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Shutdown shows difference of generational leadership style

Minnesota’s shutdown truly became intergenerational this week with the addition of the “Wisemen.” It is important that we, as Minnesotans, recognize the stylistic differences that define each generation and how they have a direct impact on what we are experiencing.

Just as businesses, families and communities have to align the needs of these generations with the talents, treasures and energy each can offer, we are well served to think about what kind of leadership style and balance best serves the state now and in the future.

Volumes have been written about how to manage generations in the workplace and the vast differences in leadership style of the Traditionals (born 1922-1945), the Baby Boom (1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1980) and the Millennials (1981-2000). Organizations prepare themselves daily for the nuances this mix brings.

Generational styles
It is said that the Traditionals (former Vice President Walter Mondale, former Gov. Arne Carlson and former Sen. Dave Durenberger) exude a powerful work ethic and willingness to invest. Whether industry or civic structure, Minnesota’s growth and vitality owes much to this generation.

Baby Boomers are described as highly competitive. Gov. Mark Dayton, Rep. Tom Bakk and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty are Boomers. Dayton, as a candidate, competed tirelessly within his own party to win the primary election in 2010. Pawlenty, in his most recent presidential YouTube ad, boasts of his gubernatorial record with Winner Take All pride. Sen. Geoff Michel straddles the generational divide between the Boomers and the Xers, making him a “cusper” – capable of seeing strengths and strategies of two generations.

Generation X dominates the leadership positions of the Minnesota House and Senate. A heavily studied generation, X focuses on outcomes, not necessarily processes, and share a sense of urgency for action with the Millennials. Bruce Tulgan, in “Managing Generation X” (2000), describes Xers as loyal to their own career goals, not the organization or the job. Their pursuit of control, as described in numerous books, stems back to their latch-key upbringing and hardened sense of independence. “Just tell me what to do and when you want it done. I’ll do it.”

Minnesota Millennials are a generation just beginning to be represented in the Legislature in 2011. Sen. Jeremy Miller of Winona is the first and only Millennial to serve. His generation’s size is closer to the Baby Boom’s than Generation X’s, in part due to the sheer number of people born within a longer segment of time.

When policymakers wring their hands about the future debt being left to Minnesotans, the Millennials stand to bear the economic brunt. Millennials are described as highly collaborative and optimistic, and recognize that their lives to date and into the future are closely connected to teams and their families. Millennials, many of whom graduate from college and move home with Baby Boom parents, are known for getting along well with Baby Boomers in the workplace, once understanding and respect has been established.

Generational tactics
Players actively involved in Minnesota’s budget standoff bring fascinating attributes and motivations to the table. Yet on the table right now is the Legislature’s highly all-or-nothing line in the sand, a leftover from the Pawlenty administration. Is it competitive, like Baby Boomer Pawlenty, or is it controlling, and thus a harbinger of what we can come to expect of Gen X leadership in government?

Dayton repeatedly states his willingness to find compromise. Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch and House Speaker Kurt Zellers, with careers ahead of them and half the state’s voters in the Generation X and Millennial categories, are smart, strategic and interested in the economic results that a smaller government can bring to the state’s economy.

The shutdown is premised on a host of absolutes, not the budget’s outcome. Regardless of one’s generation, a politician’s future is based on the outcomes of a better daily life in Minnesota no matter how hard or complicated decision-making during a deep recession can be.

Missed opportunity
Is this a missed opportunity for a new generation to truly lead? Millennials and Xers in every sector are gaining footholds in leading change, and they hold that expectation of peers. Generational values and traits are not universal, but an elected official hopes to earn and retain the trust of generational peers, a connection based on shared experience, language and vision for the future.

From the Millennials’ perspective, it might feel like the grandpas have come in to once again set the family straight. Traditional and Boomer voters may well view the shutdown as proof that Gen X is too rigid and controlling to lead Minnesota.

Cynthia Bemis Abrams of Bloomington is president of a leadership and public-relations firm that bears her name. She offers a leadership training series, “Leading in the Public Sector,” that focuses on generations, values and communications.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Michelle Farrell Thorson on 07/08/2011 - 10:49 am.

    I’ve read a fair amount about generational differences & you hit it spot on.

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 07/08/2011 - 06:31 pm.

    Very well said, Cynthia, but I can’t help but wonder, as well, if there isn’t a faith dimension to these issues.

    If I’m not mistaken, X’er’s were the first modern generation to grow up with exposure to and membership in fundamentalist “mega” churches which used popular music to draw kids in,…

    Then preached to them a gospel which said that all they had to do was PRAISE JESUS enough and Jesus (God seems to be retired and playing golf in Palm Springs?) would reward them with wealth, health and long life, with no requirement nor even encouragement to follow in Jesus’ footsteps by actually approaching your friends and neighbors the way he did, nor helping them in any way.

    In other words their very church experience was all about “I, me, mine,” and kissing up to Jesus to get ahead, which is far too easily generalized to kissing up to Grover Norquist, Tony Sutton, etc., very much UNlike their parents’ faith experiences which tended to run along the lines of shared responsibility and looking out for one’s neighbors, especially those less fortunate than ourselves.

  3. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 07/09/2011 - 03:04 pm.

    I think Gregg Kappahan is onto something here.

    I really have to wonder about the megachurches. Having seen a fair amount of mainline church politics from the inside, I know that it takes a lot of time and patience to build up a new church in the suburbs. Mainline churches and non-political evangelical churches typically start small with modest facilities.

    Yet the very megachurches that preach right-wing politics are the ones that spring up seemingly overnight with a full range of facilities for worship and socializing.

    I have to wonder if the same people and foundations who fund the Institute for Religion and Democracy (which tries to promote right-wing policies in more liberal denominations) are also sponsoring the megachurches, which are frequently headed by self-ordained “ministers” recognized by no denomination. Some enterprising reporter could have fun with this question.

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