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Millennial and Generation Z’s Perspectives on Leadership Effectiveness

Author(s): M. Jake Aguas  
Issue: 1  
Volume: 13  
Year: 2019

A large body of literature suggests that defining effective leadership continues to be a challenge to theorists and practitioners alike. The construct has been characterized in terms of “traits, behaviors, influence, interaction patterns, role relationships, and occupation of an administrative position” (Yukl, 2013, p. 2). Depending on the field of study, occupation, or vocational context, leadership is described in numerous fashions. Layer generational differences onto the equation and another dimension of complexity emerges. This qualitative phenomenological study responds to these challenges by addressing the descriptives and behaviors associated with effective leadership through the lens of America’s two youngest generational cohorts— Millennials and Generation Z. Based on an analysis and theming of 12 one-on-one interviews that utilized In-Vivo and Pattern Coding, emerging generations describe effective leadership as influential, results- driven, and leading by example with a servant’s heart. Effective leaders are emotionally intelligent; they prioritize their team’s needs and operate with transparency and consistency in communication.


The needs of different generational cohort groups differ just as much as the wants of generations differ. If organizations can better understand more about the needs and wants of each generation, they could lead their teams more effectively. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs attempted to divulge the needs of generations in his 1958 Dynamic Theory of Human Motivation; however, much has changed since 1958, and this research focuses on the leadership needs for two generations that were not yet born when Maslow published his infamous paper.

As the world continues to change, megatrends reshape how Americans go about navigating their daily lives. Advancements in technology, ecological and environmental sustainability, globalization, and the rapid movement towards the semantic web are influencing our perspectives on what constitutes effective leadership (Dunung, 2020; Marr, 2019; Peng, 2017). More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has been added to the growing list of transformative forces reshaping how Americans perceive the construct of leadership, personally and professionally. As a result of the COVID-19 global crisis, Generation Z and Millennial workforces have experienced layoffs and furloughing in record numbers; they have been highly impacted by the job crisis. In addition, employment offers are being rescinded, leaving college students jobless upon graduation.

Leadership theorists and experts examine the construct of leadership through numerous lenses (Antonakis & Day, 2018; Bass, 2008; Northouse, 2019; Waldman & O’Reilly, 2020; Yukl, 2013); however cultural considerations towards leadership tend to focus on the constructs that highlight ethnic and racial considerations (Chhokar et al., 2008; Hofstede, 1980, 2001; House et al., 2004; Moodian, 2009), socio-economic status (Brown, 2004; Manakhova & Limonova, 2018), or gender-related perspectives (Eagly & Carli, 2007; Hoyt & Simon, 2017; Ibarra et al., 2013). This phenomenological leadership study attempts to fill a gap and answer a call in that it considers the leadership perspectives of America’s two youngest generational cohorts, Millennials and Generation Z, and explores their notions through the scope of generations as culture (and sub-cultures) while highlighting the spectrum of research still needed in this field of study.

Born between 1981 and 1995, Millennials make up approximately 22 percent of the United States resident population, with nearly 72 million members (Duffin, 2019). Also known as Generation Y, the Millennial cohort represents the largest contributor to the U.S. labor force (35%), bypassing both the Baby Boomers and Generation X (Fry, 2018). Millennials place a high level of importance on value-centered leadership that is inclusive, collaborative, and committed (Maier et al., 2015) and prefer approachable leaders that lead by example with a high degree of integrity, ethics, and vision (Cox, 2016).

Having been raised in a digital world (Mládková, 2017), the oldest members of Generation Z were born in tandem with the emergence of the internet in the mid- nineties while its youngest members were born by 2010, just as the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research (2010) marked the end of an eighteen-month recession. Smart devices, mass shootings, the #MeToo movement, lower life expectancy and birth rates, and social entrepreneurship have all shaped the value system of the youngest generational participant of the workforce. Duffin (2019) posits that Generation Z represents 26.5 percent of the country’s overall resident population (86.4 million); however, the cohort represents only five percent of the workforce population; most of its members are not yet of working age (Fry, 2018). According to Ozkan and Solmaz (2015) and Laudert (2018), Generation Z perceives effective leadership as an influential construct that emphasizes authenticity, adaptability, flexibility, and work-life balance. Leaders inspire Generation Z to follow in a fashion that leverages technology and encourages entrepreneurial thinking. In addition to valuing cultural diversity and inclusion provided by a global landscape, Generation Z also happens to be the most ethnically diverse generation in American history (The Business Insider, 2019).

Megatrends are forcing younger generational cohorts to pivot and adjust to monumental disruptions and paradigm shifts. In the process, their perceptions of leadership are also under scrutiny. How do Millennials and Generation Z describe leadership? What qualities and characteristics do these budding generational cohorts associate with effective leadership? What types of behaviors do these generational groups expect from their leaders?

