The best, the brightest, the youngest

October 10, 2013

John Coleman is co-author of the book "Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders," which explores the big issues facing young emerging leaders—their challenges, their aspirations and how they will redefine leadership. Coleman talked with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.

Q. What are the obstacles to recruiting a new generation to serve, particularly during the government shutdown?

(Courtesy of John Coleman)
(Courtesy of John Coleman)

A. The federal government has a perception problem. Government has developed a reputation as bureaucratic, slower moving and safe. I think that in reality the federal government offers so many dynamic opportunities to take real responsibility, especially for young people. But for some reason this perception problem exists, and part of it is just learning how to communicate the responsibilities that people can get and how they can move into those responsibilities earlier than they can in other arenas.

Events like the government shutdown may also cause issues. Organizational culture matters a great deal to young leaders, and if they see government as broken and dysfunctional, I think they'll be less likely to view it as a valid career option.

Q. How is the younger generation redefining the notion of leadership?

A. This generation is really thinking of themselves less as unitary, command-and-control leaders and more as facilitators. These are people who want to promote collaboration, synthesize different viewpoints, and make sure that people’s talents and abilities are used more effectively. Younger people genuinely are moving away from unitary leadership to more open models ,founded on humbly leveraging the resources around them rather than thinking that they have all the answers or feeling the need to drive things centrally.

Second, I’d say that while money remains important to young people, it’s no longer an idol. In our book, we surveyed more than 500 young MBAs and asked them about their top three reasons for choosing a job. While second was compensation, numbers one and three, respectively, were “intellectual challenge” and “opportunity to impact the world”. Young people have seen failures in leadership and financial collapse first hand, and they are looking for careers with challenge and purpose.

Q. What are some of the biggest mistakes made by aspiring leaders?

A. One of my biggest criticisms of some of the most talented young leaders I meet is that they play it too safe by avoiding failure, being a little too conservative with their careers and failing to take risks. I think that has become even more acute now that jobs have become scarcer. The second mistake is impatience. We get everything “on demand” now, from movies to 140-character commentary on Twitter. Everything moves so quickly that I think aspiring leaders fail to think in long enough periods of time. In an age where everyone operates with such a deficit of attention, discipline and patience will probably become virtues that are even more important today than they used to be.

Q. How will the new generation of leaders reshape the federal government over time?

A. The influx of young people is going to open up the federal government by making it more transparent and more collaborative with the public. They’re going to build increasingly cooperative partnerships with the private and nonprofit sectors and bring in best practices from other areas. These young leaders believe both in serving their communities by working in various sectors and that leadership can best be cultivated with cross-sector experiences. Our biggest problems—terrorism, resource scarcity, pandemic disease—call for multi-sector solutions. And increasingly, the federal government will not only have to work with other sectors and levels of government but hire people who have worked in those other sectors and learn from them. This generation can really help catalyze that collaboration and cross-pollination.

Q. What advice do you have for emerging leaders?

A. A lot of folks now are question answerers, not question askers. School hardwires us to answer questions. Teachers ask questions and students answer them. Then we graduate and enter a world where everyone is always asking the wrong questions. Entrepreneurship is really not about answering a question differently, but about asking a completely different question that nobody is thinking about. Learn to ask hard questions.

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