January 05, 2008

Emerging Leaders and the Obama Phenomenon

Barack Obama´s stunning victory in Iowa reveals what many of us have recognized for some time: Gen X and Y are tired of the worn-out promises of the Baby Boomers. How many of you enjoy watching debates between eight older white men, lined up on the stage in dark suits and white shirts, offering the same old bromides?

Obama´s win in Iowa, driven by a huge turnout among young voters, symbolizes the desire of younger generations for authentic leadership in this nation and the world. As Obama said in his victory speech, “It is not about red states or blue states, but the United States.” One of my greatest hopes would be to see his kind of authentic leadership spread around the globe, so we can begin to solve global problems, such as the environment, poverty, education, health care, and peace.

Having spent the last six years in MBA classrooms, it is clear to me that the new generation of emerging leaders is ready to cast off the boomers in favor of one of their own. Whether or not his candidacy is successful, Obama represents that force. Whereas veiled and explicit prejudice against Hispanic immigrants, gays, Muslims, Mormons, Jews, and even assertive females, is more prevalent among the boomer generation than anyone would like to admit, younger generations see the benefits of that diversity.

Consider my elective MBA class at Harvard Business School this fall: it was composed of an equal number of females and males, 30% international students, 30% American minorities, and a wide range of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and agnostics. Our class included five people who had experienced the horrors of war first-hand in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosovo.

This is not an upper-class crowd, as some might expect. Many of these students come from backgrounds ranging from poverty to struggling middle class. Hearing their stories, one wonders how many of them ever got to Harvard. Perhaps it is precisely the experience of overcoming great difficulties or prejudices that empowered them to strive for the best educational experiences – at their own expense – so that they could live better lives than their parents. Several are concurrently studying for a second master´s degree in government or non-profit management so they are prepared to work in multiple sectors or run for public office.

Throughout the fall my students worked to develop their authentic leadership and to discover their True North. As they brought forward their life stories, it became clear that they appreciated the different points of view resulting from the diverse life experiences in the class. They openly discussed their crucibles, as well as experiences with sexual harassment, religion, and racial differences. There was no prejudice that I could discern, either inside or outside the classroom.

The career choices of these emerging leaders are as diverse as their backgrounds. Skeptical of the traditional corporate structures where they have worked, many are opting to create their own businesses, join a start-up, go overseas, or work for a non-profit organization. Those joining corporations are seeking companies that are family-friendly, open, and diverse. Others view consulting or private equity as a safe starting point to gain the experience that will enable them to find just the right opportunity. Surprisingly, in light of the loans they have to repay, nearly all of these emerging leaders place “making a difference in the world” ahead of monetary compensation.

Is this class a microcosm of leadership of the future? I believe it is. The 20th century command-and-control organizations that go it alone and exclude talented leaders because of their differences are a dying breed. Success in the 21st century can only be sustained through diversity and collaboration. Without leaders who are inclusive of people with diverse life experiences, there is no way we can build great organizations of talented people, empowered to change the world.

To do that in politics, for-profit corporations, and NGOs, it is time to let these emerging leaders step up and take over from the baby boomers.