Learnings from Gen Z on Leadership and Advocacy

By Kate O'Neill

In August 2018 - a 16-year-old girl from Sweden declared she was on strike from school and launched a lone protest against political inaction on climate change. 

Within a matter of weeks, Greta Thunberg had inspired hundreds of thousands of young voices to disrupt the status quo, take to the streets and call on politicians to do more to stop the impact of climate change in what has become a global movement. 

In this time, Greta has humiliated political leaders for their lack of response to this burning issue while simultaneously building followers through her memorable speeches to some of the world’s most prestigious speaking platforms.

More recently, in Australia, a spin off organisation, School Strike 4 Climate Change, have successfully built a narrative and pedestal to bring a new voice to the upcoming Australian federal election debates which could ultimately see real disruption to voting patterns and behaviours across the country.

What is clear is that Greta, wittingly or not, has developed a formidable reputation among young people and as a consequence has sparked action that could see real political change occur as a result.

Copyright: World Economic Forum

Copyright: World Economic Forum

And youth movements like this are not a one-off occurrence. 

If we liken this behaviour to another movement, the March for our Lives campaign, orchestrated by survivors of the Parkland massacre in 2018 – we see a very well-thought out, regional outreach programme stimulating local conversations that could ultimately be the tipping point for a change in American legislation.

The implications 

What we are witnessing are young people who can organise, build and manage their reputation from the bottom up, identify decision-makers and engage with them on public platforms to make change.

This demographic will, in just a few short years, be the voters, the customers and the employees that will make up our societies – and they have the potential to have a real impact on current structures. As such, politicians, employers, teachers and parents need not just to recognise these emerging voices and behaviours but to listen, understand and respond to them. 

Imagine the same number of employees going on strike or protesting globally and the impact this would have on businesses.

Some businesses and their leaders are recognising the need to take a point of view on social issues and link to a social purpose. Being “woke” (alert to injustice in society) has become the latest marketing trend that brand managers are tearing their hair out trying to get ahead of. 

But will changing a slogan or buying a celebrity endorsement really convey the right messaging to the activist generation and build the reputation you desire? 

If with the right hand you’re launching an advertising campaign that highlights a social injustice but, the left hand has, for example, made no serious effort to reduce its carbon footprint, then your business is more likely to suffer from a poorer reputation and fail to attract customers or talent to your brand. Efforts such as these will not build the connection required to relate and manage this audience.

Four lessons from Greta for business

So how has Greta managed to build such an influential leadership profile in such a short space of time? 

Here are four key lessons for staying ahead of the pack and futureproofing your business and its reputation: 

  • Action: The time for talking about change is over – the younger generation have made that clear. Unless your business is willing to lead by example or implement a real change – then you will fail to connect with young audiences. Greta built her reputation through the power of her actions. 
  • Truth:  Greta speaks with such clear authenticity and honesty that her voice is hard to ignore. This may mean highlighting historic bad practice – but it will earn you respect with young customers and employees. Pushing more skeletons in the closet or being afraid to upset the apple cart will not help your reputation with these stakeholders. And truth be told, it’s harder to hide the skeletons these days.
  • Collaboration: A key lesson from the young generation on leadership is their willingness to work together. They don’t understand why all the decision-making is happening behind closed doors without their voice or the opportunity to influence. Leaders should be stepping out from the boardroom and harnessing ideas, points of view and the spirit of collaboration. 
  • Language: Tone of voice and words are just as important now as they ever were. Greta’s speeches are so impactful they are picked up on all channels. Moving away from corporate speak and jargon and speaking in real terms is more important than ever for leaders who want to connect with this generation.

The Future

Reputation managers have been highlighting the importance of these four lessons for a decade now. But it’s very rare that organisations truly embrace them. 

However, we are seeing these lessons evidenced by young people every day. They understand how to build followership across multiple platforms, demographics and nations to spark action and change. 

And while activism like this is not a new development, there is a real point of differentiation in the speed at which these movements are taking hold. In the past, it took decades, in some cases, centuries for movements to affect change and gain international recognition and support for their causes. 

For this generation, it is instantaneous. And they can do all this with minimal support, funding and resources. If you want your business to succeed in the long-term, you need to get with the times and connect with the activist generation. 

They are the future and they are impressive.

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