Talkin’ bout Your Generation: Leading The Way

Just about everyone has a theory about leadership style – they’re tied to personality types, astrological types, temperaments, right- or left-brain types, gender, and more. So it seems kind of redundant to offer more theories about leadership, and yet there seems to be something to the broad strokes of generational types that helps us understand, at least a little bit, the kinds of leaders we have in our congregations.

Using, of course, the current model we’ve been focusing on (and again, reminding you all that these are generalizations and your mileage may vary), let’s look at how – in 2011 – the generations are leading in your congregations. Also note – I’m not addressing – today, anyway – how to manage these different types of leaders, simply offering the leadership “biography” that I hope will help explain what might be happening at the board meeting.

Silent Leadership

Actually, that’s a misnomer in this case. While “silent” is appropriate in light of other aspects of the generation, these people are not quiet in their leadership positions. In fact, this group has rather enjoyed the lengthy board meetings, the long discussions, the chance to hear from all comers, to take all opinions into account. It’s why they are so good at movements involving equality – civil rights, women’s lib, the disabled, etc. We are at our best as witnesses to justice when we follow the lessons of this amazing generation.

At their best, Silents are inclusive, detail oriented, careful, empathetic, and precedent honoring. They’re the best listeners. They see the whole as greater than the sum of its parts, and work hard to make sure all the parts are working in harmony.

But when it comes to hashing out the specifics of a policy, it can seem to other generations too much talk, too little action.  As Carl Eeman writes,

Excessive attention to detail and a lengthy process can give church members and fellow leaders the impression that these leaqders are cautious to the point of timidity. Members of a governing group [from this generation] can be perceived as using process and procedure to avoid coming to decision that may be unpopular in the eyes of some.

Further, Silents are vulnerable to endlessly revisiting points that others thought were decided – beating a dead horse, as it were.  And once a decision’s been made, Silents are loathe to revisit it – being much more rigid suddenly than expected.

And, unfortunately, in 2011, this generation is seen as “old”… and whether we mean to or not, younger generations still fall into the trap of sometimes dismissing the wisdom of our elders. Silents are leaving leadership roles for many reasons – many are snowbirds, only around for 6 months of the year. Others are just tired. And some feel as though they are no longer useful.

Boomer Leadership

The preponderance of your church leaders were probably born between 1943 and 1959. It’s no wonder, as there are so many of them, but also because they’re in the stage of life where they’ve assumed and maintain strong leadership roles. 

Boomers are compelling leaders – they formulate and articulate broad visions. They build concensus around those visions; but whereas the Silents make sure everyone is heard and on board and hash out a concensus, Boomers tend to present a vision and bring others along – this generation is big on the “buy in.”

At their best, Boomers lead the charge for big, new ideas for growth. As Eeman points out, they often embody the George Bernard Shaw quotation: “Some men see things that are and ask ‘why?’ Other men see things that never were and ask ‘why not?’

But at their worst, they are stubborn and absolutely certain they are right. They can be seen as the unfortunate counterweight to the Silents who come slowly to a decision; Boomers tend to already have made a decision and will fight long and hard for their point of view. Boomers in the heat of an argument will work very hard to build factions of support – more buy in – which can be hard for other generations to argue against. Of course, good Boomers know this and temper it with considered thought – the worst never do.

Boomers are also beginning to age out of leadership a little – they’re the newly or soon-to-be-newly retired, and they’re thinking this snowbird action is kinda cool. But many are in for the long haul – and, by the way, the preponderance of our ministers are still Boomers too. They are dominant … large and in charge.

GenX Leadership

This is the generation of the rising leaders. Some are already in places of leadership – the ministers and leaders in their 30s and 40s are Xers, and they’re shaking things up a bit.

Partly, they’re shaking things up in that instead of talking endlessly about ideas, or building coalitions around ideas, they’re implementing them. They don’t built task forces and committees –  this generation just doesn’t have that kind of time. Instead, they build short-term teams to tackle small (or sometimes large) projects. For example, after years of talking about how to approach our web presence and social media, it finally took a group of five Xers to tell the president and minister “we’re going to do it” and then…they did it. (Or, I should say, we did it, as I was the one gutsy enough to say we should go ahead.)

