Soft Leadership for Millennials

By M.S. Rao

The purpose of this article is to explore soft leadership to meet the rising expectations of the millennials globally. It unfolds the attitudes and actions of millennials who are often misunderstood globally for their personality and behavior. It debunks myths about millennials with truths. It underscores their challenges and expectations, and compares and contrasts with other generations. It offers tools and techniques to inspire and engage millennials globally, and explains the role of CEOs and leaders to bridge the generational differences. It concludes to celebrate the generational differences to achieve organisational excellence and effectiveness. 


“I do not write for this generation. I am writing for other ages. If this could read me, they would burn my books, the work of my whole life. On the other hand, the generation which interprets these writings will be an educated generation; they will understand me and say: ‘Not all were asleep in the nighttime of our grandparents’.”  – Jose Rizal



Globally the population of the millennials is growing rapidly. A study shows that by 2020, millennials will be approximately 50 percent of the U.S. workforce, and by 2030, 75 percent of the global workforce. It throws challenges and opportunities for organisations globally. The opportunities outnumber the challenges because millennials are responsible and committed to advance their professional careers. They have an open mind to learn and grow and add value to their organisations and society as a whole.

Who are Millennials?

Millennials are the people born between 1980 and 2000. They are also known as Generation Y, Generation Me, Nexters, Baby Boom Echo Generation, Echo Boomers, Digital Natives, and Generation Next. They are the demographic cohort following Generation X. They are ambitious, smart, brilliant and technologically savvy. They belong to a different school of thought, unlike older generations. Their mindset is unique, the toolset is rapid, and skill set is advanced. Precisely, they are a different breed. They bring unique ideas and insights irrespective of the industry and area they enter into. They are often criticised as impatient and are overambitious to make money. They are also criticised for being indifferent with the older generations in the workplace.

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Research Findings on Millennials

Millennials want a flexible approach to work, but very regular feedback and encouragement. They want to feel their work is worthwhile and that their efforts are being recognised. And they value similar things in an employer brand as they do in a consumer brand.

Millennials1 matter because they are not only different from those that have gone before, they are also more numerous than any since the soon-to-retire Baby Boomer generation – millennials already form 25% of the workforce in the US and account for over half of the population in India. By 2020, millennials will form 50% of the global workforce. 

A study2 unfolds that millennials want a flexible approach to work, but very regular feedback and encouragement. They want to feel their work is worthwhile and that their efforts are being recognised. And they value similar things in an employer brand as they do in a consumer brand. 

With immigration adding more numbers to its group than any other, the Millennial population3 is projected to peak in 2036 at 81.1 million. Thereafter the oldest Millennial will be at least 56 years of age and mortality is projected to outweigh net immigration. By 2050 there will be a projected 79.2 million Millennials. 


Myths and Truths about Millennials

“Millennials are often portrayed as apathetic, disinterested, tuned out and selfish. None of those adjectives describe the Millennials I’ve been privileged to meet and work with.” – Chelsea Clinton


There are several myths associated with millennials globally. Here are some myths and truths about them: 

• Myth #1: Millennials are selfish.

Truth: The truth is that millennials are engaged with their professional advancement. But they are equally keen to serve others through nonprofits.

• Myth #2: Millennials are after money and power. 

Truth: The older generation traded their happiness and passion for a big fat paycheck. However, the millennials are willing to settle with smaller paychecks. They are after career advancement and growth. They search for meaning than money. Hence, they emphasise work-life balance.

• Myth #3: Millennials are lazy.

Truth: Millennials are misunderstood as lazy. They believe more in smart work than in hard work, unlike other generations. 

• Myth #4: Millennials have a rebellious attitude.

Truth: Millennials fight against wrong systems and structures. They don’t hesitate to correct irregularities. That doesn’t mean that they are rebellious. They are unconventional with their unique ideas and insights. Hence, it might appear that they are rebels for older generations.

• Myth #5: Millennials are rights-oriented, not duty-oriented. 

Truth: Millennials’ attitudes and actions often demonstrate that they are more rights-oriented. The truth is that they are committed and responsible. They don’t want to become a burden to their parents. They want to live independently with freedom and dignity. At the workplace, they like to be treated fairly and ethically. They are very much aware that they can claim their rights only when they deliver their duties sincerely. 

• Myth #6: Millennials are immature with a wavering mind. 

Truth: Millennials are very much mature with a clear focus on their goals and objectives. They focus only on a few areas and work on them smartly. They are more mature and much smarter than their previous generations.

