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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Huffington Post: The Millennials: Ready To Lead Now

From The Huffington Post, posted August 3, 2015

Many Baby Boomers look down on Millennials as over-protected, lazy, attention-seeking young kids who haven’t faced hardship.

They are dead wrong.

By 2020, Millennials — born between 1981 and 1997 — will make up 50 percent of the workforce. As their influence grows, we’ll see a generation more focused on authenticity, mindfulness, and learning through adversity. Millennials are ready to lead now. As they do, they’ll transform our ideas of leadership for the better.

Worried about Millennial leadership? Don’t be. More than any generation, Millennials are transforming our ideas about leadership, as they use their life stories to fuel their authentic purpose — their True North. They are highly collaborative, culturally competent, and celebrate diversity of gender, race, national origin and sexual preference. 70% of Millennials support same-sex marriage compared with 45 percent of Baby Boomers.

Lazy? Hardly. They are constant learners and the most educated generation ever. In the workplace, they are deadline-driven employees who get lots done in short periods. Growing up as digital natives, they are constantly connected and eager to learn new technologies. As social media experts, they are their organization’s megaphone to the new generation.

Attention-seeking? Not quite. Millennials have a deep passion for making a difference in the world. They seek careers where they can have immediate impact with emphasis on social good. No doubt they are impatient. Born into a world with instant communication, they want to have influence on those around them. Consequently, they are unwilling to tolerate bureaucracy. That’s why so many are starting their own businesses and nonprofit organizations.

Not everything is rosy for the Millennial generation. The profligacy of the Baby Boomers is saddling them with enormous debt and unfunded Social Security and Medicare obligations, as well as mountains of student debt. While Millennials are working more hours than any prior generation, their average earnings are the lowest since 1980.

The most prominent Millennial leader, Mark Zuckerberg, displays the wisdom and maturity we can expect of this generation. Zuckerberg founded Facebook at age 19; now at 31, he is already worth $35 billion. Older entrepreneurs have waited to give away their fortunes. Zuckerburg hasn’t. He and his wife Priscilla Chan have already made enormous charitable grants, such as $2.5 billion in Facebook stock to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, $100 million to Newark public schools and $75 million to San Francisco General Hospital. Millennials look up to him: a survey of Millennials named Zuckerberg as best representative of their generation.

Zuckerberg’s leadership mirrors that of Malala Yousafzai – the 18-year-old Pakistani woman who became the youngest Nobel Prize laureate. At the age of 12, Malala began writing about life with the Taliban. Three years later, an armed gunman boarded her school bus and shot her, grazing her forehead. After months of intensive care, she set out on a global campaign to improve female access to education.

This past winter I met Taylor Carol, a Harvard College student whose life story defines his mission. Upon meeting, Taylor seems like the all-American student: ingenuous, hardworking, and surrounded by friends. Then he tells you he was diagnosed with terminal cancer at age 11.

When a baseball injury didn’t heal, Taylor to a nearby hospital for testing. There a doctor told him he had a rare form of leukemia that doesn’t respond to normal treatments and had only two weeks to live. Unwilling to accept that diagnosis, his parents took him to Seattle Children’s Hospital for experimental treatment.

The next two years of Taylor’s life were as difficult as anyone can imagine: bone marrow transplant, weeks in complete isolation, and inability to eat, walk, or speak for extended periods. Most difficult of all was watching the death of his best friend, Christian. Taylor explained, “I was broken by Christian’s death. Why did he die and I lived?”

Facing hardship isn’t new to this generation, but their response is. Millennial leaders face life with what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset. They see crucibles as opportunities for post-traumatic growth (PTG) where they can embrace life’s uncertainties and use them for personal growth. 

Taylor used his experience in overcoming terminal cancer to develop his abilities as a singer/songwriter. He became National Spokesperson for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and helped raise $10 million. Having missed four years of school, he was advised to get a graduate equivalent degree (GED). Instead, he studied intensely and was accepted to Harvard College. Taylor is currently working in Los Angeles — singing, songwriting, and producing his first album.

Nadir Vissanjy overcame great difficulties just to graduate from college. Born in Lisbon, Portugal, he moved with his family to Central California at age nine. When his parents divorced, Nadir lost legal status in America and became undocumented. Since his mother worked in a convenience store, college wasn’t financially possible. In his senior year of high school, California passed the Dream Act, permitting undocumented children to pay in-state college tuition. Suddenly, Nadir’s life changed.

Inspired by this opportunity, Nadir has devoted his life to giving back. At Sonoma State, he became student body president, and was elected chairman of the California State Student Association. Graduating recently from MIT’s Sloan School and Harvard Kennedy School, he is returning to Oakland “to give back to the system that has given me so much.”

By embracing all aspects of their life stories, Millennial leaders are discovering their True North and acting on it to improve the world. Maybe it’s time for the Baby Boomers to step aside and turn over leadership to this remarkable new generation of leaders like Zuckerberg, Yousafzai, Carol, and Vissanjy.