Hope for the Holidays

Post Co-Written By John Coleman and Bill George.

The recent Occupy Wall Street protests are only the latest of a series of global movements carried out by those who have grown cynical about leadership in business, government, and society.

There is reason for this cynicism. The twenty-first century has been rocked by scandals and failures of leaders in the baby boomer generation. In business, companies like Enron and individuals like Bernard Madoff have broken laws and violated trust. In 2008 financial markets melted down, triggering the Great Recession and costing millions of people their jobs. Governments have failed to demonstrate fiscal responsibility, creating trillions in debt and stifling global growth.

After a decade of problems, it’s not hard to see why people take to the streets or grow distrustful of those who bear responsibility for the troubles we face and who have too often put their self-interest ahead of their institutions.

But while senior leaders have often failed to fulfill their responsibilities, we see many hopeful signs that the Gen X and millennial generations have learned from these failures and are prepared to step up their leadership in these trying times.

According to a recent survey of 500 young MBAs from top business schools:

  • The emerging generation is actively thinking about its responsibilities and taking on leadership roles. Eighty percent believe their generation views leadership entirely different than previous generation.
  • They’re globally minded. On average, MBAs worked in four countries prior to graduate school; and planned to work in five more within ten years of graduation.
  • They want an open workplace that is inclusive of everyone, regardless of gender, race, national origin or sexual preference. Ninety-two percent believe workplace diversity leads to better business outcomes.
  • They are highly effective at navigating an interconnected world where leaders from multiple sectors collaborate to achieve lasting solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Eighty-four percent believe it is essential for business leaders to understand the public and non-profit sectors. Nearly a quarter of them worked in the public sector prior to entering their MBA programs, and thirty percent have already worked in the non-profit sector.

We’ve gotten to know many of these emerging leaders and find their life stories are truly inspiring:

  • Wendy Kopp founded Teach For America shortly after graduating from Princeton, creating the most significant innovation in public education in thirty years. Teach for America has become a prized job for graduating college seniors at leading universities like Harvard, Virginia, and Yale. Though no longer in her 30s, Mrs. Kopp set the stage for other young leaders seeking impact. 
  • While a college student at North Carolina, Rye Barcott founded the non-profit Carolina for Kibera, fostering healthcare and development in the slums of Kibera, Kenya. Then he built his organization even while serving as a Marine captain in Iraq, Bosnia, and the Horn of Africa.
  • Umaimah Mendhro fled Pakistan as a young girl, but returned after rising through the ranks at Microsoft to build schools in the rural areas near her hometown. 
  • Andy Goodman so enjoyed his time as a debater at Oxford that he dedicated himself to building Qatar’s first debate system, working with the leaders of that country to give students an opportunity to engage the country’s most important issues in free and open dialogue.
  • Building on the year she spent working in Brazil following high school, Abigail Falik founded Global Citizen Year – which offers graduating high school seniors a gap year to engage in service learning and leadership development in a foreign country prior to entering college.

Far from unique, these leaders are typical of the many people in their 20s and 30s we have worked with. Many young leaders are consciously building careers that combine both innovation and social good, while working tirelessly to have a positive impact on this critical moment in the world’s history.

The holidays can be a confusing time. With 24/7 media outlets relentlessly pursuing negative stories, it is tempting to be pessimistic about the coming year. But we think there are signs that the next generation of leaders has learned from these crises. No doubt the road ahead will be filled with challenges and pitfalls, but, with help, we believe these emerging leaders will replace cynicism with hope, callousness with compassion, and destructive self-interest with creation of societal gains. 

The time is ripe for the baby boomer leaders to begin providing opportunities to this new generation of young leaders to demonstrate just how effective their kind of authentic, collaborative leadership can be. And perhaps the pessimism of 2011 can turn into a bit of hope for the new year. 

Bill George is professor of management practice at Harvard Business School and the author of five books including True North and True North Groups. John Coleman is an author of Passion and Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business leaders.