Millennials have received a bad rap. The press and others believe millennials want something for nothing and have no work ethic. This myth has led many to believe that they cannot take criticism or lack the intestinal fortitude to serve in the Army. Like many generations before them, each have come with their own quirks and nuances. The Army magnifies these quirks, and unless properly identified and actioned, we risk dismissing the very leaders we are training to replace us one day.
The actual timeframe for when the millennial generation is widely debated and by no means standardized. Most things associated with millennials will not conform to a standard and that is okay. Just because they don’t think or act like you is no reason to shove them into a corner or push them out of the Army. As an all-volunteer Army fighting the longest wars to date in Afghanistan and Iraq, we cannot afford to dismiss an entire generation of leaders because they don’t think like us.
Here are 10 characteristics of military millennials that leaders need to understand as they engage and lead them:
- They are mostly in the rank window of E5-E6 and O2-O3.
- They joined the military after 9/11 and see the world through a lens that includes terrorism.
- They are the most technologically connected, but least socially communal group of people.
- Millennials understand that Russia and China are known for their recent Olympic games, not for being a “threat” we need to train to fight against.
- They are typically not interested in staying at one job for too long.
- They find it highly unlikely we will engage in another ground war similar to Desert Storm and more accepting of the type of war found in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
- They’re stuck between “being ready” for the next war and finding purpose in their everyday actions.
- Millennials have lived the predictable life of the “patch chart,” which helped families, friends and civilian employers, for Reserve and National Guard Soldiers, prepare and ramp up for combat.
- They find it hard to believe we are not doing more about Syria, ISIS or other transnational threats that we see every day on TV and the Internet.
- They do better knowing the “why” behind things and receiving accolades from their supervisors.
The most misunderstood characteristic of millennials is the question they commonly ask, “Why?” The word why can cause Generation X leaders to leap out of their chairs and harken back to the days when you didn’t ask that question and just did as you were told.
The military millennial is not trying to sound disrespectful, but rather gain a deeper understanding by discovering the root cause for the action. And not everything has to come with a “Why?”
Taking a hill, returning fire against an enemy ambush, are both examples of actions that don’t require subordinate buy-in and discussion. The problem arises when leaders treat every action as a “take the hill” moment and don’t allow the millennial junior leader the ability to provide their input or inquire why the specific action needs to be done a certain way. Remember, these leaders grew up in the counterinsurgency conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan and a simple action like “disarm the local militia” is extremely complex and requires constructive thinking. Asking “Why?” aides them in building their approach.
Generation Xer’s can shorten the gap between themselves and the millennials through an enhanced leader development program. Ditch the slide presentations and Gettysburg “staff rides” in favor of watching TED Talks, blog reading and publishing, and most importantly, sharing meals and experiences together. Here are some more ideas.
Millennials are well connected and grew up with technology. They thrive on using tools and resources they can access from their computers and smart phones. They also yearn to be brought out of their “comfort zone” through personal engagement sessions that break the barriers between generations.
Millennials are the future of the Army. Their characteristics make them who they are, and also shape the decisions and career paths they take. Stop defaulting to “let me tell you how the Army was before 9/11” or even worse “we need to go back to basics.” You will only alienate the generation that will one day replace you.
Questions for Leaders
- To what extend are you willing to leave your own generational perspective in order to understand that of your subordinates?
- In what situations could you give a Why but instead rely on rank or position to reinforce your guidance?
- Is connecting with your followers important enough to try to understand their generationally influenced attitudes, biases, and ways of thinking?
For a fantastic podcast episode on leading millennials, check out EntreLeadership’s Leading the Next Generation.