Research Design and Methodology

This phenomenological research study was conducted in March and April 2019, with qualitative interviewing taking place April 8th through April 11th in Los Angeles and Orange Counties in Southern California. The study was comprised of 12 individual one- on-one interviews, six from each of the two-generational cohorts. A phenomenological research methodology was selected as it aligned with the objectives of the study and utilized the analysis of individual narratives to construct and derive universal meaning from the data provided from the verbatim responses (Padgett, 2017). Moustakas (1994) found that a phenomenological approach “involves a return to experience in order to obtain comprehensive descriptions that provide the basis for a reflective structural analysis that portrays the essence of the experience” (p. 13). Patton (2015) offered a typology of interviewing questions that could be utilized to support qualitative interviewing studies. Three of the six types of question formats were used in the design of the interpersonal interview to capture the lived experience of the leadership phenomenon. They include experience and behavior questions, opinion and value questions, and feeling questions. In the early stages of mining information and working towards narrowing the scope of the study, Cozby and Bates (2018) and de Vaus (2001) provided perspectives and insight on how to construct an effective research question.

Creswell and Creswell’s (2018) guidelines for the design of qualitative research questions where utilized in the construction and design of the research question because the study’s objectives aligned with the qualitative research question criteria. The guidelines are listed below. The intent was to “explore the general, complex set of factors surrounding the central phenomenon and present the broad, varied perspectives or meanings that participants hold” (Creswell & Creswell, 2018, p. 133).

  • Ask one or two central research questions
  • Ask no more than five to seven subsequent questions
  • Relate the central question to the specific qualitative strategy of inquiry
  • Begin the research questions with the words what or how to convey an open and emerging design
  • Focus on a single phenomenon
  • Use exploratory verbs that convey the language of emerging design
  • Expect the research questions to evolve and change during the study
  • Use open-ended questions
  • Specify the participants

Upon finalizing the research question, an interviewer’s field guide with questions was prepared and field-tested for comprehension and timing. The learnings from the initial 10 question pilot provided insight into the following three areas: complexity, repetitiveness, and length. Respondents initially indicated that there were numerous instances in which they were asked the same question regarding characteristics, qualities, and behaviors of effective and ineffective leadership. The pilot indicated that the length of the questionnaire was closer to thirty minutes. Once the duplicate inquiries were removed, and the interviewer’s field guide was reorganized, the updated guide was field-tested a second time and tested between 12-15 minutes and aligned with the study’s goals and objectives. The respondents communicated that the questions were more focused and precise. The final interviewer’s field guide consisted of the following questions:

  1. How would you describe leadership?
  2. What qualities and characteristics would you say describe an effective leader?
  3. What behaviors would you say describe an effective leader?

The interviewing field guide served as a mechanism to capture demographic information as well as a method to document reference information on environmental surroundings, interviewee observations, and emerging questions that arose during the interview process. The guide also provided a structured method to document reflections of the interview and notate miscellaneous observations about the interactions.


Approximately forty-two potential respondents were initially pre-screened using age criteria. Twelve respondents (six in each generational group) were invited to participate in the study based on the pre-screening criteria. A follow-up appointment reminder was sent to each respondent 24 hours prior to the interview via email and text message. All 12 respondents confirmed and executed the 12-15 minute interview at their scheduled day and time (see Table 1). During the interview process, the interviewer’s field guide was referenced to maintain consistency across the interviewing and note- taking process.

Table 1

Respondent’s Profile

Respondent/participantBirthdateAgeGenderEthnicityInterview date
Participant 18/5/7939MaleAsian4/10/19
Participant 25/30/8731FemaleAsian4/8/19
Participant 39/5/8831FemaleCaucasian4/8/19
Participant 44/8/9327MaleHispanic4/8/19
Participant 511/20/9424FemaleCaucasian4/11/19
Participant 610/17/9424MaleCaucasian4/8/19
Participant 708/01/9820FemaleCaucasian4/9/19
Participant 87/10/9820MaleHispanic4/9/19
Participant 910/23/9820FemaleCaucasian4/9/19
Participant 106/20/9919FemaleCaucasian4/9/19
Participant 116/26/0117MaleCaucasian4/10/19
Participant 123/6/9821MaleCaucasian4/11/19

According to Patton (2015), the end goal of sample sizes in qualitative studies is to reach saturation or the point of redundancy. Qualitative studies do not have a minimum number of respondents as compared to quantitative studies; therefore, when the same responses began appearing from multiple respondents in this qualitative study, saturation was reached. Lincoln and Guba (1985) stated:

In purposeful sampling, size of the sample is determined by informational considerations. If the purpose is to maximize information, the sampling is terminated when no new information is forthcoming from new sampled units; thus, redundancy is the primary criterion. (p. 202)

Data Collection

With the approval from each participant, the qualitative interviews were recorded on a smart device utilizing an automated transcription application called Trint. Upon completion of each meeting, verbatim responses were uploaded and automatically transcribed. A text file was produced and then converted to Microsoft Office Word for first-cycle coding evaluation. Narratives provided by participants were evaluated using In-Vivo Coding methods that used “words or shorts phrases to symbolically assign a summative, salient, essence-capturing, and evocative attribute for a portion of

language-based or visual data” (Saldaña, 2016, p. 4). In-Vivo Coding was utilized because it facilitated the opportunity to collect indigenous and cultural terminology directly from the “participant’s own language” (Miles et al., 2020, p. 64). First-cycle codes then served as a basis for Pattern Coding. A second-cycle theming methodology grouped summaries into smaller, more meaningful inferential and explanatory units of analysis; categories, themes, and concepts.

