When U.S. Secretary of State, Gen. Colin Powell said, “Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand.”, he wasn’t speaking specifically about Generation X leaders, but his words adequately describe how the men and women in this unique generation are likely to lead our businesses into the future. The landscape we operate in today is complex; Baby Boomers are retiring at an average rate of 10,000 per day; Millennials are totally redefining workplace norms; the way we conduct business has and will continue to advance as rapidly as technology; and the outcome is the most dynamic, complex business environment in history. Now is the perfect time for the Middle Child to take the lead. Known in the generational pecking order as Gen. X, this next generation of leaders were uniquely and naturally equipped in the normal course of life with independence, agility, and a collaborative style tailor-made for the environment they will face as executive leaders.
Independence, autonomy, and self-reliance are key attributes of the Gen. X individuals born between 1965 and 1980. They are the children of older Baby Boomers who grew up in an environment of social and financial insecurity. Divorce, corporate downsizing, and the energy crisis were major influencers for these individuals who, as the first generation of latch-key kids, learned early in life to fend for themselves. As leaders, this translates to amazing problem-solving skills packaged in the ability to look beyond popular rhetoric and seek out balanced, sustainable solutions that position the company for success. What they learned in their youth, they deploy in their work environment; simplifying and resolving issues with the ease of a seasoned professional.
Adaptability is an attribute that often defines great leaders. Fortunately, it is a natural skill for most Gen. Xers who learned early on to accept change as a way of life. Having witnessed first-hand, the frailty of corporate positions achieved by their Baby Boomer parents, they are not easily impressed by titles or hierarchical achievements. Instead, they tend to view accomplishments holistically, and judge personal achievement by how the end result benefits everyone in the company. Gen Xers are lifelong learners who are energized by advances in technology and shifting workforce dynamics. Known for their cerebral and operating agility, they anticipate change and look forward to leveraging it for the greater good in whatever form it presents itself. Without question, Gen. Xers are very well-suited for leadership in today’s constantly shifting business environment.
Good leaders collaborate, but great leaders bring opposing parties with conflicting priorities together in a collaborative environment to develop mutually beneficial solutions, which is a skill Gen Xers developed as youth. Sometimes referred to as the baby bust generation, Gen. Xers are outnumbered 2:1 by Baby Boomers and Millennials alike, and represent the true middle ground in most organizational structures. They operate every day in a dichotomy of expectations from the senior executives (Baby Boomers) they report to and the young professionals (Millennials) who report to them. Bridging the gap caused by conflicting expectations can be a nightmare for some, but for Gen. Xers it is an expectation that positions them well for future situations that will likely play out under the watchful eyes of both internal and external stakeholders.
If we could define great leaders by birth year, and plan economic trends thirty years in advance, the chronological positioning of Gen X leadership would simply be considered good planning. In reality, for this generation of leaders, events in the normal course of life gave them skills perfectly fit for leadership in the most dynamic, complex, business environment in history. There is but one concern and that is the middle child syndrome. With businesses focused on knowledge transfer from exiting Baby Boomers and retention techniques aimed at Millennials, the quintessential middle child may have been overlooked. Life in general gave them the critical skills noted above, but like every other generation of leaders, additional professional development is necessary and just in case you haven’t noticed, the clock is ticking. Baby Boomers are retiring in droves and Millennials are rotating in and out of companies; it’s time to focus on the Middle Child.