• Myth #7: Millennials have low commitment levels.

Truth: Millennials are highly committed to their causes. They focus on a few causes and work on them rather than spread their wings in all areas. They are narrowly focused but highly committed.

• Myth #8: Millennials are risk-averse. 

Truth: Millennials are willing to take risks and experiment. They want to go by the road less traveled to stand out from others. 

• Myth #9: Millennials are disrespectful toward others.

Truth: Millennials believe in the slogan of ‘give respect and take respect.’ They want more freedom and think independently. At times Gen X and Baby Boomers feel that they are not respected by millennials.

• Myth #10: Millennials are competitive by nature.

Truth: The truth is that millennials are cooperative, and collaborate with others, unlike earlier generations who emphasised competition.

• Myth #11: Millennials lack loyalty. 

Truth: Millennials are loyal to their industries and areas rather than to their organisations. They job hop. They strongly believe that there is no permanent employment but only permanent employability in the world.

• Myth #12: Millennials are difficult to manage.

Truth: It is easy to manage and lead millennials provided the leaders and older generations understand and appreciate their expectations and aspirations. The leaders must apply different strokes for millennials, as the conventional leadership styles may not work.

• Myth #13: Millennials want to become bosses. 

Truth: Millennials are keen to upgrade their knowledge, skills, and abilities regularly. They want to become partners for progress than to become bosses and leaders.

• Myth #14: Millennials are part of the problem, not the solution

Truth: Majority of the millennials are willing to resolve the issues. They are part of the solution, not the problem. They explore ways and means to resolve vexing issues rather than brooding over them. They don’t blame the circumstances and the people around them. They take responsibility and are troubleshooters.  It is rightly said that the below average people talk about individuals, average people talk about issues, and above average people talk about ideas. Most millennials fall in the bracket of above average people.

Millennials are the most technologically savvy and educated generation to enter the workforce. They are responsible and committed. They have short-term goals and expect quick outcomes. They want to have more privacy and freedom. They want to take career breaks to go on sabbatical. They live for today, not tomorrow. They believe in the philosophy of YOLO – You Only Live Once. They are risk takers and experiment with new things. They are choosy about their careers and the nature of work. They love to work with freedom, accept challenging roles and responsibilities, and experiment with new tasks. They like to work with leaders who are transparent, ethical and fair. They prefer working with leaders who are hardworking, competent, determined, and accountable for their actions. They want to work in flat and lean organisations. They accept the tasks that give them a sense of purpose and direction to provide meaning to their professional lives. They want to learn, unlearn and relearn. They want to excel as knowledge experts and leaders in their domains and industries. They are highly ambitious and aspire to make a difference to society. They are keen to build their leadership brand and share their leadership philosophy.


Expectations of Millennials

“They (Millennials) are more free-spirited. They enjoy outdoor recreation, the environment and are health-oriented. It’s about being able to communicate what we have to resonate with them. Hopefully, speak to them in their language as opposed to the language of the past.” – Jan Rogers, former SIEDO director 

Millennials must be valued for their work and contribution. They enjoy working in a challenging work environment to widen their experience and increase their skills, abilities, and knowledge. They prefer non-financial incentives to financial incentives including job rotation, job enrichment and flexible working hours. They are keen to travel the globe on work assignments. They appreciate overseas assignments in their early careers. They enjoy working in a good organisational environment with friendly colleagues. They prefer to work in teams and collaborate with others. They want to work with mentors and coaches who can guide and groom them as leaders. They want quick career progression to reach senior leadership positions. They must feel that their workplace is their second home.

Globally millennials are unbelievably diverse in their opinions and actions. The research findings of their attitudes and actions vary from nation to nation. Hence, it is ideal to gauge their aspirations regionally and nationally to cater to their needs.


Tools and Techniques to Inspire and Engage Millennials Effectively

Here are some tools and techniques to inspire and engage millennials in the workplace to achieve better productivity and performance: 

Understand their psychology, aspirations, and expectations. 

Give them the freedom to explore and experiment.  

Offer challenging assignments. 

Avoid micromanagement. 

Provide flexible working hours. 

Rotate them on the job. 

Offer global assignments in their early careers as most of them are keen to travel globally. 

Provide honest feedback. 

Encourage learning and development to update their knowledge, skills, and abilities. 

Build a corporate lattice, not a corporate ladder. Traditional corporate ladder is to climb up step by step whereas corporate lattice is to climb the career in different networks that need not to be vertical always.