Transcripts (Verbatim Responses)

Question 1: How would you describe leadership?

Participant 1Q1: I think leadership if I were to bring it down to one idea, would probably be influence I think somebody who exhibits the ability to influence people or an organization to move in a certain direction. (Codes: “influence” and “influencing movement”). That is a leader, not necessarily someone who is given the title of leader is not something that is just automatically awarded or earned. (Code: “Not about a title”). But I think it’s something that is kind of built-in and there’s a lot of trust that’s involved. (Code: “trust”).

Participant 2Q1: I think I think leadership has its roots in servanthood. (Code: “roots in servanthood”). And in my opinion, I don’t think anybody is a leader unless they’re willing to kind of get in the nitty-gritty of everything. (Code: “get in the nitty-gritty”).

Participant 3Q1: There’s a difference between a leader and a manager. A manager kind of sets out on more of a throne setting and like dictates down to me to people, but a leader is someone who maybe they have a managerial title, but they’re in their ranks with their reports and like showing them like hey I can do what you guys do. (Codes: “showing them” and “do what you do”) That doesn’t mean they do the task. It doesn’t mean they don’t delegate. It means that they lead, but more from like an equal level and they encourage and inspire, and they see where things are missing, and they jump in and make that happen and not necessarily sit at the top and like track down but they’re in the trenches with their team. (Codes: “equal level,” “encourage,” “inspire,” “jump in,” and “in the trenches with their team”).

Participant 4Q1: A person who has the ability to communicate as in a way that something in a task that needs to be completed or I guess there be multiple facets in that. (Code: “ability to communicate”). In that sense of being able to communicate a task and is a completed or a vision that needs to be bought into. (Codes: “communicate” and “vision”). So I believe like the best leaders have the ability not just to get people to complete a task but get people to buy into a bigger vision. (Codes: “complete task,” “communicate,” and “vision”). Being able to get a group of people to understand that what they’re doing has meaning and purpose and be ready to complete that and to do that successfully. OK cool. (Codes: “meaning,” “purpose,” and “complete task”).

Participant 5Q1: I describe leadership as the way that you use your social capital to influence others around a common goal. (Codes: “using social capital” and “influence towards a common goal”).

Participant 6Q1: Oh, I would say a person that is very confident in themselves that they know what they want. (Code: “confident”). They’re passionate about themselves and other people that are connected to them, and they’re there to lead the group of people to do better things than just make a change in the area that we’re working with. (Codes: “passionate,” “connected,” and “make a change”).

Participant 7Q1: Yeah. So I’d say it’s fostering a community with a group of people that trust you and you trust them just as much for whatever the task may be whether it’s personal or professional that they feel confident in coming to you and approaching you no matter what situation they may be facing positive or negative. (Codes: “fostering community,” “trust,” and “confidence”).

Participant 8Q1: I define leadership kind of apart from any sort of morality, just the ability to effectively guide people for a purpose that you have in mind. (Codes: “effectively guide people” and “purpose”). Or it could be part of a bigger picture. (Code: “bigger picture”). It could be part of nothing. It could be used for good. It could be used for bad. But the ability to effectively convince people to work by their own will. (Code: “effectively convince people”).

Participant 9Q1: It’s honestly a hard question. I think of a leader as someone who is taking a group of people from one thing to another thing. (Code: “taking a group of people from one thing to another”). I guess it’s kind of like you always have a goal in mind as a leader, I’d say. (Code: “goal”). And so your job is to effectively and correctly take an operation from point A to Point B. (Code: “effective” and “take from point A to B”). Continue to move it forward in a way that is good. (Code: “move forward”).

Participant 10Q1: I define leadership as someone who takes charge and can lead a group in the right direction to get a task completed. (Codes: “take charge,” “lead in the right direction,” and “tasks completed”).

Participant 11Q1: It could be words leadership like you are kind of the driving force behind something you know, like if it’s a person, it’s probably someone people look up to. (Codes: “driving force” and “look up to”). And he’s like leading them on leading them to somewhere they want to be and want to go. (Code: “leading them somewhere”).

Participant 12Q1: I would describe the leadership as being able to lead and mentor other people. (Codes: “lead” and “mentor”). And beyond telling them what to do and doing tasks. It’s inspiring them to do their job effectively while also learning what it means to lead others and to train them into becoming a leader themselves one day. (Codes: “inspiring” and “train others”).

