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How Millennials Are Teaching Us to Lead

Excerpt from "Leadership's Perfect Storm: What Millennials Are Teaching Us about Possibilities, Passion and Purpose" by Susan Inouye.

With a worldview radically different from their forebears, millennials are changing the ways we approach our lives and our work—including how we learn and how we lead.

By challenging the status quo, this generation of disrupters, without necessarily even knowing it, is pushing us to learn in ways we never envisioned or wished for—learning that’s in sync with the twenty-first century. Think about it. As parents, we learn from our kids, especially when they surprise us with unexpected behaviors. As teachers, we learn from our students, especially from their questions and reactions. As managers and would-be leaders, we learn about ourselves when challenged by the mindsets that Gen Y and Gen Z bring to the workplace. Reflect on a time at work when you experienced personal growth. I’ll wager it wasn’t when you tried to fix others; on the contrary, it was probably when you were open to learning from someone else. In fact, those who challenge us most teach us the most.

Gen Y, in its unique way, is questioning much about the way business gets done and, in doing so, teaching us to be better leaders and better people. Through their career choices (and their political choices), millennials are demonstrating who they will follow and how they themselves will lead. Whether we like it, young people are forcing an evolution in leadership, fueled by one of the most consequential cultural shifts in history. Millennials are the first generation that has not had to go through authority to get information. This is big! This great shift in how we learn is reshaping power dynamics in the home, the classroom, and the workplace. With a few clicks, the world opens. Withholding or providing information—once a powerful tool for a boss to get what they wanted from their people—no longer carries the same weight. Younger generations do not want to hear a lecture if they can learn something in minutes with a Google search or a YouTube video. Rapid change and constant innovation have made young people more expert than their elders in many areas; thus, hierarchical positions and tenure on the job have crumbled as pillars of respect. To gain the trust and respect of the most talented workers of younger generations, leaders will have to redefine authority from that which is given by title to that which is authored by an updated set of leadership skills—characterized by the ability to see the gifts or genius in each person and mentor their manifestations in the workplace.

Discontent with the status quo, Gen Y is pushing its leaders to evolve. And that’s good news for business. In a fast-paced world where what’s new today is outdated tomorrow, companies stay ahead of the curve not by being on the cutting edge but by redefining the edge. Today’s leaders know they cannot anticipate what’s around the corner or create the next best thing alone. They need their employees to be innovative and to exercise vision and foresight, capabilities once expected only from senior levels. By learning how to develop leadership capabilities in their people at all levels, leaders direct many eyes outward to see new possibilities and stimulate many minds to generate innovative ideas. One of the most powerful ways to unleash ideas, energy, and teamwork is to align every employee’s vision for their life with the company’s mission; doing so takes more than simply teaching the mission to an employee, especially, if that employee is a millennial. Lectures and job descriptions are not enough to unleash talent-driven, purpose-inspired actions. Profound engagement comes when leaders tap into and develop the full capabilities of each individual on the team. Millennials want bosses who can create unified communities where their talents can be tapped to solve the challenges of the twenty-first century.

Sawubona (sow-BOH-nah) Leaders answer that call. Sawubona Leadership is a seemingly simple yet profoundly impactful way of engaging others. It compels employees to be driven from within to achieve the organization’s mission and to unite behind its success. Unlike leadership approaches that tell you how to get employees to be their best self, Sawubona Leadership starts by recognizing that people already are their best self. Sawubona Leaders see each person as intrinsically gifted in the way that they are; they develop the whole person and create the opportunities and culture for each to live up to their highest potential. By serving a person’s highest purpose, Sawubona Leaders unleash an inner drive; employees choose to go beyond what is expected; they invest in themselves, their work, and their organizations. Sawubona communities strive to achieve a greater good and are committed to changing the world for the better.

Sawubona Leadership was born in an unlikely place. It’s not an academic theory based on research. It didn’t emerge as an attempt to create a consulting concept positioned as groundbreaking advice. Sawubona Leadership emerged at Youth Mentoring Connection (YMC), a nonprofit organization that has worked with inner-city millennials in Los Angeles, California, for over fifteen years. Because YMC’s methods have transformed and saved thousands of young lives, global leaders and educators have sought out and incorporated its approach to help transform at-risk youth in over thirty countries.

“Wait a minute,” you might be saying. “What do underprivileged youth have in common with aspiring business managers?” As an executive coach, I had the same question when one of my business colleagues insisted I meet Tony LoRe at Youth Mentoring Connection. What I observed and learned there opened me in ways that I never imagined possible.

