Pull out your business card for a second and take a quick look. (If you don't use business cards, that's an article for another day--I wish they would go away too.) If your title has anything to do with leadership, take note of an interesting workplace trend. It might not matter that much. You may have the role of project manager or even CEO, but Millennials might not recognize that, at least in daily practice. Instead, they tend to define the "leader" differently. It is not based on your role or your title, or even whether you have the nicest desk in the company.
As more people work remotely and we slip back into a task-based management structure, Millennials will reject the notion that the leader is the person who is assigned to lead or who gets the biggest paycheck and has the biggest office.
Whether you like it or not, they will gravitate toward a certain way of thinking or an attitude and will follow the person who provides the leadership they want at work, even if that's not what the org chart says.
To them, a leader is:
1. The one who extends trust to employees
Millennials view trust as a gift. It is not something you hand to out to anyone and has to be earned. This is true of every generation, of course, but Millennials are particularly savvy about this topic because they grew up with the internet and know that, with a few clicks, you can find out just about anything about anyone. If you expect trust just because you are the boss, you will find that Millennials won't be willing to hand it out that easily. Once trust is earned, the good news is that Millennials are also extremely loyal and will follow with their whole heart.
2. The one who takes responsibility for mistakes
The concept of the immutable leader is long gone. You have to be willing to adapt, admit faults, and show you are human. If your expectation is that Millennials will just overlook a wrong because you are the boss and you pay their salary, good luck. They may follow for a while, but they tend to look for leaders who are genuine and authentic, who don't practice the fine art of bureaucratic layering that says the "higher-ups" are immune from criticism. It's just the opposite. A leader has to be one of the team in a genuine way. The primary technique of old-school managers is to assume they can lead from a distance and still succeed.
3. The one who takes responsibility, period
Admitting mistakes is one thing. A much more important factor in how Millennials define leadership has to do with accepting responsibility. That's not just an occasional act--it's a primary role. It means that, no matter what happens, or whoever screws up, or whether the company fails, the leader is the one who will accept responsibility. It's the one who says: "People will follow me because they know I will accept the blame for leading them in the wrong direction. It is my responsibility to lead in a way that produces results or I won't be able to lead."
4. The one with the influence
Millennials are really into influence. If you have the smartest ideas, the greatest ability to encourage others, the most creative solutions, and the strongest aversion to risk, you will be granted the role of leader. It's no longer because you have the role, or even because you have the strongest personality or even write the checks (although that will always help). It's because you have the most influence.
5. The one who demonstrates how to be productive
The best leaders dive right into the details. They demonstrate how to get the job done; they don't just tell you to get the job done. Millennials are particularly sensitive to this topic, because they know how easy it is to just act busy in the office, somewhat from personal experience. Yet because of technology and a 24/7 mentality about work (you can't hide from social media or a smartphone anymore), a leader can't just disappear for hours and expect everyone else to work hard. I wrote about this recently: Leaders have to take the time to lead, and that means actually being in the office and dealing with problems. A leader has to be present.