When you ask young people aged 20-25 years about their thoughts of leadership, what do you expect to hear? Perhaps something linked to advanced digital and technological solutions like robotics and artificial intelligence. Or maybe they highlight a need for autonomy at work, questioning if leaders are needed at all because everyone leads her-/himself. You might also hear a list of characteristics and skills a good leader should have. Today`s young generation will lead organizations in the near future, bringing their values and ideals to the working life. Therefore, it is interesting to find out the elements and perspectives of leadership they bring up.
The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview of the associations and thoughts that leadership evokes in young people. First, I present briefly the key results of the latest large-sample surveys on the youth and leadership in Finland and abroad. In addition to that, I take a look at the topics the students on Leadership Today course wanted to explore and write articles on. Concluding review draws together the findings of the research and the course papers.
Finnish youth on leadership
Nuoret ja johtajuus (The Young and Leadership) survey researched young people ’s attitudes towards leadership and management in Finland. The survey was answered by 500 Finns aged 16–29 years in 2021. The majority, 82 per cent of the respondents, associate positive and neutral meanings with the word leader. They describe ideal leadership with expressions such as encouraging, open, fair, trustworthy, good listener of the wishes of employees and the ability to create a strong sense of community. The leader`s role is seen as a community and team builder who exists for employees, not the other way around. Weight was given to leader`s ability to create vision and show direction, as well as to an inspiring and appreciative, people-oriented leadership approach. (Nuoret ja johtajuus 2022.)
According to young Finns, an ideal working life is people-centered and built primarily on the common good. In their opinion, organizations should address societal change as a core aim, alongside with business goals. Striving to find a purpose for work is also characteristic to the youth. The desire to create a better working life for all and societal impacting have become drivers of young people’s leadership motivation, still not excluding improving their own career development and salary level. (Nuoret ja johtajuus 2022.)
The Swedish view
The annual Ungdomsfokus (Youth Focus ) 2022 report in Sweden is based on a nationwide survey with 1,000 respondents aged 15-29 years. The Swedish youth in general is very positive about leadership as 80 % can see themselves as leaders in the future. The most common values they mention are derived from a belief in the equal value of all and a care for the planet. The young people see meaning, balance, the opportunity to influence and outlet for creativity as qualities that create a dream workplace. (Ungdomsfokus 2022.)
The ambitions of the youth are high: 60 % want strive to perform at the peak of their ability. That leads to worries about stress and imbalance between work and leisure. Therefore, mental wellbeing and balance in life has become a priority for many. This is evidenced when the respondents describe the ideal employer: one of the three most important aspects of an employer’s attractiveness is that there must be an opportunity for a balance between work and leisure / family life. It is thus a combination of high ambitions, strong values and a pursuit of doing something that feels genuinely meaningful, as 64 % percent of the respondents replied. (Ungdomsfokus 2022.)
Altogether 46 countries across Western Europe, Eastern Europe, North America, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia-Pacific are represented in Deloitte’s 2022 Gen Z and Millennial Survey that gathers responses from 14808 young people aged 19-39 years. (Deloitte Global Gen Z & Millennial Survey 2022.)
Young people`s expectations for business leaders are high: they want to have clear purpose and opportunity to address societal issues through their work. To attract and retain engaged people, new work models that prioritize work/life balance and hybrid working, good salary and financial benefits, learning and development, and well-being must be designed. Workplace well-being and mental health have become more of a focus of employers according to over 50 % of the respondents yet there are controversial opinions on the impacts. (Deloitte Global Gen Z & Millennial Survey 2022.)
Almost 40 % of young respondents say they have repelled a work because it did not meet their values, so aligning with the values of the youth is crucial. The respondents who are contented with their organization`s societal and environmental impact, and their efforts to create a positive workplace culture, have a greater probability to stay with their employer for more than five years. The youth want employers to prioritize climate actions that enable employees to get directly involved. However, only 34 % believe their employers are strongly committed to fighting climate change. (Deloitte Global Gen Z & Millennial Survey 2022.)
Leadership Today course: topics chosen by students
The Leadership Today study unit is part of the Human Resources and Leadership complementary studies at Laurea University of Applied Sciences. The latest implementation of the course was conducted during the spring semester 2022. Two thirds of the 40 enrolled students were Finnish and rest were exchange students and the ones on English Degree Programs, mainly from Central Europe, and some from Asia. The course comprised of lectures and visitor talks of current working life and leadership. The main assignment for each student team was to freely choose a topic, based on their own interests, within the course framework to be explored and written an article on. The topics were supposed to reflect the students´ own perceptions of drivers and elements shaping and defining leadership and working life.
The topics formed a colorful overview of the phenomena of today’s working life. The importance of employees` well-being was brought up, emphasizing leader`s great responsibility and influence power on it, as well as the consequences of well- and poorly-lead wellbeing at work. Responsibility, seen as equal treatment of all and as acting for environment, against climate change, was also presented as a core element of leadership.
When talking about today`s working life, digitalization and technology cannot be excluded. Especially in a recruiting process, the use of artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming ever more common. Still, as pointed out in one paper, AI cannot replace the human touch and understanding leaders bring into recruiting.
Leadership itself as a phenomenon interested the students, too. The development of leadership over the decades, educational leadership as the source of praised Finnish school system as well as the competences and traits needed in leading the future talents were discussed in the papers. There seems to be demand for fair, visionary and accessible leaders that enable flexible working and work/life balance, enhance meaningfulness and create appreciative workplace culture.
It became clear that, according to the students` papers, real societal impact can be achieved through good and responsible leadership. The papers of student teams can be accessed at https://showcase.laurea.fi/en/blogi/student-blogs/leadership-today/ in English and at https://showcase.laurea.fi/blogi/opiskelijablogit/johtajuus-tanaan/ in Finnish.
What do the youth think of leadership, then? After having gone through some large-sample research results and papers of students on a leadership course, common and universal themes can be found. Today’s young people are described as a value-driven generation and many of the survey results support this statement. Working with something that feels meaningful, with great opportunities to develop and improve unjust matters is crucial for many. The rising generation pick responsibility and societal impact into the top priorities of a leader`s work. Those topics cover fighting against climate change and environmental risks, as well as promoting well-being and occupational health and equity of employees.
The picture of the leadership in next generation`s hands is nailed brightly by Accenture`s Chief Leadership and Human Resources Officer Ellyn Shook (Shook & Lacy 2020):
”Organizations have the opportunity and the obligation to drive growth in tandem with positive social and environmental outcomes. This starts with redefining what it means to lead responsibly. A new generation is leading the way, focused on driving value while honoring values.”
It is hoped that still when stepping into the world of work and leadership positions, the young would remember their fine thoughts and plant their own leadership into soil from which better working life, well-being and common good could sprout and grow.