Three Realities That Define Generation Z’s Perception of Leaders

By Tim Elmore


I consistently meet executives who are confounded by the attitudes of their younger team members. These leaders witness their rookie colleagues fail to show any commitment or leave after just months on the job.


My friend Carl is president of his company and recently met with Hilary and Collin, both young employees who are less than one year on the job. Carl wanted to ask them questions and discover why so many were leaving or “quietly quitting.” After being prodded, Carl and Hillary eventually disclosed what they knew of their peers:

  • They don’t trust the leadership here.
  • They suspect that management is hiding something. 
  • They are skeptical that both people and revenue are mismanaged. 


There is a meta-narrative that has swept through the rank and file of both Millennials and Gen Z students and young teammates, thanks to social media. It has shaped their view of leaders. While not all of it is true, one story can be shared many times and thus it appears to be ubiquitous to the average 25-year-old. On the other hand, much of the narrative is true, and those of us over forty fail to see it. Just scroll through the memes on Instagram, for instance, and you begin to see three looming narratives that educators and leaders should address with young students and colleagues. 


I share this only to inform you as you lead them. They often see:


1. The Abuse of Power

Not unlike the 1960s, this generation of youth sees an abuse of power in corporate America and beyond. When they look at institutional leadership, they see an unjust pay gap between executives and employees, sexual misconduct among religious leaders, police brutality on the streets, and white-collar crimes going unpunished, while misdemeanors are sentenced unfairly. You and I both know this isn’t true of the average leader running a small business, yet it’s a narrative we need to address and resolve in young team members. When leaders empower others (meaning they share their power), team members begin trusting those in charge.


2. The Absence of Equity

Consider what generations of youth have witnessed over the last several years, and you understand movements like #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and #NeverAgain. While we might be quick to defend traditional leadership and explain that those movements aren’t made up of saints, I’m only asking you to acknowledge why a young professional may be skeptical of leadership. They look at the inequity surrounding minorities, for example, and wonder how Boomers and Xers can allow injustice to go on for so long. We did leave some tasks undone. The leaders who demonstrate they value equity and show it through their decisions will win the day.


3. The Appetite for Control

When young generations look at political leaders in Washington D.C. or business leaders on Wall Street, they see older leaders refusing to give up control. Too many politicians running our country are over 75 years in age and keep campaigning for re-election. Too many Boomers can’t or won’t mentor younger generations to take their spots. Instead, we hold on to power. Truth be told, as affluence increases, so does the appetite for control. Those who lust for more control must acknowledge they’re pursuing a myth. The sooner we begin trusting younger generations to take the reins of authority (even when they do it differently), the sooner we all grow healthier. 


I want our future leaders to know these issues of equity aren’t special programs but a natural way of working, fueled by life-giving leaders. We must connect with our young teammates. Japanese engineer Soichiro Honda said it best: “If you hire only those people you understand, the company will never get people better than you are. Always remember that you often find outstanding people among those you don’t particularly like.” 



Three Realities That Define Generation Z’s Perception of Leaders