Table 2

How would you describe leadership?

Cluster codesThemes
“influence (2x),” “movement,” “influence towards a common goal,” “convince people,” “move to change,” “lead somewhere,” “inspire” (2x), “encourage”Influence
“complete tasks” (3x), “goal,” “towards a common goal,” “meaning,” “purpose” (2x), “effective”Results-driven
“jump in,” “in the trenches with their team,” “showing them,” “get in the ‘nitty-gritty’”Leads by example
“roots in servanthood,” “do what you do,” “equal level,” “not about a title”Servant
“ability to communicate,” communicate” (2x)Communication
“mentor,” “train,” “look up to”Develops followers
“confidence” (2x), “passionate”Confidence
“take charge,” “driving force”Takes action
“fostering community,” “connected”Connects
“trust” (2x)Trustworthy
“vision,” “bigger picture” Visionary

Question 2: What qualities and characteristics would you say describe an effective leader?

Participant 1Q2: So, if I were to say one word, I would say influence. (Code: “influence”). Besides influence, I would say the ability to know the difference between people and how they operate how you do that in a word. (Code: “know the difference between people”). Knowing people, knowing situations, and knowing how to deal with them. (Code: “knowing people” and “knowing how to deal with them”). And I would also say just care. (Code: “care”). I think that’s a worry. Like a leader that cares for somebody if I know that my leader cares for me. (Codes: “cares for somebody” and “cares for me”). I’m willing to go the extra mile for that person. (Code: “go the extra mile”).

Participant 2Q2: I would say by example and definitely like kind of bouncing back to the servanthood aspect as you need to know your people in order to leave them lead

them properly. (Codes: “lead by example” and “servanthood”). So I would say kind of jumping into like don’t ask people to do something you’re not also willing to do. (Codes: “jumping in” and “don’t ask people to do something you’re not willing to do”). So yeah. So I would say like really knowing your people and being willing to do. (Codes: “knowing your people” and “willing to do”). Yeah. I don’t know. Like, get in the middle of it all. (Code: “get in the middle”). OK. All right. In one-word phrases or care qualities, I would say a leader is “knowable.” (Code: “knowable”).

Participant 3Q2: someone who is empathetic who listens who has a pulse on the situation, which is self-aware who encourages who sees maybe in their team’s weaknesses but also leverages their strengths. (Codes: “empathetic,” “listens,” “self- aware,” “encourages,” and “leverages team’s strengths”). So they just have like I said a pulse on the situation for what’s happening with their team and what their team’s getting done vs. somebody who thinks they know what’s going on and leads from a place of maybe by. OK. (Code: “have a pulse on their team”).

Participant 4Q2: I would say someone who is self-aware of their own strengths and weaknesses and also aware of other people’s kind of cognizance they like emotional responses or just being aware of the way that people respond to either it’s whether it’s a supervisor or someone in that role. (Codes: “self-awareness” and “emotional awareness”). I explained more like just kind of give different characteristics.

Participant 5Q2: Words or phrases come to mind. I would say humility, team player. (Codes: “humility” and “team player”). Inspiring charismatic engaging not afraid to go against the status quo looking out for the best interests of the team working towards a common goal tonight. (Codes: Inspiring,” charismatic,” “engaging,” “looking for the best interests,” and “common goal”). Yeah, that’s good.

Participant 6Q2: They would be responsible, honest, direct, accountable, compassionate, and loving. (Codes: “responsible,” “honest,” “direct,” “accountable,” “compassionate,” and “loving”).

Participant 7Q2: I would say trustworthy. I also think just a willingness to listen and someone that is pretty mature I would say or understands the value of the feedback that they’ll be giving back to the individual who’s asking for advice or even not asking for advice just having the I guess perception and understanding about when it’s right to step in and when it’s right to make changes whether it’s in the workplace or personal situations. (Codes: “trustworthy,” willingness to listen,” “understands the value of feedback,” and “make changes”).

Participant 8Q2: Someone who has like a pioneer mentality. (Code: “pioneer mentality”) Someone who people can look to as a symbol of power someone that people trust. (Code: “trust”). I think they are most effective because if they trust them, they’re going

to want to do the work for them immediately. (Code: “trust”). Yeah, hands-on. (Code: “hands-on”).

