Recognizing the Influence of Leadership and Mentorship on the Multigenerational Workforce

Coworkers from different generations working at a computer.

Many stereotypes about intergenerational differences are not supported or are contradicted by recent academic research. However, the media is reluctant to recognize as much. This leads to a widening of the generational gap. This article advocates foregoing these stereotypes in an appeal to recognize the influences of leadership, followership, and mentorship on the multigenerational workforce.

Foundation of Leadership

There are many definitions of leadership. In its simplest form, it’s about exerting influence in a positive manner. Research by French and Raven shows leaders become more influential if they possess five “bases of power:”

  • Power of Legitimacy - having a formal title.
  • Power of Reward - the ability to provide things desired by others in the organization.
  • Power of Coercion - the opposite of the power of reward, the individual with this base of power is influential because they can punish others.
  • Power of Expertise - power that comes from being skilled and knowledgeable; to the point an organization may well be dysfunctional without the expert.
  • Referent Power - the “likability” factor. The Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) theory by Graen and colleagues suggests leaders are more influential when they communicate openly and create trust. Additionally, Greenleaf’s servant leadership approach suggests sharing power by putting the needs of others first for the sake of the common good.

How to Be a Good Leader

For both established and emerging professionals, building your bases of power is crucial. It limits your need to rely largely on the legitimate - your formal title - to exert influence. The more bases you have, the more likely you’ll be capable of connecting across generations.

The more interpersonally-focused referent base will win respect. Treating colleagues of other generations as individuals, rather than stereotypes, builds trust. Open communication enables you to be more influential. Leaders have a responsibility to get people to work together to create a better organization. Leveraging multiple bases of power builds trust. Openly communicating and emphasizing common goals can coalesce and energize a multigenerational workplace.

Leadership vs. Followership

The flip side of leadership is followership, defined as the willingness to defer to the power and authority of another. It’s about supporting a leader to help them lead well. Organizations are about achieving common goals.

Some situations require you to lead. Some require you to follow. Know your context and what you’re called to do at the time. Recognize what knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) are needed for the leader to effectively accomplish group goals. Follow the person that has those KSAs. If you have them, take the reins. If you don’t, follow the person who does.

The Age Factor

Some established professionals might be reluctant to defer to someone younger than them. However, the younger person might have the KSAs needed in a situation. Letting emerging professionals take on leadership roles helps develop them.

We’re soon going to see an exodus of mature leaders and professionals. Providing younger employees with lower-stakes leadership roles now prepares them for the challenging leadership assignments that will come later.

Emerging professionals have a responsibility to find ways to become more effective leaders and decision makers. They should volunteer, seek appropriate opportunities, and do what they can to enhance their KSAs. For emerging professionals, it’s important to defer to people who have the experience and expertise needed within the context. This can dispel the “entitled” myth and build goodwill with colleagues from other generations.

The Impact of Mentorship

Mentorship, a development activity that pairs people (regardless of age) to learn from each other, is vital for organizations to survive. Some of the most effective mentoring relationships are informal in nature. Some mentors and mentees focus only on learning technical or certain job skills. But, mentoring should also be used for introducing a mentee to established professional networks, instilling accepted contextual social norms, and providing emotional support.

Many established professionals have been a mentor. They recognized their responsibility to develop someone and to further develop themselves. It’s important to not be the “sage on the stage” only offering advice and forcing only those things that have worked for you. Rather, be open – you may also learn from emerging professionals. Conversations should be two-way.

Established professionals are likely to have a network that helped them become successful. Introduce younger colleagues to these people so that they can have access to the same resources. Emerging professionals should approach a mentor with confidence and clarity regarding expectations. Recognize that your mentor, though they may have more years of experience, is likely to gain as much from the relationship as you do.

Whether you’re an established professional or emerging one, an extrovert or introvert, actively seek a mentor who demonstrates the skills you want to develop; one who has a similar career path to which you aspire; one whose connections can benefit you; or simply one who fits your personality.

Finally, a mentor isn’t there just for career advice. Talk to them about your emotions both positive and negative! It’s likely they’ve had similar fears and frustrations, joy and sadness in their career. They may be able to help you manage these emotions or be a much-needed sounding board. 


Image Credit: Monkey Business Images/

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