Making Way for Millennials in Leadership
Position Vacant: School Principal
Qualifications: Wisdom of a sage, vision of a Chief Executive Officer, intellect of a scholar, leadership of a point guard, compassion of a counsellor, moral strength of a nun, courage of a firefighter, craft knowledge of a surgeon, political savvy of a senator, toughness of a soldier, listening skills of a blind man, humility of a saint, collaborative skills of an entrepreneur, certitude of a civil rights activist, charisma of a stage performer and patience of Job.
Salary: Lower than you might expect
Over the past decade, I have researched the question of leadership and the differences which might occur between baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials as leaders of organizations. To this end, I completed a Ph.D. focused on the perceptions and aspirations of millennials to become principals of Christian schools. This research involved 40 case study interviews with aspiring leaders, as well as focus groups involving current principals and sector leaders. Additionally, a literature review was conducted into contemporary leadership models, generational differences, the principalship, and employment trends (Pampuch 2010). This research provides some important insights for school boards and leaders as they look for the next generation of principals and administrators.
Who Are the Millennials?
The millennials are the generation born between 1982 and 2000. Mackay (2007) claims Gen Y’s attitude to work has been shaped by two very different influences. On the one hand, they have entered the workforce at a point of almost unprecedented economic prosperity. On the other hand, they have also witnessed what happened to their parents during the economic recessions of the ’90s, and the new millennium. Salt (2007) claims that these influences have led to clear preferences for tribal structures. Their friends, parents, and workmates are important points of reference and sources of information.
Millennials are twice as likely to live at home than previous generations. Marriage, mortgage, and children have all been postponed to their late twenties and thirties. These trends have had the effect of delaying the transition into the type of financial responsibility associated with asset and family protection. This shift in mores—along with a broadly benign global economic environment—has forged a generation that is unlike those of previous eras (Cole, Smith, and Lucas 2002).
Shortage of School Leaders
Coinciding with the emergence of millennials in the workforce, there has been a global decline in the number of applicants for educational leadership positions. In 2006, Ross reported that only four percent of teachers in the United Kingdom were actively seeking a principalship. This dearth is not limited to the UK, but has also been mirrored in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, Hong Kong, and Singapore (DEST 2007; Rowe 2000; Williams 2003; Walker, Scott, and Cheng 2003). The reasons cited for not pursuing a school leadership position included:
- A lack of classroom engagement
- Poor media image
- Painful and substantial transition in the role of leaders
- Challenges being far greater than support offered
- Long hours
- High levels of stress, pressure, and conflict
- Significant family impact (which can cause divorce)
- Role complexity
- Lack of sufficient resources and authority
- Public disclosure of mistakes
- Need for relocation
- Immovable cultural values and norms
Often, for millennial teachers, school leadership positions hold little attraction. What they have seen of the leader’s role is negative, and there appears to be more viable career options outside of education. Leaders voicing their own frustrations . Additionally, many teachers want to remain in the classroom and not become a manager or administrator. Other millennials questioned the fairness and transparency of the promotion process (Neidhart and Carlin 2003). To this end, many educational authorities and sectors have raced to find solutions to this leadership succession problem.
The Impact of Perceptions on a Future Leader’s Desire to Aspire
In line with the literature, the study I conducted found that there are very few millennials who are actively seeking to aspire to leadership positions. Those who are currently in middle manager positions often feel they have arrived by “accident”—a need arose (or a crisis has occurred) which forced them to step into a leadership position. Most millennials, however, remain uninterested because of the perceptions noted above.
Another significant obstacle for many millennials was the perception that baby boomers were blocking their progress—either intentionally or unintentionally. Some participants in the study felt that baby boomers were staying on longer in their positions due to the global financial crisis—trying to sure up their retirement. Others believed that baby boomers felt they had first right for positions because of their longer tenure, though their skills may not be as strong as those of younger candidates. Many millennials felt that leadership roles were structured to suit an older generation, and lacked the currency for an emerging generation.
The Pathway to Leadership in Christian Schools
When discussing the pathway to leadership, many millennials in the study felt that there was limited documentation about the process or pathway to promotion, and that it was often poorly articulated by senior leaders in their school.
Participants felt that to become a leader, they needed to be sponsored by an influential individual in their school, church, or sector. Certain principals and leaders were seen as “king makers,” and determined whether aspirants would be successful. With the endorsement of a “king maker,” individuals were more likely to be afforded leadership opportunities.
When selecting a school leader, millennials felt that there was a degree of social reproduction occurring. One quoted a board chair who said (when replacing a retiring principal): “We want just the same as the current guy, but 10 years younger.” This selection style had the effect of creating a stable of potential applicants who were similar in age, gender, ethnicity, denomination, and social position to the incumbent.
Finally, millennials noted that securing a school head position required an individual to adhere to an apprenticeship model approach. To be considered for that role, one first had to be a deputy or assistant, dean, department head, and teacher. Nontraditional candidates who came from other occupations or industries, though having excellent leadership experience, would not be considered. Women were most impacted by this model, since at the exact time that promotion positions are being offered, many female aspirants left to begin families.
A Future Generation of Christian School Leaders
Participants in the study stated that to attract a new generation of leadership, school leaders and administrators need to recognise that for millennials:
- There are striking differences in terms of their needs and preferences in the workforce.
- They have a disregard for traditional hierarchical structures, and are more team-focussed.
- A lifelong career in education will be replaced by a range of different careers in different professions—though they might come back to education if the experience was good.
- They are more likely to enforce firm boundaries around their work to achieve balance with family, leisure time, and relationships.
