformational and transactional leadership.Workers prefer a combination of transformational and transactional leadership.

While Ms Baker’s study found that all generations prefer transformational leaders, fair-mindedness and competence – common preferences across all generations in Ms Spence’s research – are more aligned with transactional leadership. Therefore, there may not be a rule-of-thumb, but understanding the different generations’ needs is a helpful start.

If you want to know more, check out the leadership development courses available from the Institute for Management Communication and Leadership.


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