Participant 9Q2: I think the biggest thing for me is that an ineffective leader has integrity. (Code: Integrity). They need to be someone who is able to match their words with actions and think not to make empty promises I think would be like a huge thing for a leader. (Code: “match words with actions”). I think they’re also very in tune with the people that they’re leading in that way in the people who they’re leading can trust them for that reason. (Codes: “in tune with people” and “trust”). I think they’re transparent about what is actually happening to them, but at the same time, they know like how much to share with someone to encourage them and how much to withhold from people at the same time to make sure they’re not discouraged. (Codes: “transparent,” “encourage,” and “not discouraged”). It’s kind of a balancing act. It’s leadership where you’re supposed to be forthright but, at the same time, withholding from certain things until the right time. (Code: “forthright”). And I’m kind of all over the place, but it knows when to do the right things at the right time. I think, as a good leader, they just have a good sense of when it’s the right time to discipline them when it’s the right time to encourage when is the right time to share this information or that information or remedy this situation. (Codes: “right time to discipline,” “encourage,” and “share information”). They can have a good sense of I guess where an operation is going. And in that way directed correctly. (Code: “direct”).

Participant 10Q2: A good communicator and maybe someone who is outgoing because I can talk more and like time management. (Codes: “good communicator,” “outgoing,” and “time management”). They’re good at delegating I guess they’re knowledgeable on what needs to get done. (Codes: “delegating” and “knowledgeable”).

Participant 11Q2: Kind, sympathetic, so confident as well. (Codes: “sympathetic” and “confident”). Those factors are the main ones.

Participant 12Q2: A leader is emotionally competent, and a leader is effective, and a leader is a mentor. (Codes: “emotionally competent,” “effective,” and “mentor”).

Table 3

What qualities and characteristics would you say describe an effective leader?

Cluster codesThemes
“lead by example,” “willing to do it,” “don’t ask people to do something they are not willing to do,” “servanthood,” “jumping in,” “get in the middle,” “hands-on,” “matches words with action,” “go the extra mile”Leads by Example
“know the difference between people,” “knowing people,” “knowing how to deal with them,” “knowing your people,” “pulse on the team,” “in tune with people,” “knowledgeable”Knows Their Teams
“leverages team strengths,” “team player,” “looks out for team’s best interests,” “engaging,” “delegates,” “mentor,” “effective team leader,” “knowable”Team-Oriented
“care,” “cares for somebody,” “cares for me,” “empathetic,” “compassionate,” “sympathetic,” “loving”Caring
“transparent,” “shares information,” “direct,” “good communicator,” “values feedback,” “willingness to listen”Values communication
“trustworthy” (3x), “integrity,” “forthright,” “honest”Trustworthy
“self-aware,” “self-awareness,” “emotional awareness,” “emotionally competent”Emotional intelligent
“encourages” (3x), “not easily discouraged”  Encouraging
“responsible,” “accountable,” “disciplines,” “time management”Accountability

Question 3: What behaviors would you say describe an effective leader?

Participant 1Q3: Leaders are there in the trenches. (Code: “in the trenches”). I think when they’re doing some of the work that you’re doing as a specialist, I believe that to me shows good leadership that they’re not just at the top making these decisions and just saying do it but can get in the trenches and do the work that even you’re doing. (Codes: “doing work that you’re doing,” “not just making decisions,” and “in the trenches”). Maybe that’s not what they’re doing all the time, but they exhibit that ability to do it and the willingness to show you how it is done. (Codes: “willingness to do the work” and “willingness to show”). So just a real quick example in my work you know as an admissions counselor we do college fairs, and that’s just something that we have to do at night. And you know my boss would fill in if nobody could do it. (Code: “fills in”). She would go to a college offering something that she’s not supposed to do this on in her job description, but she would do it so that it wouldn’t put that burden on somebody else, you know. And so, to me, that was like an example of good leadership or good behavior. OK.

Participant 2Q3: I would say being upfront about things so and talking to people and so that we like there’s just not any like we don’t guess about what’s going on and on top of

that just like yeah I think having the humility to realize that you know we’re all in this together. (Codes: “upfront about things” and “humility”). And that each person has something to contribute, so I think just like the recognition of like there is no small part. (Code: “recognition”). And I just kind of like when forever read a little bit it’s okay.

Yeah okay.

Participant 3Q3: I think there’s a difference between a leader who responds and a leader who reacts to a situation someone who acts in a situation can kind of demoralize the team versus someone who responds in a situation as the ability to overcome obstacles in a different aspect. (Code: “overcomes obstacles”). Did that answer your question?

Participant 4Q3: Well, if you want to, maybe start off with just listening. (Code: “listening”). Definitely, self-aware. (Code: “self-aware”). I would say self-motivated or at least motivated in general and self-aware motivated and leadership. (Codes: “self- motivated,” “self-aware,” and “leadership”). I would say the ability to be driven. (Code: “driven”). Yeah, driven by whatever tasks or things that they need to accomplish. (Codes: “driven” and “need to accomplish”).

Participant 5Q3: I would expect them to be in touch with what is happening in their employee’s daily routines. (Code: “be in touch with employees”). What is going well and what’s going poorly. I would expect them to have clear expectations that they communicate regularly with their employees. (Codes: “clear expectations” and “communicate regularly”). I would expect them to have check-in meetings with their employees and their team. (Code: “check-in”). I would expect them to communicate the team’s goals clearly. (Code: “clearly communicate”). I’m only hoping that employees meet their goals but rallying everyone around a common team goal. (Codes: “meet goals” and “common team goal”).

