Leadership Lessons: Leadership Through the Generation Gap

July 18, 2022
Charles Napp explains how transactional leadership differs from transformational leadership and why the latter might be the most effective for firefighters.

While I attended meetings recently with local fire chiefs, some of the most common conversations that arose dealt with conflicts with the newest generation of firefighters. Many chiefs are amazed at how different these firefighters think and act compared with firefighters of previous generations. Several stories related to interactions between older officers and new recruits that had poor outcomes.

In one encounter, a new firefighter who was training repeatedly failed to properly don a piece of safety equipment. Finally, the officer yelled at the firefighter and used an expletive to reinforce the seriousness of properly wearing the equipment. The new firefighter was offended and complained; the officer was relieved of duty.

In another encounter, a young firefighter got into an argument with a 30-year officer on a call. Again, the firefighter was offended and filed a complaint. The officer was moved off of shift work to day duty.

What’s going on here?

Through the generations

Today’s fire service primarily is composed of three generational cohorts: baby boomers, Generation X and millennials. Gaining a better understanding of the generational cohorts allows fire officers a better understanding of how members think and operate.

Baby boomers entered the world roughly between 1946 and 1965. The large size of the cohort meant that they had—and continue to have—a great effect on American culture. Their younger years were molded by world events that included the Vietnam War and Watergate. As a whole, they were known for their college-age radicalism. Once in the workforce, they tended to become workaholics who value extrinsic rewards. The fire service has many leaders and members of the baby boomer cohort. However, their numbers are shrinking rapidly as retirement takes more of them onto the next phase of their life.

The members of Generation X were born roughly between 1965 and 1980. In a reversal from the size of the baby boomer cohort, Generation X is small and often is labeled the Baby Buster generation. Both parents of young Gen Xers often worked, which often left children alone in the afternoons (“latchkey children”), which helped to create adults who are very independent.

Generation X rapidly is becoming the largest of the cohorts in the fire service. Many officers are members of this generation and are tuned in to independent action and to following directions (often without being told why). Generation X is the first generation to be submersed in technology, something that baby boomers, on the whole, missed out on.

The most recent population group to enter into the workforce is the millennial generation. Scholars have mixed opinions regarding millennials’ ability to cope in the modern workforce. Opinions vary regarding millennials as either woefully ill-equipped to deal with adversity or optimally equipped to handle situations because of their immersion into technology from literally their time of birth. Born between the years 1981 and 2000, this cohort is the largest population group to affect the workforce since the baby boomers and will continue to have an effect for decades.

Forces encountered at home, school and society, in general, affected the world view that’s held by millennials. As a result, millennials enter the workforce with different ideas regarding order, rules and leadership. The life experiences of millennials created a generation that possesses traits that include a lack of trust in organizations, a focus on personal success and a short-term career perspective. This generation grew up in a child-centric environment. The success of the child was paramount. (Remember the “Baby on Board” signs in car windows?) They were taught that self-esteem was of paramount importance. They were successful, and everyone got a trophy. They often worked in teams and received group grades. Millennials excel when working together to solve problems. That said, not all work experiences are geared toward group involvement. Therefore, an overreliance on group work created cohort members who aren’t accustomed to taking on individual projects and need constant feedback from leaders and managers.

Millennials entered the fire service in the precarious economic times of the early 21st century. Melding their lifestyle into the work environment is challenging. The literature paints a mixed picture of the overall perception of the generation. The world views millennials as entitled, optimistic and civic-minded. They are somewhat self-reliant. They also seem to be confident and upbeat. They possess relationships with their parents and have a great deal of parental involvement in their life (sometimes overly so). They value a work-life balance that might cause their supervisors to question their will to work. They are impatient and are adept at multitasking. They tend to feel special, and their desire to achieve often can be misunderstood by other cohorts as being arrogant.

The entrance of the millennial generation cohort into the workforce presents challenges and contradictions but also opportunities.

Leadership styles

What are fire service leaders to do about this generation gap?

Much of leadership involves learning to define and interpret problems. Understanding the differences between generational cohorts goes a long way toward helping to close the gap. Closing the gap is a must, because, whether we like it or not, the millennial generation is here to stay and is a growing force in the fire service.

What type of leadership do millennials want from their leaders? The intent of a recent study of career firefighters in a large metropolitan county in Texas was to determine whether statistically significant differences exist between the three generational cohorts in the leadership style that they prefer from their leaders. The two leadership styles that were utilized in the study were transactional and transformational. In brief, transactional leadership is an action-reaction relationship. If someone does X, they either will be rewarded or punished, depending on the circumstance: For example, do your job and get a paycheck. Baby boomers are very accustomed to this type of leadership style, because it was handed down to them from their officers who were from the traditional generation of World War II. At the extreme, visualize Gny. Sgt. Hartman in “Full Metal Jacket.”

At the heart of transformational leadership is the mental model that transformational leaders can motivate their followers to do more than is expected. Transformational leadership occurs when a leader inspires followers to share a vision, empowers them to achieve the vision and provides the resources that are needed for developing their personal potential. Transformational leaders inspire followers to live above their own self-interests for the good of the group, organization or country, which isn’t exactly a bad behavior set to see in any department. As a comparison, visualize Tom Hank’s character of Capt. John Miller in “Saving Private Ryan.” Miller definitely possesses a different leadership style than Hartman. They both have a job to do and are effective in their ways. However, subjecting millennials to the transactional style of Hartman probably will lead quickly to a trip to the human resources department.

The results of the study were interesting. Initially, it was believed that differences in preferred leadership styles would be seen between the generations, particularly between baby boomers and millennials. Specifically, the researcher believed that baby boomers would prefer transactional leadership. However, the results indicated that transformational leadership was preferred across all generational cohorts.

What does this result mean for fire officers and leaders?

First, old-style “Do this or I will fire you” leadership is on the way out of the fire service. Second, across all generational cohorts, members recognize the value of leaders who work to move their employees toward greater achievement. Third, and possibly most important for this article, closing the generation gap might be more closely related to understanding your own style of leadership than fully understanding the psychology of the millennial cohort.

Leadership is about learning

It should be understood that true transformational leadership actually exists on a sliding scale from transactional to transformational. Knowing when to move the scale is a learning curve unto itself. Fire service leaders must begin to learn more about their leadership style and to explore transformational leadership. Doing so might lead to closure of the generation gap.

Several good books and articles that cover the subject of transformational leadership should be examined. One of the best books is “Leadership and Performance Beyond Expectations” by Bernard Bass.

Leadership is about learning. Learning and changing behavior often is a very uncomfortable process. The rewards of such change can be very valuable both individually and organizationally.

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