The Role of CEOs to Bridge the Generational Differences 

Millennials emphasise more on ends, not means. They look for outcomes, not actions. How you achieve the success doesn’t matter to them. What matters to them is achieving success at any cost. This attitude and approach are not appreciated by the older generations resulting in conflicts in values and ethics. 

Millennials emphasise more on ends, not means. They look for outcomes, not actions. How you achieve the success doesn’t matter to them.

The CEOs and senior leaders must find out ways and means to lead millennials as their attitudes and expectations are different. They must foresee that millennials will dominate the global workforce, and are on the prowl to take on other generations. At times older generations feel insecure about the ability, capability, and adaptability of millennials. Of course, it is not a new phenomenon as there is always a divide between various generations. However, the gap between millennials and other generations is wide due to the rapid growth in technology resulting in different value and core system. There are conflicts between generations due to ego and value system. Hence, CEOs and senior leaders must take a serious note of the prevailing challenges to bridge the generational gap. 


Soft Leadership for Millennials

“We are taught to think that if something has been a certain way for very long, there’s a possibility that it’s no longer good enough.” – Caleb Melby


Currently, a few millennials manage earlier generations in some global organisations. At times, there are conflicts between these generations. Hence, it is essential to manage these generations with empathy and communication. It calls for a different leadership style that can bridge the generational differences.  

Leadership is the passion to teach others with experience and the ability to offer guidance to achieve organisational goals and objectives. It is essential for the leaders to evolve new leadership style as the technology and culture are changing globally. 

According to Psychology Today, millennials are more genuine. They thrive on being judged by their performance, and they respect those with experience rather than power. They prefer “inclusive” leadership styles –bosses that appreciate them for their hard work (no brown-nosing needed). Hence, millennials are craving for a leadership style that suits their attitudes and expectations. They want to add value to their CVs than to their organisations. They want to work for themselves than for others. They want to become employers than employees. They appreciate ethical, open, transparent, transformational, and inclusive leadership style. Since soft leadership shells out such aspects, it will suit their attitudes and actions. We can explore soft leadership which believes in partnership rather than in the leader-follower relationship. Additionally, millennials understand the importance of soft skills over hard skills to grow as successful leaders. They appreciate transformational and democratic leadership over autocratic leadership. They want to be part of the decision-making process. Hence, soft leadership which is a relationship leadership suits their attitudes and expectations.



“Compared to other generations, millennials tend to be more collaborative, are accustomed to working in teams & have a passion for pressure.”  –  Joanie Connell, Flying Without a Helicopter: How to Prepare Young People for Work and Life

It is a fact that people cannot be different altogether just because they are born in specific years. When these people get older they may show more or less similar traits like the older generations. For instance, millennials show some qualities which may have been shown by other generations when they were young. Only thing is that technology, education, and environment have brought some changes resulting in different attitudes and actions in millennials.  

It is rightly remarked, “A new broom sweeps better. But an old broom knows all the corners.” Hence, millennials must respect the experience and expertise of the older generations by bringing synergy in the workplace. 

There are strengths and weaknesses associated with each generation. Just because of a few weaknesses, we cannot brand a specific generation as bad; and just because of a few strengths, we cannot brand a specific generation as good.

There are several millennials including Mark Zuckerberg, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jenna Marbles succeeded in their lives. And their success rate is growing globally because they go by the road less traveled.  They also admire several leaders irrespective of generations – Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk.

To summarise, there are strengths and weaknesses associated with each generation. Just because of a few weaknesses, we cannot brand a specific generation as bad; and just because of a few strengths, we cannot brand a specific generation as good. To conclude, let us celebrate the generational differences as these differences lead to innovation to beat the competition. It ultimately leads to organisational excellence and effectiveness. 

“There is no envy, jealousy, or hatred between the different colors of the rainbow. And no fear either. Because each one exists to make the others’ love more beautiful.”  – Aberjhani 

Note: This article is an adapted excerpt from my book, “Soft Leadership: A New Direction to Leadership”


About the Author

Professor M.S. Rao, Ph.D. is the father of “Soft Leadership” and founder of MSR Leadership Consultants, India. He is an International Leadership Guru with 38 years of experience and the author of over 45 books including the award-winning ‘21 Success Sutras for CEOs’.1 Most of his work is available free of charge on his four blogs including He is also a dynamic, energetic, and inspirational leadership speaker. 

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