Can you name a leader under 40 who is effectively solving a societal problem? Unfortunately, most young leaders cannot.
Independent Sector’s 2009 American Express NGen Fellows (a cohort of 12 under-40 nonprofit leaders) just released the results of its group project, a report that looked at how emerging leaders across sectors can work together to solve society’s most pressing problems.
The final report is based on a survey distributed to more than 2,000 young leaders in nonprofits, government, and business that examined their perspectives on leadership development, cross-sector collaboration, and how to respond to major community challenges.
The most shocking part of the report for me was that the majority of respondents could not identify a single under-40 leader who is effectively solving a societal problem. Yes, you heard that right. Nearly two-thirds of the survey respondents were not aware of their own peers who are making a difference in the world every day.
How could this be?
On the one hand, the report findings may be a sign that younger leaders are just not at the forefront of organizations in large numbers. Or it may simply be an indication that younger leaders are not being publicly recognized at the same rate as their older colleagues. Indeed, in the analysis of their primary findings, the NGen fellows assert their belief that there is a “visibility vacuum” with regard to young leaders who work for social change. In other words, it’s not that young leaders aren’t out there. It’s just that they aren’t being “seen,” and instead “remain waiting in the wings and oftentimes working in the shadows, widely unrecognized by their peers.”
A Different Mold
The report points to a generational leadership issue raised in the book Working Across Generations: Defining the Future of Nonprofit Leadership, by Frances Kunreuther, Helen Kim, and Robby Rodriguez, which illustrates how dominant mental models can shape our view of leadership and prevent us from “seeing” new leaders because they do not look like the current ones.
As the NGen fellows explain: “If we are consistently presented with ‘leaders’ of a particular age, gender, race, and style of leadership, it would be difficult for even the savviest thinkers to recognize leaders who do not fit this dominant mold.”
Asking New Questions
Harvard professor and leadership scholar Ronald Heifetz talks about how “normative issues” in leadership can make it difficult for new leaders to emerge. Basically, the term “normative” means relating to an ideal model or standard for something, i.e. the “norm.”
Heifetz says that we have a normative problem when a community believes collectively that leaders have certain characteristics like age, experience, and pedigree. And when a community believes that leaders come packaged in a particular way, they are more likely to ignore the leaders they already have and wait for the “real” leaders to come along.
Using this frame, we make the mistake of equating leadership with a certain set of personality traits, when in fact, leadership is what you do.
I hope that some different kinds of questions begin to emerge in the nonprofit world as a result of the NGen findings. When organizations search for new leaders or when conference organizers seek new speakers, I hope they will stop asking, “Who are they?” and start asking, “What have they done?”
In the meantime, how can we better highlight the work of young nonprofit leaders?