I have been reflecting on our recent blog post featuring General Stanley McChrystal and his insights into generational differences in the armed forces, (among other things). His key questions included - how will senior leadership maintain credibility, authority, and confidence when junior people know more than they do about new tactics, new communication tools, and very different ways to address problem solving than they do? First, let's look at what we can learn from Lady Gaga. Given her phenomenal success there are many ways we could analyze her. She and her team have been masters of social media and reinventing how pop music is marketed. She is arguably the number one pop star in the world. Rather than evaluate her business approach we want to focus on how she has truly tapped into a community - her fans that she lovingly refers to as “my little monsters.” She has cast herself as someone who was lonely and felt isolated growing up, but as it turns out, she was just a misunderstood brilliant artist and her fans are too. So “monster” references their “outsider status.” She connects with her fans as also being wonderful outsiders and calls herself “mama monster.” Here is just a sample of the lyrics from her latest hit, “Born This Way”:
“I’m beautiful in my way, ‘cause God makes no mistakes I’m on the right track baby. I was born this way…. Whether life’s disabilities left you outcast, bullied or teased, rejoice and love yourself today because baby you were born this way.”
If Gaga is merely the voice of “disenfranchised youth” and/or the alternative independents, why is she selling tens of millions of records around the world? And she is not the only one. Another example is the pop star known as Pink. She also casts herself as a rebel individual. She has an enormous hit called “Raise Your Glass.” Here are some of the lyrics, “So raise your glass if you are wrong, In all the right ways, All my underdogs, We will never be, never be, anything but loud and nitty gritty dirty little freaks.” This is not some indie artist song. You actually can’t escape it right now. Ads for movies and TV shows are using it constantly. Here are lyrics from another recent big hit of hers, “F***ing Perfect” – “Mistreated, misplaced, misunderstood. Miss 'No way, it's all good', it didn't slow me down. Mistaken, always second guessing, underestimated. Look, I'm still around. Pretty, pretty please, don't you ever, ever feel like you're less than f***ing perfect.”
So this is a business blog and you are a business leader. Why should you care about this pop music? Pay attention because this is the current zeitgeist and an access for you to connect. These songs are anthems for 20-somethings and probably 30-somethings and they are pointing to a collective attitude. These artists are not merely reflecting “teenage angst.” There’s a lot more going on here and it impacts you.
Back in the 1950’s, homogeneity was celebrated - “The Man In The Grey Flannel Suit.” The IBM salesman with the dark suit and black horn rimmed glasses, whether he needed them or not - the more similar and “cookie cutter” the better. If you are from the generation that grew up with “Leave it to Beaver,” you may still have fond memories of that reality. The thing is, the pendulum is swinging and it hasn’t maxed out yet. The younger generations are celebrating diversity, self-expression, and being an individual.
What does this mean for leaders managing a multi-generational work force? How productive are these newer workers going to be living in a sea of beige cubes? How will they handle being expected to fit the mold, conform, and do it your way? The probability is, they won’t, they are not, and you and your organization will be the lesser for it. They are stressed, struggling, and singing Lady Gaga as loud as they can on the way home in their cars at night.
In “The Prophet” by the poet, Kahlil Gibran, the Prophet speaks of children as follows:
“You may give them your love but not your thoughts, For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.”
So, are you willing to take on learning from “the house of tomorrow” in a way that will allow your organization to access all this passion, creativity, and drive? Will you learn to be someone who creates a productive environment for people who are not like you?
If you are closing in on retirement you may feel like, “oh well, this isn’t my issue.” What about your leadership legacy and the long-term outlook for your company? If you are an entrepreneur and you have a family-owned business, how are you connecting with the younger generations of the family and preparing them to take over?
I suggest going back to the Stanley McChrystal talk and really focusing on the relevant aspects of his message. In the meantime, you may also want to download a Lady Gaga album!