Participant 6Q3: It would be the same as I just mentioned.

Participant 7Q3: OK. So I think for sure just maintaining that communication with whoever they’re working with and then also staying on top of everything that’s going on for example in the workplace not isolating themselves but making sure they maintain an equal amount of involvement with the employees and whatever the tasks may be. So they’re walking along with you rather than ostracizing you from the group. (Codes: “maintaining communication,” “not isolating themselves,” and “involvement”).

Participant 8Q3: I would expect them to be strong and firm while maintaining an understanding of the subjects that they’re leading. (Codes: “strong,” “firm,” and “understanding”). Yeah, I would expect them to have like a goal in mind that they stand hard to and like to maintain their effectiveness. (Codes: “goal in mind” and “maintain their effectiveness”). They would not stray from that like based on anyone

else’s behavior. (Code: “not stray”). And so if someone kind of gets in the way of the goal that they’re trying to accomplish, then they are no longer part of the operation.

Participant 9Q3: For me is I have never really respected leaders who are overly humorous or overly relaxed I guess you could say I think an effective leader is someone who can take charge and command a group who is mature. (Codes: “take charge” and “command”). And I think when I’ve seen effective leaders in my life, they’re people who people take seriously they’re not like a joke to people. And in that way they’re able to be kind and respectful; I think it’s enormous. (Codes: “kind” and respectful”). It’s not that they’re like overbearing or demeaning to the people they’re meeting but rather that they’re quietly respectful in a way that makes their followers, I guess people want to follow them and trust them. (Codes: “quietly respectful” and “trust”). So I think a lot of that has to do with like a quiet respect that you have for the leader and that this person is someone who commands your leadership through getting through action. (Codes: “quietly respectful” and “through action”). I think mostly but with words when needed. They are again just mature. I think you can tell when you look at a leader if they are mature and not in the way that they handle certain situations. (Codes: “mature” and “handle situations”). And that’s huge.

Participant 10Q3: I guess it’s like looking back at past internships I’ve seen think the managers that were really well-liked and they’re really good at what they did. They got to know their employees and have relationships with them and can talk with them and they are always keeping up with how their life’s going. (Code: “know their employees”). Then when in the office, they knew the background of everything that was happening and yes. Keeping everyone on the team updated communicating. (Codes: “keeping up” and “communicating”).

Participant 11Q3: Getting people together to strive towards a similar goal. (Code: “strive towards a similar goal”). They all want to achieve. (Code: “achieve”). Yeah, and just teaching them how to do it the proper way. (Code: “teaching”).

Participant 12Q3: I would like to see a leader participating at the bottom of the food chain before they are part of the top of the food chain. And what I mean by that is if I see a manager or leader mopping the floors that would be an instant signal that they are an effective leader because they can empathize with the employees and they’re not creating a power struggle, but they’re coming down to the level of the employee and doing the tasks along with them. (Codes: “empathy,” “lead by example,” and “servant leadership”). And at the same time going back to their beat they’re mentoring those employees telling them that you’ve been there before and they know how they feel empathizing with them and showing them the ropes and trying to encourage them and disciple them to one day becoming a leader as well. (Codes: “mentoring,” “empathize,” “encourage,” and “showing the ropes”).

Table 4

What behaviors would you say describe an effective leader?

Cluster codesTheme
“upfront about things,” “communicates regularly,” “checks in,” “clearly communicates,” “maintains communication,” “communicating,” “in touch with employees,” “engages,” “involved,” “keeping up,” “clear expectations,” “listening”
Communicates and connects regularly
“in the trenches” (2x), “doing work that you are doing,” “willingness to do the work,” “fills in,” “encourages,” “recognizes,” “trust,” “not just making decisions,” “through action”Works alongside their teams
“self-motivated,” “driven,” “self-aware,” “takes charge,” “command,” “firm,” “strong,” “maintains effectiveness”Is self-driven and takes charge
“need to accomplish,” “achieves,” “meets goals,” “common team goal,” “goal in mind,” “strive towards a similar goal,” “does not stray”Is compassionate
“need to accomplish,” “achieves,” “meets goals,” “common team goal,” “goal in mind,” “strive towards a similar goal,” “does not stray”Is compassionate
“willingness to show,” “teaching,” “mentoring,” “showing the ropes”Serves as teacher and mentor
“overcomes obstacles,” “handles situations,” “mature”Overcomes adversity


The phenomenological study found that Millennials and Generation Z both share similar perspectives in their descriptions of leadership as well as in their narratives of the qualities and behaviors associated with effective leadership. The Pattern Coding theming process exercised in the analysis of all three questions identified large-scale themes on generational perspectives of leadership effectiveness.

Question 1: How do You Describe Leadership?

