Y Leadership

This fall my new book, The Fifth Age of Work, will be published by Night Owls Press.  The book tracks the parallel evolution of the independent, freelancer economy, on the one hand, and the rapid transformation of mainstream firms, on the other.  At the heart of the book is the idea that, in the relatively near future, Gen Y knowledge workers will no longer be content to work in Baby Boomer-age organizations that insist on traditional forms of structure, design, and management.  Rather, top talent in the near future will demand:

  • Maximum choice and flexibility
  • Involvement in meaningful work
  • Smart and challenging colleagues
  • Opportunities to innovate and grow
  • Authentic and believable leadership

We know this because it is already happening.  Traditionalist managers who doubt this will only be able to operate with their head in the sand for so long!

Theory Y

But how does a firm go about planning for and leading Gen Y talent?  The answer, ironically, was provided some 50 years ago.  Douglas McGregor’s book, The Human Side of Enterprise, outlined a fundamental difference in how managers view people and their potential.  One the one hand was Theory X, which suggested that people are inherently lazy, shiftless, don’t like to work, and need to be managed with punishments and rewards and carrots and sticks.  On the other hand was Theory Y, which suggested that, left to their own devices, people naturally like to work, and that if you give them trust and a long-leash, they will generate the outcomes that a company desires.

It is not much of an exaggeration to say that, despite all of the rhetoric about decentralization and the flattening organization, most companies today remain locked within a Theory X managerial approach.  Lip service is often paid to flexibility and choice, but in practice such words evaporate into fear and control.  As I suggest above, though, Theory X management will be a non-starter in the near future.

But what comes next?

Y Leadership

Gen Y will demand a fundamentally new and generationally relevant leadership approach.  Respected and effective leaders in the near future won’t be tall, dark, and handsome white men who went to the top business schools.  Rather, they will be technologists, engineers, and designers who are technical experts, people who gain respect from peers because of their chops and their humility.  Leadership will be a team activity, where the alpha male model of yesterday will seem more and more abusive and out of place in a networked, collaborative economy.  As IBM’s Ginni Rometty says recently, “success will be measured not by what you know, but by what you share.”  One-way commands of yesterday’s organization are giving way to more of a Starfish model of leadership, where different people have influence in different situations depending on content and context.


Of course, in practice it is never quite so simple.  However, the general movement towards ‘Y’ principles is undeniable.

Gen Y x Theory Y = Y Leadership

Among other things, this will likely mean that fewer of tomorrow’s leaders will be MBAs.  Rather, they will be engineers, designers, scientists, athletes, artists, and social scientists who figure out how to make something they are passionate about INTO a business.  Companies like GE are already doing this, from the inside-out.  Yesterday’s standard B-school model of leadership, bequeathed to us originally by Dale Carnegie himself, will eventually seem like a quaint relic from the 1950s.  “How to win friends and influence people” (Theory X) will be replaced by “How to create value collaboratively to enhance user experiences” (Theory Y).








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