- More important than a promotion is the ability to try a range of activities and experiences, as they feel that “change is as good as a pay raise.”
- Technology is very important to their work and interactions. They have much to offer a workplace and older colleagues, but this is often not valued by traditional school environments.
- They have a good work ethic, but often hours of low output were valued over intense high output by schools(i.e., “You had to appear to be suffering”).
When asked what they required for effective leadership preparation, many millennials in the study hoped that workplaces would:
- Develop a range of legitimate opportunities and experiences that prepared aspirants for the role.
- Engage in ongoing professional dialogue with millennials about their career aspirations and professional development.
- See millennials as more than just a commodity to be used by the school and to focus holistically on their health and well-being.
- Develop a supportive school environment where individuals could test their aptitude for leadership, and where different styles and models could be experimented with.
A New Model of Leadership
The literature and my research study indicate that a new model of leadership is required to attract and retain millennial leaders. Millennial leadership of the future will be characterised by four elements:
- Diversity of Skills in Leadership Groups
The concept of a single leader in Christian schools needs to be reconceptualised to one that embraces wider notions of leadership diversity. To cope with the complexity and change within the education sector, millennial leaders will need to surround themselves with a diverse group of specialised executives, deferring to others with the greatest level of skill and expertise necessary. Placement of a young aspirant in a narrow leadership model is likely to result in feelings of personal inadequacy, role overload—and in some cases—role abandonment.
- A Density (Abundance) of Leaders
Additionally, discrete areas of responsibility need to be replaced by dense leadership hubs. The ability to form a high density of multiple leadership roles emerged from the study as having the power to potentially sustain the leader and transform the organization. The findings of the study indicate that a dense leadership hub would also serve as a vital mechanism, alleviating millennials’ feelings of isolation and entrapment. By making fellow leaders a part of the inner circle, a leader’s health and well-being could be sustained for the long term.
- Deep Relationships Among Leaders
The findings of the study also indicate that deeply developed relationships could be utilised by millennials to deal with societal changes and technological advancement; uncertainty and change could be overcome by trust, mutual respect, and support. Additionally, these relationships could also be used to break down social and cultural barriers, and bring about a more inclusive school culture.
- Comfortable with Dissention (Moving Away) from Traditional Leadership Styles and Practices
Finally, for such change to occur, school boards and leaders will need to be comfortable with periods of ambiguity, while established practices are replaced by more contemporary ones. In particular, Christian school boards and leaders will need to encourage a form of dissent from established models that allows experimentation and the trial of new practices. The findings indicate that such dissent from established practices has the potential to engage millennials, and provide a new style of leader for our Christian schools in the future.
The role of school leaders is becoming more complex as societal expectations deepen, compliance broadens, and educational outcomes are fixated on. The sentiments of the opening job advertisement at the beginning of this post (Copeland 2001) are a reality for all leaders, not just millennials. However, by seriously considering the needs of this emerging group of leaders, Christian schools and boards have the opportunity to consider changes which will support and assist all leaders in their work—no matter their age, gender, ethnicity, or level of experience. The role of the leader is extremely important for the success of the Christian school—as both an educational institution, and as a community of believers. Changing expectations and increased demands must be met with thoughtfully redeveloped models of leadership for the success of our current leaders, and for those to come.
- Cole, G., Smith, R., and Lucas, L. 2002. “The Debut of Generation Y in the American Workforce.” Journal of Business Administration Online 1(2).
- Copland, M. 2001. “The Myth of the Super Principal.” Phi Delta Kappan 24: 528-533.
- Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST). 2007. OECD: Improving Leadership Activity—Australia Country Background Report. Canberra: DEST.
- Mackay, H. 2007. Advance Australia Where? Sydney: Hachette Australia.
- Neidhart, H., and Carlin, P. 2003a. “Pathways, Incentives, and Barriers for Women Aspiring to Principalship in Australian Catholic Schools.” Paper presented at the NZARE/AARE conference, Auckland. Last modified March 17, 2010, from www.aare.edu.au/03pap/car03480.pdf.
- Pampuch, D. 2010. “Looking for the Next Generation of School Principal.” Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Queensland.
- Ross, A. October 10, 2006. “Headteacher Crisis: The Numbers Tell the Story.” The Guardian. Last modified March 29, 2010, from www.guardian.co.uk/education/2006/oct/10/primaryeducation.schools.
- Salt, B. 2007. Beyond the Baby Boomers: The Rise of Generation Y. Melbourne: KPMG.
- Rowe, R. 2000. “Shortage of Principals Looming.” New Zealand Education Review. January 14.
- Walker, A., Stott, K., and Cheng, Y. C. 2003). “Principal Supply and Quality Demands: A Tale of Two Asia-Pacific City States.” Australian Journal of Education 47(2): 197-208.
- Williams, T.R. 2003. “Ontario’s Principal Scarcity: Yesterday’s Abdicated Policy Responsibility—Today’s Unrecognized Challenge.” Australian Journal of Education 47(2): 159-172.
About the Author
Dr. Daniel Pampuch was appointed chief executive officer of Christian Schools Australia in January 2017. As CEO, he oversees 140 Christian schools, and provides advocacy for an additional 40 schools across Australia—representing some 60,000 students. He was previously the executive officer of the Uniting Church Schools Commission, overseeing 18 institutions in Queensland. Daniel has over 20 years of experience in Christian education, and most recently served as executive principal of the Crest group of Christian schools and Early Learning Centres. Daniel has a Ph.D. in Next Generation Leadership, as well as Masters in Business Administration, a Masters of Educational Leadership, and a Masters in Theological Studies. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.