What Millennials Need In A Leader

by  Margy Kerr-Jarrett  |  Leadership Development
What Millennials Need in a Leader

I will be honest – it took me a while to catch on to the fact that the title millennial was referring to me and my peers.

Until I really took the time to step back and consider how differently (and why) my generation worked and related to leadership, I saw my steps into the professional world as just more cogs turning in the business machine.

But after a few years of working in a variety of environments, I am beginning to understand how different we twenty/early thirty somethings really are.

There is much talk about how to encourage leadership in millennials, what millennials need to succeed, how millennials will lead, etc. However, until my generation of twenty/thirty somethings is able to learn from our predecessors, we won’t be able to advance and begin to fill their shoes! Young professionals such as myself need good leaders to look up to learn from, and our leaders need to be in tune with how our millennial minds work.

Leaders, This Is What We Need

  • Tear Down The Walls – My generation is all about breaking down barriers (hence hacking, startups, file sharing, open-sourcing, etc.). In order for our leaders to reach us and help bring out the best in us, we need to feel a strong sense of camaraderie: the we’re in this together kind. We do not inherently respect authority, and need a personal relationship to really look up to someone. We need to feel empowered to approach problems from a wide variety (and often untraditional) perspectives. We need to feel a sense of openness (think communal office spaces and coffee-break brainstorming).
  • Put Those Walls Up – I know this seems to contradict my previous point, but it doesn’t! We recognize that too much freedom leads to chaos, and we do need structure to our lives. We need to feel free to express ourselves and experiment within the boundaries of clear goals and objectives. It is easy for us to get distracted (we grew up in the information age after all), so by giving us clear and definitive targets, you will help us to know when we are on the right track (consider a sonnet – a form that requires a tremendous amount of structure but can ignite unprecedented creativity!). Give us that structure, that framework, but be flexible and remember that rules are only effective when they push us to grow.
  • Treat Us Like Future Leaders – That means we need you to relate to us as not only employees, but future leaders. You need to communicate with us that you see how much potential we have to grow. You need to invest in helping us outgrow our current positions and communicating with us how that can be accomplished. Please check in with us regularly – we are not always the best at expressing ourselves (we have been tainted by email, texting, and could stand to learn a thing or two from you about face-to-face communication) – and help us develop a trajectory for our professional lives.
  • Help Us Stick To Our Guns – With so many options in the world available to us at every moment of the day, we need your leadership. Though we tend to have great ideas and tons of passion, we often get stuck when a concrete decision needs to be made. This is where you come in – help us learn to be decisive, and to defend our decisions when necessary (as a new mom, I find myself constantly googling baby advice and second guessing myself – don’t let us do this with our careers!).
  • Believe In Us – Despite how much confidence we exude, how much creativity we possess, and how nonchalant we may seem, we are perhaps the most self-critical, unconfident generation yet. I am not a psychologist and do not understand all of the nuances of this reality, but I can see how much my peers (and sometimes myself!) need older generations of leaders to help us access and activate our potential. We should not be coddled, or considered too delicate for criticism, but we do need your confidence to help build our own. This confidence and clarity of purpose is something we admire most about you, our leaders.

No matter what business you are in, there’s no avoiding us millennials! We are here to stay, but we need YOU to help prepare us to one day (not too soon!) fill your shoes and usher in the next generation of future leaders.

What lesson do YOU think would benefit millennials most?
Photo Credit: Fotolia: iQoncept

About The Author

Articles By margy-kerr-jarrett
Margy Kerr-Jarrett is the Director of Development of the Lead Change Group and Web Project Manager at Weaving Influence. She enjoys reading, writing, and spending time in nature with her husband. In addition, she teaches workshops about art and spirituality to visiting students. Born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana, Margy has been living in Jerusalem, Israel for the past two years.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Jon Mertz  |  03 Feb 2016  |  Reply


Great points. We all have a responsibility, and we need to embrace it by engaging between generations and supporting the next. Purpose has a way of eliminating barriers and creating a better future. We need to focus here to support the next generation of leaders.



Susan Mazza  |  03 Feb 2016  |  Reply

This is an incredibly helpful dose of perspective on millennialist. Thank you Margy!

Angie Merritt  |  04 Feb 2016  |  Reply

This articles has opened my eyes to how the millennia’s think and engage with their co-workers. All of my staff are in the generation and this gives me insight on the best ways to lead them and inspire them to become strong leaders for the future. Thanks

Margy Kerr-Jarrett (Admin)  |  07 Feb 2016  |  Reply

Thanks Angie!

