by Allan Milham

“If you want to go fast, go alone; If you want to go far, go together.”

More than one-in-three American employees are millennials, making them the largest generation in the U.S. labor force. Even before COVID-19, millennials were compelling real change in corporate America’s recruitment and retention strategies; now, in the wake of the pandemic, the impetus for radical change is stronger than ever.

In stark contrast to the traditionalist “company men” and “company women” who preceded them, millennials approach work as an experience; for them, jobs are opportunities to learn, experiment, and make a difference in the world. For the generations that preceded millennials, especially the baby boomers, it was not uncommon to sacrifice marriages, families, and even personal health for the opportunity to climb higher on the same ladder.

In short, whereas older generations lived to work, millennials work to live.

Compounding the millennial “self-interest” is the fact that today, more than any other time in history, people have more choices for how and where they work. Especially in the “new normal” post-COVID world–where permanent remote work opportunities allow people to work almost anywhere–it’s more important than ever that leaders know how to create the types of environments millennials and younger workers increasingly demand.

Millennials want to be measured by their impact, not their timesheets. They want to feel empowered to take risks, ask questions, and challenge the status quo. They want to be inspired with the power of possibility, rather than the fear of failure. They want their leaders to be as open, creative, and insatiably curious as they are. In short, they want the collaborative and empowering environment that Learner leaders provide, and they won’t settle for anything less.

Now, what is a Learner leader?

In my book with co-author Guy Parsons, Out of the Question: How Curious Leaders Win, we point out how effective new-age leadership is defined by openness, vulnerability, and curiosity, as demonstrated by the archetypal sage or guide (“Learner”). Contrasting the Learner is the all-seeing, all-knowing, hard-nosed autocrat who resembles, in both temperament and personality, the archetypal ruler or general (“Knower”).

Knowers derive their strength and authority from their title, degree, tenure, or experience, allowing their accolades and background to speak for itself more than their actions. They justify themselves being in a position to tell other people what to do. They tend to be militaristic micromanagers who give step-by-step instructions. Knowers instill a sense of urgency and typically use fear to produce results. And from a strategy and planning perspective, because they “know it all,” Knowers tell rather than ask where the team or organization is heading.

The Knower leadership principle is a relic of old-school management theories that centered on employees showing up to work, punching in, and completing tasks. The individuals who produced the best results would move up from being sole contributors to supervisors then into managerial roles; for many, this was (and still is) their introduction to leadership. Of course, as any student of leadership knows, managing is not the same as leading–but then again, most Knower leaders aren’t naturally self-aware, self-developing students of leadership.

Learners, in stark contrast, derive their authority by fostering collaboration. They bring people in and tap the collective creativity and knowledge of the people around them to set goals and drive strategy. Learners operate with openness and creativity, often giving people a framework for finding an ideal path rather than hard-and-fast instructions. And, in what may be the biggest deviation from the Knower types, Learners don’t pretend to have all of the answers but are secure enough to say, I don’t know the answer but we’re going to find out, together.

It’s important to understand that the Knower-Learner framework represents a spectrum of leadership personalities and characteristics. No one is completely attached or fixed to either end of the spectrum; people fall anywhere along this spectrum, even somewhere in the middle, and many drift between the two poles either in response to stimuli or as different situations arise that require different leadership approaches and styles.

What I’m suggesting is that by shifting your central operating axis toward the Learner side of the spectrum, or at least recognizing those attributes so you can tap into the Learner mindset more often and more quickly for better results, you can become a more effective leader than someone whose default mode skews more heavily on the Knower side of the spectrum.

Herein lies the opportunity for old dogs to learn new tricks.

By adopting an attitude of curiosity and exploration, the command-and-control types can elevate their leadership style to meet the demands of today’s and tomorrow’s young workforce. In doing so, the self-aware leader will be capable of engaging the people around them to solve big problems with creative solutions–which means greater individual and collective success for everyone.

Depending on your default leadership style, orienting yourself more as a Learner and less as a Knower can take some time and self-work, but doing so can greatly help you reach your highest potential. If you’d like to begin the journey of self-discovery and self-improvement on the way to becoming a more impactful leader, Questage can help.

We work with emerging leaders, senior and C-suite executives to elevate their leadership impact and potential. Send me a message or request a discovery call to learn how I can help you generate enhanced success as a leader.

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