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Are Current Leadership Theories Relevant to Millennials?

October 1, 2016 • Leadership Styles, Millennial Leaders, Transformational Leadership


Labor Force Composition by GenerationThe authors of this Leadership Quarterly article question whether five contemporary leadership theories are relevant to Millennials (those born between 1981-1997 who make up the largest generation cohort of the working population as of 2015).

This paper is an important read for all leaders and HR professionals whose leadership approaches are based on current theories.

The five leadership styles called out in this article are as follows (definitions from Wikipedia):

  • Transformational leadershipLeaders that follow the transformation style of leading, challenge and inspire their followers with a sense of purpose and excitement.
  • Information processing: Focuses on the role of social perception in identifying leadership abilities.
  • Leader-member exchangeA relationship-based approach to leadership that focuses on the two-way (dyadic) relationship between leaders and followers.
  • Authentic leadership: Emphasizes building the leader’s legitimacy through honest relationships with followers which value their input. By building trust and generating enthusiastic support from their subordinates, authentic leaders are able to improve individual and team performance.
  • Ethical leadershipis leadership that is directed by respect for ethical beliefs and values and for the dignity and rights of others.


Anderson et al highlighted important generational shifts or gaps, based on a broad range of cited research studies. They conclude that Millennials:

  • Seem to be more individualistic and less altruistic at work than earlier generations of employees and have lower concern for others
  • Value work-life balance and meaningful lives outside of work, including leisure activities

They argue that these gaps can impact a leader’s ability to manage and influence. Fifteen “propositions” are advanced in an attempt to highlight the limitations and currency of the five current leadership theories. These are summarized in the table below.

“Several of our most widely researched theories of leadership may be stretched by the changing dispositions and values of the work force. We would contend that generational shifts have dictated a reevaluation of the applicability of many of our classic leadership approaches how they might be useful in leading the newest generation of organizational entrants. Given the generational shifts that have been discussed, managers and future researchers need to be mindful of both the adequacy and adaptability of these theories for the latest organizational entrants.”

The authors conclude with five recommendations for leaders on ways to adapt each of the current leadership theories, as well as practical steps for HR leaders. They offer suggestions for future research, pointing out that as the workforce changes, so too must the leadership theories. The authors note that Millennials are already assuming leadership roles and it is important to understand how they may be different because of the generational shifts.

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