Chris  |  04 Feb 2016  |  Reply


Thank you. This is the perspective I’ve been advocating with leaders and it’s refreshing to see it so brilliantly laid out in this post.

I was compelled to share it on my blog with a link back because it is so good…;)

Margy Kerr-Jarrett (Admin)  |  07 Feb 2016  |  Reply

Thank you Chris! I’m curious- what do your advocating efforts look like? All the best!

Isabel Einxig-Wein  |  04 Feb 2016  |  Reply

As a leadership coach I see the importance of collaboration across the generations. We can learn from each other and should make that a major daily exercise. The older generation has the scars from trial and error . We can offer guidance, but the guidance can become the inspiration to help the millennialist try “the road less traveled.” Just spent 7 weeks in Jerusalem fulfilling my dream of studying at an Ulpan. We should all dream and then go after it! Great info…thank you.

Margy Kerr-Jarrett (Admin)  |  07 Feb 2016  |  Reply

Hi Isabel! So cool that you were in Jerusalem–I live in Jerusalem! Which ulpan were you at? What level Hebrew did you complete? Last year (before I started my current job) I had a sales job here in Israel..all in Hebrew! It really helped me master my command of the language and was so much fun! Let me know if you are back in these parts again anytime soon :)

Stephen G. Tom  |  04 Feb 2016  |  Reply


You’ve expressed a point I have made with leaders. Millennials are here to stay and need to evolve into the next generation of leaders. You help other generations understand the mindset of Millennials.

I recently read Rebecca Ryan’s book, “Live First, Work Second.” She amplifies your thoughts and enlightens the rest of us on how we might relate to Millennials.


Margy Kerr-Jarrett (Admin)  |  07 Feb 2016  |  Reply

Thanks Steve- I will check out that book!

GJW  |  04 Feb 2016  |  Reply

While I am always enlightened by articles like this that explain what Millennials need from us, I anxiously await the day when someone explains to Millennials what the rest of us (Gen X’ers like myself and those before us) need from them. It should be a two-way street.

Nate  |  05 Feb 2016  |  Reply

I agree with this (and I’m a Millennial myself – born in 1990). I couldn’t help but think when reading this article, “how Millennial is it to tell other generations how to work with us?” There is a lot we need to learn from other generations and I think it’s more important for us to learn how to work with them, than for them to learn how to work with us.

Obviously, there’s no stopping the Millennial wave and we’re an important demographic to think about when recruiting and building and organization, but I think Millennials sometimes need to be pushed out of their comfort zone to learn and appreciate other ways of doing things.

Margy – you do bring up some good points, those are all things Millennials want in a leader/organization. Something I’ve always appreciated in the companies I’ve worked for is the opportunity to take on responsibility and make an impact. I think that’s one thing that drives Millennials, is the desire to make an impact. Make sure we have projects we can own and drive ourselves and be responsible for the success (or failure) of.

Good things to think about in this article, but agree that it should be a two-way street.

EAA  |  05 Feb 2016  |  Reply

As a member of the mid ground between Boomers and Gen X, I believe the two-way street is implied. Management has gotten terribly lazy about touching base with their employees basing their excuse on being overworked. That argument would stand if they were actually delegating and following up, but too many are control freaks. They hold on to the work for fear someone else might do it better, they don’t have time to actually MANAGE anyone and are overwhelmed and grumpy much of the time. Management today, for the most part, has forgotten what it means to be a LEADER. Millennials are demanding management step up and become leaders. That’s your two-way street – GROW!

Margy Kerr-Jarrett (Admin)  |  07 Feb 2016  |  Reply

GJW and Nate-

I would LOVE to hear about what other generations need from us! Of course, it is easy to get stuck in our own needs/desires. Considering the somewhat self-centeredness (excuse my harshness) of the millennial generation, I think 2-way communication is definitely needed.

John E. Smith  |  05 Feb 2016  |  Reply

Hi, Margy … said the Leading Edge Boomer:)

I was prepared to take strong issue with your post when I saw that it was about Millennials and generational differences. I have long railed against the idea that each generation has some unique set of factors and traits that make them so different from other age groups. The fact that quite a cottage industry exists around identifying and exploiting those “differences” does not help.

I do believe that humans have common characteristics, experiences, and development that exist somewhat outside age and historical location.

That said, you have made a strong case with your insightful and balanced post. This is not the stale list of generational characteristics that I regularly see, but a thoughtful analysis of your generation’s experience.

Most Favorite Line: “Young professionals such as myself need good leaders to look up to learn from, and our leaders need to be in tune with how our millennial minds work.”

This I can happily and easily live with:)

Appreciate your clear-eyed and engaging style.