I visited a gathering of mentors and mentees where Tony opened with the Zulu greeting, “Sawubona,” which means “I see you,” and the group replied “Yebo [YEH-bo] Sawubona,” which means “I see you seeing me.” This verbal exchange is about seeing beyond a person’s physical being into the heart of who they are. It’s about seeing and accepting the whole person. And it’s about the trust that is engendered by that simple act of seeing. As I witnessed the sense of purpose and community at YMC, I thought about the business world in which I was engaged.

Sometimes, being immersed in a new situation strips off our blinders. By looking at one discipline from the perspective of another, we can gain new insights; fresh thinking can lead to innovative methods and unexpected outcomes. Experiencing Sawubona did that for me. I wondered, could this philosophy be taken into corporate America to help leaders achieve results with their millennials? Thus began my journey with Tony LoRe. This surprising cross-disciplinary exploration brought together the world of troubled youth with the world of beleaguered executives (and eventually brought Tony and me together as husband and wife). What started as an intuitive way of guiding young people became a transformational method of developing twenty-first century leaders. We now call this approach Sawubona Leadership.

In addition to Tony’s work, I have drawn heavily from two rapidly evolving  disciplines—the field of leadership and research in neuroscience. Changing workforce dynamics have spawned a host of approaches that challenge the management methods of the twentieth century, including command-and-control. Among these recognized approaches are Situational Leadership, Tribal Leadership, and Strength-Based Leadership. Sawubona Leadership rides on these philosophies while evolving imaginatively to recognize the pressures that leaders are facing from millennials and that businesses face in the twenty-first century. Sawubona Leadership is also grounded in recent discoveries in neuroscience, a discipline that opens new possibilities to tap into more of our innate intelligences.

Sawubona Leadership can be a company’s competitive edge. Its uniqueness lies in the capacity to unify, even where differences threaten to pull us apart. Sawubona Leaders see youthful energy and enthusiasm as something to guide and nurture, rather than control. Without squashing motivation, they redirect energy into engagement and focused productivity that raise the chances of success. Capable of seeing the positive and negative, Sawubona Leaders appreciate the good that is there but are not afraid to step into healthy conflict as a creative force for change and innovation. Sawubona Leaders unite what we do with who we are, so that we can live our full potential; they align an employee’s personal sense of purpose with the company’s greater good, so individuals can pursue the vision for their life through day-to-day work.

Younger generations are pushing society into new social awareness. For example, Brian Chesky, the millennial co-founder and CEO at Airbnb, has said, “The stuff that matters in life is no longer stuff. It’s other people. It’s relationships. It’s experience. . . . I think that [the American] dream is completely changing. We were taught to keep up with the Joneses. Now we’re sharing with the Joneses.” Millennials have a new American Dream, a you-and-me world where all of us matter and each of us counts. Growing up, they saw the world flatten before them. Barriers have fallen under pressure from globalization, the push for greater gender and social equality, a surge in entrepreneurship, and the reach of the World Wide Web. Young people want to make the world a better place. They want to be part of a meaningful cause. Unlike prior generations who were told, “Work hard, and get a good job,” millennials have been told, “Go for your dreams!” and “Find your passion!” Millennials want to live fully now and find joy in what they do today. They seek passion over possessions. Some, including Brian Chesky, leave secure employment to apply their passions to their dreams. But others, if fully engaged, can bring their passions to your enterprise. Aligned with your mission, they can collaborate and partner in achieving your goals while realizing their own.

For the past twenty years, I’ve worked with executives from over six hundred companies, representing forty industries. Together, we’ve achieved positive impact in their organizations through turnarounds, cultural transformations, higher productivity, and increased profitability. Yet, it wasn’t until I integrated Sawubona into my work and my life that I observed the most profound and long-term change in my leaders and their people. Those changes were especially notable when millennials were part of the relationship.

Sawubona Leadership started with one man’s vision to help a population of at-risk youth who had been forgotten; he chose to give them, in his words, “a better gang to belong to.” His transformational outcomes inspired me to incorporate his methods into the business world. During the past ten years, I discovered that the gap between the inner city and the boardroom was not so great after all. Whether in the ghetto or the executive suite, Sawubona Leaders unify. They unify themselves, they help others tap into their whole potential, and they align individuals into communities with purpose. They lead, not by pulling their people forward or inspiring their people to pull them forward but by walking side by side in a meaningful direction.

We shall explore the power of Sawubona Leadership to connect bosses with their teams in ways that generate positive results and unleash the possibilities of the dynamic twenty-first century. At the same time, Sawubona transcends the workplace to be a source of unity in a divided world. Sawubona is not just a way of leading but also a way of living. Born out of the disruption of a generation that insists on doing things differently, Sawubona Leadership can transform livelihoods and lives in this century and beyond. Sawubona changes one life at a time; it has aligned me with my passion and energized my purpose to create a you-and-me world. What will it make possible for you?

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