This generation also questions the status quo, which is likely full of processes and procedures and an (un)healthy dose of “we’ve always done it this way.” This both makes other generations nervous, and occasionally gets them into trouble. If ever there was a generation that believes “it is easier to ask forgiveness than seek permission” it is this one.

This generation is also a bit unsure about stepping into leadership. They feel like the Boomers are still in charge, and they don’t see themselves as being the great idealists their Boomer leaders are.  And yet, when they do take steps toward leadership, they find there’s a bit of relief from the burned-out Boomers and Silents, and of course, a lot to do.

At their best, GenX leaders execute great ideas with almost military precision – they are pragmatic and effectively use resources. (Note that some of the best military leaders – Washington, Patton, Eisenhower) were of the same Nomadic generational type.) At their worst, they charge ahead, full steam, sometimes to the determent of the relationships (feelings can get hurt when not everyone’s been properly consulted or has bought in).

Millennial Leadership

We’re just getting a sense of who this new generation will be as leaders – the oldest of them have not yet turned 30. But if they’re anything like previous Civic generations, they are the institution builders. They like to do things big, and do them together. As I’ve said before, this is the generational type who built the transcontinental railroad and the interstate highway system. They also built Levittowns and cookie-cutter schools, offices, and public buildings…sometimes believing to a fault that “if you build it, they will come.” Sometimes it is true – but sometimes we’re stuck with rather large assets that have become liabilities (from abandoned shopping malls to Robert Schuler’s Crystal Cathedral).

Already, we’re seeing rumbles from this rather large generation (to compare, there are 80 million Boomers, 44 million Xers, and 78 million Millennials). They don’t want to be sidelined, they want to be listened to. Just because their head is down texting doesn’t mean they’re ignoring the world. No, they’re connecting to their Facebook friends in California, and offering condolences to their online friends in Norway and planning their Unirondack reunion… and they’re looking at how we can build digital congregations and grow not just our individual congregations but our entire denomination.

So what does this mean in the boardroom?

What it means is NOT that one side is right and one is wrong – instead, it means is that it’s easier to understand why issues occur and how to maneuver around them when you have a sense of what’s driving a person’s particular leadership outlook. I’ll end this rather lengthy post with an anecdote, as an example of what happens when the generations collide:

A few years prior to the fateful event, a congregation had crafted a conflict resolution policy between members and friends of the congregation. It outlined how to handle conflict, who should be involved, and best practices. The author of the policy – a joyful but sometimes …forceful member of the congregation (a Boomer) – proposed that the policy be added to the personnel policy, that this particular procedure would work just as well for our growing staff and needed to be implemented without delay.

Unfortunately, there were many employment legalities that the policy did not cover, and the Personnel committee – almost entirely staffed by Silents – was sent to rewrite it. Meanwhile, the Treasurer, an Xer, carefully read the current personnel policy and found a grievance clause that would cover any conflict issues that arose.

Then Personnel came back with their amendments a couple of months and many meetings later, the existing grievance clause was shown, and an argument ensued.

The Silents said, “we have asked many people and sought several opinions, and looked at a number of different personnel policies, and really, it would keep peace, so what would it hurt to have this too?”
The Treasurer said “it’s redundant and incomplete” and the other Xers on the board wanted to just dump it, wondering why it was taking so long for something so unnecessary.

The Boomers – some of whom were in coalition with the policy author and others who were not, were battling between “he’s the expert, so we should have just listened to him in the first place” and “pass it so he’ll be mollified.”

The president – a Boomer – finally asked for the question to be called, seeing that this was not feeding the vision of a harmonious and effective board. For the first time in several years, a motion passed by only a slim margin (as opposed to the normally unanimous decisions this board makes). The Silents voted yea, the Xers voted nay, and the Boomers were split.

Was it a perfect solution? Is it a perfect policy? We’ll never know. But at least we have a sense of why the different factions acted as they did… and the president was better able to assign further projects and consider other actions in ways that would get the results he was seeking.

Next time, we’ll talk a bit about religious education.

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