The Pattern Coding theming process identified three major categories for the first inquiry. Both generation groups posited that phrases like influence, results-driven, and leads by example with a serving heart, all described and defined leadership. Not far behind were service, communication, and development. These responses primarily indicated that both generational cohorts value relational constructs of leadership over transactional descriptors.


Analysis of the verbatim responses suggested that America’s emerging generations describe leadership as an ability that influences and moves a group of individuals or team members towards a common goal. In-Vivo Coding identified 10 instances of words or phrases that directed attention to the construct of influence as a descriptive of leadership. These observations aligned with commonly accepted theories on leadership that highlight the importance of influence in its definition (Antonakis & Day, 2018; Northouse, 2019; Waldman & O’Reilly, 2020; Yukl, 2013). Phrasing such as “move others to change,” “lead somewhere,” and “common goal” also guided the findings towards the following significant point: influence can be goal-oriented and intentional. The term “inspiration” was used interchangeably as a mechanism to communicate the concept of influence. Garton (2017) recommended that inspiration and influence went hand-in-hand in describing leadership.


Millennials and Generation Z described the leaders that they desire to follow as results- driven and high-level performers. They “complete tasks,” work “towards common goals,” and exemplify “effectiveness” in their performance. They are driven by meaning, purpose, and significance. They are what Warren (2012) would consider purpose-driven in their actions. The study uncovered 10 specific references that tied the description to a results-driven leadership mentality—one where leaders encourage their followers to exercise and one that they model up, down, and around in their 360-degree diorama.

Leading by Example with a Serving Heart

Leadership is about doing, not just delegating and empowering. According to younger cohorts, leaders “jump in” and “get in the trenches,” showing followers what to do and how to do it. Leaders get into the “nitty-gritty” and do not ask their team members to do something that they themselves are not prepared to do. A leader’s actions are rooted in servanthood; it is “not about a title,” it is more about having a heart to serve first.

Greenleaf (1977) popularized the concept of servant leadership, and although technology and the internet have changed the environment in which the praxis occurs, Millennials and Generation Z still respond favorably to its underlying premise and philosophy.

Question 2: What qualities and characteristics would you say describe an effective leader?

Question two sought to identify the specific types of characteristics that leaders possessed. Although the study anticipated crossover between all three inquiries, question two was designed and worded in a fashion to be less fixated on the description

of leadership and more focused on leadership qualities. The theming highlighted the following three overarching characteristics and qualities: leaders lead by example, know their-teams, and are team-oriented.

Lead by Example

The quality of leading by example appeared in both questions one and two; however, the responses identifying leadership by example occurred with most frequency in question two: it was the highest-ranked leadership discourse and response. According to Millennials and Generation Z, leaders are dominantly characterized by their ability to “walk the talk.” The open-ended responses suggested that leaders functioned with a “lead by example” philosophy, a “hands-on approach,” and modeled the work while operating comfortably “from the middle” of the action. Leaders match their words with action and are willing to do the heavy lifting and go the extra mile, exemplifying what sound leadership looks like. Self-sacrifice is commonly associated with leaders that lead by example (Portolese et al., 2018).

Know Their Teams

The verbatim responses indicated that leaders know their teams. They do this by authentically investing time in getting to know and understand each of their team members. Additionally, they take time to know their team members’ needs, dreams, personal and career objectives. Over time, the psychological contract is enhanced, and followership loyalty increases (Lussier & Achua, 2016). Respondents used phrases like “know the difference between people,” “knowing people,” “pulse on the team,” and “in tune with people” to illustrate the importance of this leadership quality. Knowing your team also means sharing responsibility, accountability, and leadership duties. Practicing team leadership (Blake & Adams-McCanse, 1991; Blake & Mouton, 1985) provides a platform to get to know team members while being conscious of both relationship- oriented and task-oriented constructs.


The final theme identified in this second component of the study was also related to team dynamics. However, it was significant enough to merit its own entry. Younger generations find that leaders who practice team-orientation in their decision-making and planning, organizing, leadership, and controlling functions tend to be more influential and inspiring in the eyes of their followers. Unique phrases like “leveraging team strengths,” “team player,” and “looks out for the team’s best interests” were used to differentiate the theme from the adjacent construct of knows their team. Other phrases, such as “effective team player” and “engages” team members, also served to solidify the stand-alone theme. Levi (2017) reinforced the importance of team-oriented leadership that offers interdependence, interpersonal interaction, structured relationships, and mutual influence.

Question 3: What behaviors would you say describe an effective leader?

The final question specifically probed for the behavioral attributes associated with leadership. Millennials and Generation Z overwhelmingly value leaders that communicate and work alongside their teams. Effective leadership behaviors include intentionally connecting above, below, and around with honesty and transparency. Team-spirited communication that is open and direct is appreciated. Millennials and Generation Z respect leaders that behave in a fashion that promotes the team as a unit where all members are valued, following the mantra, “teamwork makes the dream work.”

