Generations, Leadership and Change

A number of things, including this post on leadership mindsets by Jamie Notter, have gotten me thinking about the major forces that I think are currently shaping the association community.

“The economy” and “health care reform” both seem like the obvious answers, right?

Particularly given that NACHRI is a health care organization, and we all keep getting those blast emails “from” John Graham urging us to…well, I actually haven’t paid a ton of attention since I already have my mind made up on health care (the only major thing that’s wrong with the bill Obama signed about two weeks ago is that there’s STILL no public option, and since I lack representation in Congress, what I think doesn’t really matter anyway). But (I digress) no, not health care.

And the thing about the economy is that it cycles. What’s going on now is a difference of degree, not of kind.

People who know me might guess that I’d say, “Social media! And it’s going to cure cancer, assure me a lifetime supply of Jimmy Choos, and get us all puppies!” Yeah, not so much – social media provides a new platform (or platforms, if you prefer), but it’s for a very old school activity: communication.

I think the most important force shaping the association community today is generational change.

As described in the Lifecourse work of William Strauss and Neil Howe, generations (like the economy) cycle, but the key difference is that a large majority of associations have never directly experienced significant generational change.

Most associations were built by, are currently staffed at senior levels by, and have memberships largely made up of idealistic “prophet” Baby Boomers. I think that provides the foundation for most associations, and carries with it some very good and very bad things: the level of commitment we require of our volunteers, the fact that we expect members to happily support “common good” programs, the focus on process over outcomes, the emphasis on mission and the willingness to make personal sacrifices in service to that mission, and even the high value placed on gathering face to face.

Gen-X “nomads” are much more pragmatic – we’re not joiners, and we don’t follow movements. Is the membership model dying? I don’t really know, but if it does die, I think it will be Gen-X that kills it – not the economy or social media, both of which are usually held at fault.

Xers lack patience with the hierarchy of belonging and with traditional forms of engagement and volunteering. If the price of admission involves reading hundreds of pages of rote committee reports and spending long hours in meetings that don’t actually accomplish anything, we’ll form our own groups. Remember the Bush 41 recession of the early 90s, when Xers were graduating? No room at the (workforce) inn? Fine – I’ll just go do my own thing (and invent Netscape in the process).

I think this generational shift will require that our membership models become more limited and personalized, our decision-making processes become more nimble, and our model of volunteering become more focused on outcomes and less on process.

Further complicating the picture is the emergence of the Millennials, a “hero” generation, into adulthood. Heroes value community and teamwork, in direct contrast to the independent and cynical nomadic Xers, and they are much more sanguine about institutions and authority than either nomads or prophets. This “hero” generation is our future.

To quote The Hourglass Blog:

“[D]oes leadership mean something different to each generation, and therefore our leadership systems will constantly change as each new generational perspective comes into power?”

I think the answer is “yes” – our leadership models will have to change to mirror generational change. Given the single-generation life-span of many associations, that will, I believe, be wrenching.

How will your organization respond to generational change? How will we, as a community, respond? How is generational change causing you to think differently about volunteerism? Membership? Mission? Leadership? Or are you even thinking differently at all at this point?

7 thoughts on “Generations, Leadership and Change”

  • Awesome! I think you hit important points, and I will add some. One thing you don't mention is the demographic reality of the current Boomer-X-Millennial set up. That is, Gen X is the skinny middle of an hourlgass shape in terms of population size (hence the name of the Hourglass blog). I am not sure Gen X will kill the membership model, because there are simply so darn few of us. While we may go in a different direction, our small size will lessen our impact. It won't negate the impact, mind you, but don't be surprised if people start attributing the change in membership models to Millennials, not Xers.

  • Great insights. The Gen X influence question is an interesting one. I've been wondering how where you fall in the demographic affects your perceptions and expectations. Im an early Xers with a toe or two at the tail end of Boomers so while not a joiner per se, I'm fairly tolerant of the good and bad of belonging to large organizations. A few friends who are dead-center Xers don't feel the same way.

  • @Jeffrey – I think you're on to something – there are plenty of “early” Xers who trend Boomer, just as there are “late” Xers who trend Millennial. Maybe it's like (being slightly facetious here) your sun sign and your rising sign in astrology – you have a foundation as one thing that's given nuance by another.

  • Great post. I'm drawn to discussions about the generations. Don't know why, maybe it's the us vs. them Gen-Xer in me. (I'm a mid-range Xer – smack in the middle and very stereotypical.)

    But as the Baby Boomers retire (if they retire, the economy has slowed some of that), our numbers aren't going to be large enough to fill the leadership roles entirely so there are going to be some interesting developments over the next several years.

    I know everyone thinks their generation is unique but Millenials are very different especially in areas such as their approach to leadership (seniority means little) and their lack of inhibitions over what is private and what is public. Associations (with Millenials at the helm or at least those interested in attracting them) are not going to be able to use excuses like “that's the way we've always done it,” as tradition means little to them.

    This discussion is bound to continue and always peaks my interest. Thanks again.

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