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What the Future of Leadership Looks Like

I get to meet some of the most amazing students as I travel. In fact, our entire team of speakers (at Growing Leaders) meets them, from secondary schools, to universities to international schools in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. As I meet these students, I am noticing something different. They are examples of the global research done by Universum last year: Generation Z possesses a deeper interest in leadership than the previous three generations did at their age.

But there’s a uniqueness they bring to the subject.

Instead of looking like leaders from the Baby Boomer generation—where it seemed to be about power and perks or command and control—today’s emerging generation approaches influencing the world differently than past stereotypes.

Case in point: Emma Yang.

I recently watched Emma’s TedX talk, from Washington D.C., and was amazed at both her simplicity and intelligence. She described how she learned to code at 6 years old. She’s now in the 9th grade and is quite the entrepreneur. For her, coding isn’t just about games, but about the connection between technology and real life. Across the U.S. and the world, talented and ambitious young people are pushing beyond the boundaries of school, finding new ways to learn advanced computer science, tackling big challenges, and beginning to map out an uncharted future.

Five Characteristics That Make Up the Future of Leadership

Emma Yang

Photo credit via YouTube

I actually believe Emma is a picture of millions of kids today. Savvy. Smart. Wanting to make a difference, whether or not it’s called “leadership.” Here are five common elements I find in many of these students that I believe will define their leadership:

1. They want to solve problems they care about.

I remember doing “story problems” in math class and discussing hypothetical scenarios in literature class. While there’s nothing wrong with these, they are artificial. Emma’s adventure began when her grandmother struggled with Alzheimer’s. Suddenly, someone Emma knew had a problem and she realized she could use her skills to help solve it. She began to develop an app to help Alzheimer’s disease patients—like her grandma—to manage their daily lives. The app is called Timeless and it is the first of many future creations from Emma.

2. They want to cross-pollinate subjects.

As smart technology redefines the marketplace, experts are divided on how it will disrupt life for future workers. With such uncertainty, how can we prepare students to thrive in tomorrow’s workplace? I believe our best bet is to combine disciplines. For instance, cross-pollinate a student’s technical skills with passion, relational skills, and the curious mind of a scientist. “That’s where Emma truly stands out,” said Cole Calistra, Kairos’ chief technology officer. He received an email inquiry from Emma back in 2016, and has been collaborating with her ever since. “Emma has the vision to stitch together different pieces of technology to solve a real-world problem,” Calistra said. “I don’t know how you learn that, but she did.”

3. They want to explore technology on their own.

The students I meet actually desire more freedom to explore on their own. They want to learn but feel the adults in their life (while they appreciate them) don’t trust students to probe and find answers without help from an adult. Students have expressed to me they believe adults “have no idea what their life is like.” While this may or may not be true, it’s their perception. Fortunately for Emma, her teachers and family gave her just enough encouragement, direction and freedom to “own” her learning. Family meals and serendipitous school conversations were her fuel.

4. They want adults to be “guides” not “gods.”

Emma’s journey began in Hong Kong, where she lived for the first decade of her life. Her dad, Adrian Yang, was working as a software engineer at an investment bank. When Emma was 6, her dad introduced her to Scratch, a kid-friendly programming language. “I just let her explore,” Adrian said. And, boy, did it work. Emma’s family and teachers served as Sherpa “guides” to suggest ideas, but they let her do her own work. They did not prescribe her path, but chose to describe ideas for her to consider. This is now how supervisors should approach team members. While I believe in authority, I also believe we’ll need to change the way we express it.

5. They want to “move the needle” as they influence the world.

Like so many, Emma doesn’t want to do something if it doesn’t really matter. As her TedX talk reveals, by the time Emma was 10, she had developed a passion for computer science. She took part in the Technovation Challenge, an international competition for girls using technology to solve social problems. Emma’s prototype for an app to help sports teams diagnose concussions won second place. A light bulb went off. “I realized I could make an impact,” she said.

Let me ask you a question: do you have any Emma’s near you? How are you empowering them to pursue their goals?


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