Communicates and Connects Regularly

Hickman (2016) defined communication as the “use of symbols (including words, tone of voice, gestures, or use of objects or artifacts) to convey meaning.” Millennials and Generation Z proclaim that consistent communication is the most important behavior that a leader can practice. Leaders who check-in regularly on their teams, communicate with clarity and transparency, and intently listen to their followers, separate themselves from the pack. Being “up front” and “keeping up” with the interests of their team members is a priority for Millennials and Generation Z followers. Individuals who effectively convey their message across channels using the appropriate encoding system, delivery method, and feedback loop (checking for understanding) increase their opportunity to be perceived as a leader among the younger generations.

Works Alongside Their Teams

Bass (2008) suggested that effective leadership involved the interaction between two or more members. The data analysis indicated that Millennials and Generation Z believe that their leaders should be working alongside and in tandem with them, “making decisions” together and building synergy along the way. Leaders who worked alongside their teams were more prone to build group cohesion quicker than if they worked in silos. Team leaders that encouraged cohesion tended to have “similar attitudes and personal goals” and developed common interests with their teams (Levi, 2017, p. 70). The study suggested that younger generations value synergy and team momentum; they value authentic and participative leaders that create a climate of camaraderie and team pride.


Millennials and Generation Z have developed similar perspectives on how they describe effective leadership and the behaviors associated with the leaders they willingly follow. Experiencing many of the same events in their formative years, these two emerging generational cohorts have developed a distinct and overlapping value

system that has shaped their perspectives towards leadership effectiveness. America’s youngest working cohorts value leadership that is influential, results-driven, and service-minded: leaders are emotionally intelligent. Leaders prioritize their team’s needs and operate with transparency and consistency in communication. Leaders operate using an authentic “leads by example” mentality and praxis that gains genuine buy-in and loyalty in the process.

Recommendations for Future Research

A longitudinal study is recommended to continue exploring the emerging leadership perceptions of Millennials and Generation Z, specifically as the majority of Generation Z begins entering the workforce, and Millennials progress deeper into their professional careers and personal journeys. An in-depth, quantitative analysis of differences in perceptions between Millennials and Generation Z would also be interesting to capture and examine. Although relatively narrow at this point in time, there is growing interest in researching the perceptions of the generational cohort that follows Generation Z, those born after 2010. How are they similar to previous generational groups? How might they differ? Finally, further research is needed to explore the construct of generations as culture and its relationship to leadership and generational cohort theory.

Continued research in this area will expand the growing framework of generational cohort theory and analysis pioneered by Mannheim (1928, 1952) and Strauss and Howe (1991, 1997). Delving deeper into the examination and understanding of predictive aspects and key characteristics of groups will provide further insight into socio-cultural factors and shared experiences that influence how a group of people close in age— having experienced similar formative events—interact with society. A juxtaposition of generational cohort theory and leadership constructs will provide a foundational baseline equipping those desiring to influence and lead America’s youngest cohorts.

Theoretical and Practical Implications

From a theoretical perspective, this study adds to the body of knowledge in that, to my knowledge, no other study has evaluated these two generations to understand the type of leader they desire to work with. While additional work is needed to expand on these variables and test for generalizability in larger populations, it is believed that this study has provided the foundation for future studies that aim to examine leadership effectiveness with Millennials and Generation Z.

From a practical perspective, these two generations characterize leadership effectiveness as those that lead by example, those that know their teams, and those that are team-oriented. Practically, these three competencies are invaluable to organizations today. It is my recommendation that organizations invest in training, development, and evaluation programs that include these three constructs. I also recommend integrating

them into the behavioral interviewing process to help identify the next generation of high-potential talent and leadership for the organization.

Leading Millennials and Generation Z is an open yet complex process. Leaders seeking to be effective across generational boundaries need to speak the leadership language welcomed by America’s youngest generational cohorts. Leaders that practice a philosophy that places a high priority on connection, results, service, and development best position themselves for stronger performance and organizational success.

Organizational leaders need to adjust their leadership style accordingly and place a high priority on relationships and team-centricity that promotes both collaboration and autonomy. It is recommended that intergenerational leaders communicate in a language that exemplifies purpose and significance, and provides an avenue for Millennials and Generation Z to express themselves.

About the Author

Jake Aguas is an organizational consultant and Associate Professor of Management in the Crowell School of Business at Biola University, where he teaches management, human resources, leadership, and organizational behavior. He served as a leader in the retail bank division of JPMorgan Chase for 15 years, notably as its Human Resource Manager for Talent Acquisition for the Western United States. He is a GenExpert and is pursuing a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership from Regent University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Economics from UCLA and a master’s degree in Organizational Leadership from Biola University. Jake consults internationally and is the author of two books: Megatrends: The Transformative Forces Reshaping the United States, and Generation Z and the COVID-19 Global Crisis. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jake Aguas at


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