JEM  |  05 Feb 2016  |  Reply

Hi Margy, My only comment is that I get the impression that Millennials believe they are the very first generation to INVENT all those wonderful characteristics to bring to the workplace. REALLY?!? I know a lot of older women and men who tried “going rogue” over the course of our careers to get OUR leaders to understand and believe in the values you bring to the table. Meaningful work embraces more than a set of competencies on a resume!

JR  |  05 Feb 2016  |  Reply

Your article is a real inspiration – your points well made.
Appreciate you for your sharing your insight.

Jesse Stoner  |  07 Feb 2016  |  Reply

Lots of excellent points, Margy, and well-written. I especially appreciate your comment, “we need you to relate to us as not only employees, but future leaders. ” I would add “and recognize the leadership we Millennials are currently providing.” You might want to check out the term “the gray ceiling” – the phenomenon where Boomers are not creating space for the next generation to move into leadership positions.

Margy KJ  |  09 Feb 2016  |  Reply

Thanks Aunt Lyn! The “grey ceiling” is an interesting point- I think better communication (hence, understanding) between the generations would really help combat that.

Wayne Davis  |  08 Feb 2016  |  Reply

A well written article.

Leadership should not only be defined or developed and applied to the Millenials…..it should be applied to all employees/co-workers. If these other groups — Gen X, Baby Boomers, and everything in between do not need “careful and thoughtful” leadership, then perhaps the millenials are unique.

“Give us that structure, that framework, but be flexible……”. This is great to idealize, but as a future leader, who would like to be in a position to lead a work unit, department, organization or region — how do you do this? What are your suggestions for implementing this when law (Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), collective bargaining unit contracts, tax reporting, Fair Labor Standards Act, Public Records, for example) conflicts with the desire for flexibility.

Instead of laying what you need as a group, perhaps you can lay out what the group brings to an organization in terms of value, and differentiate this from what other groups bring to the table. This would help to begin the process of identifying where millenials are unique (if this is the case) and to assist with the “on-boarding and mentoring” that are crucial to the development of leaders and contributors to the success of any organization.

As a general rule, I avoid trying to define a group by their demographic traits when it comes to their potential, as I think the broad brush approach tends to put limits or constraints on a group. I have very little time to assess a group that has been defined by someone else; instead I use leadership and human skills that I have developed over many years, personally and professionally, to interpret the “tabula rosa” of each individual I encounter and then assess their personal values through time working together because I believe that the manifestation of personal values via exhibited behaviors are more telling than the broad brush of a group that someone else has defined.

I could write a thesis on this, but time does not permit. Keep on pushing and define the value that you bring to the organization, and please do not use someone else’s definition.

Paul Tikalsky  |  08 Feb 2016  |  Reply

Excellent points and well communicated. This helps my whole senior leadership team.

Ed mcguire  |  09 Feb 2016  |  Reply

I believe this is sound advice for every generation, as a young baby boomer or old gen X (I identify with the boomers) I find treating all with respect and expressing your expectations clearly works with every age group.

Dave Blum  |  09 Feb 2016  |  Reply

You might like to consult this article by Ron Edmondson:


It looks at things from the other end: how Boomers are misunderstood by Millennials and what they should know about working with us. (I’m a Boomer, kinda).

Rich  |  09 Feb 2016  |  Reply

Well written. A nice article for a parenting site.
I believe this is a guideline to raising a naturally healthy narcissistic toddler or adolescent.maybe this generational classification is not to blame they were let down by a lack of parenting.

Tom Buzbee  |  10 Feb 2016  |  Reply

Thanks for the candid and frank first person viewpoint on this issue. I agree with a few of the previous comments that the current generation (and those yet to come) should not exclusively expect their predecessors (Traditionalists, Boomers) to come to them and ask about their feelings. All three generations have to merge. If Millenials sit around waiting for the rest of us to tell them how wonderful they are we will continue to be stuck in the mud.

Richard Lippert  |  10 Feb 2016  |  Reply

What the article illustrates is how far our corporate “leadership” programs have strayed from real leadership principals. Millennials are simply seeking real leaders, not the narcissists and hacks being stamped out of too many leadership development programs. It is time to change.

Kathy Kelly  |  05 Mar 2016  |  Reply

Thank you Margy for your article!
It offers confirmation on issues we are already managing with some doubt and uncertainty. But it also provides some new perspective. You see there are a couple of components between millennials and Gen X’rs that are polar opposites, like work ethics. Some Millennials are targeted as being lazy workers. However. when you take into consideration, the other points that you make about what Millennials need, I wonder if work performance improves?
This is something to consider for anyone leading this group of people and are having challenges.

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