Leadership is one of my favorite topics, as well as one that I constantly apply and refine in my roles leading a Dallas-area nonprofit and teaching management and leadership at the University of Houston. The concept of leadership evolves over time, generation after generation, as the driving force of innovation in management.
From a generational perspective, millennials like me are trying to make our own mark in leadership. If I had to distill the biggest change I see among my millennial peers, it’s the notion that leadership is less about power and more about empowerment. This evolution in leadership thinking is a rejection of micromanagement and closely held silos of power in organizations, and most of all, it eschews the “I get paid the big bucks, so I make all the decisions” mentality.
This new era of leadership is less centered on managers and more on those we may have previously thought of as “the managed.” In practice, however, the dynamic changes across the organization because the only center is that of empowerment and facilitation. In my own experience, I’ve found that I, along with virtually every leader I’ve met, have more limitations than strengths. Thus, my organizations will only be as good as the people I hire and how much power I hand to them.
Don’t get me wrong — this isn’t as easy as just stating a leadership principle. In reality, thriving in this new era of millennial leadership means finding people equally passionate and talented. My goal every day is to position the talents of the brightest people I can find, have them tell me what they need to accomplish our organizational goals, equip them accordingly and then get out of the way. Every one of us has been micromanaged before, so that last part is perhaps the most difficult for leaders at times. To live this value, I must sometimes go days or weeks without speaking to some of my people in order to give them room to breathe, get creative and find solutions they can drive to success.
My employees bleed our mission as they collaborate to help trauma survivors transition into a more successful phase of their lives. When you find a group of people who truly love what they do, feel the impact of their work each day and come from different paths where they’ve gathered expertise and experience, you need to let them run with their ideas. I’m also a big believer in the idea that 85% of the time, we’re going to get it right, and 15% of the time, we’re going to get it wrong.
Modern business, fueled by technology at every turn, moves at a speed that previous generations may fail to comprehend. To succeed as an organization, you must move quickly on your ideas and run at the speed of your stakeholders and overall marketplace. Going fast each day means that you must accept a certain level of failure as teachable and not get bogged down in pursuit of perfection. In other words, when you empower your people to make their own decisions in a team built on trust, odds are that the ways you succeed wildly will far outnumber those times where you fall short.
My team is small. There are only six of us full time in the organization. I see this as a strength more often than a limitation. We are able to move quickly with virtually any opportunity or risk that arises each week. Being a tight-knit group, we can respond with greater ease and really see what works for us (and what doesn’t, sometimes). When your ethos is customer-charged and your objective is to solve their problems with urgency and competency, each person in the organization, especially the leader, has to check their ego at the door. That means not getting married to a particular idea or concept, even if it’s your own.
Furthermore, let’s be done with the notion of “that’s the way it’s always been done.” While it’s certainly important to know the historical context of your organization and its performance, it’s even more important to understand the current needs of your community and be able to say, “OK, this isn’t working for us anymore, so what can we do differently?” I’m never afraid to ask these questions of my team because I know that when we unleash their individual and collective firepower, we create new strengths and push our limits farther away, and even when we fail, we build wisdom for each successive challenge.
Finally, millennial leaders know that their people will provide the answers to those never-ending challenges. I don’t want to be an expert in every field required to run a business, whether that’s fundraising, sales, marketing, finance, operations, inventory management or human resources. I don’t have the time. But when you form powerful bonds with passionate people, each bringing their own experience and expertise to the daily grind, you realize success more quickly and with greater fulfillment at work and in life.