Our Generation X President's First Year

President Obama is arguably the United States’ first President who is a member of Generation X. (I say “arguably” since the boundary line between Boomers and X’ers is subject to debate. Born in 1961, in my view, he’s the vanguard of the next generation leaders.)

While I don’t believe any individual is poster child for the shared traits of a generation, I do think some of President Obama’s actions reflect characteristics I’ve seen in other X’ers I’ve studied. Even more, as I reflect on his first full year in office, I believe some of the frustrations and celebrations of the year illustrate patterns we may see echoed as members of Generation X assume the leadership roles throughout business and in other public institutions.

Members of Generation X are, first and foremost from my research, options thinkers. They value the ability to be self-reliant which, for most, translates into having back up plans for their back up plans. The seeds for this value were planted in their teen years, when many observed the adult world around them rocked by change and institutional failures – corporations that unexpectedly laid people off, marriages ending in divorce, even a major government-sponsored space program that literally exploded in front of their eyes. As teens, X’ers developed strong survival skills and the ability to handle whatever came along with resilience. Today X’ers instinctively cultivate a portfolio of multiple possibilities.

This generation is richly multicultural and highly diverse. X’ers’ formative years followed the civil rights advances of the 1960s. As a result, X’ers bring a more unconscious acceptance of diversity than any preceding generation, welcoming the contributions of multiple individuals, seemingly comfortable in a world in which there is no dominant voice.

President Obama is clearly, from all descriptions, an options thinker. He has committed his Presidency to the serious acceptance of heterogeneous perspectives. From all evidence, he not only tolerates, but welcomes, multiple views. And, more than once, he has, as a result, had to wrestle with the camel designed by a committee that predictably emerges when multiple views are accommodated. Some of the criticism he has faced comes from those who are intolerant of what they view as slow decision-making and frequent compromise. To those, I suggest that this may well be a characteristic that we see extending into other institutions as more X’ers assume leadership roles.

My research also found X’ers in general to be highly pragmatic, with practical and value-oriented sensibilities, philosophically committed to serving as effective stewards of both today’s organizations and tomorrow’s world. The X’ers I interviewed almost universally valued producing more than they consumed and investing the infrastructure. In an interview just last week, the President was unapologetic about the pragmatic political process he has followed and the wide swath of basic rebuilding he has attempted to address.

High divorce rates during Gen X’s youth meant this is the first generation to grow up guided by women in independent authority roles. I’m intrigued that President Obama is surrounded by so many strong female advisors and colleagues: Special Advisor Valerie Jarrett, Hillary Clinton, Speaker of the House Pelosi, and of course Mrs. Obama.

Most Gen X’ers are fiercely dedicated to being good parents – a value that often translates into firm views on the amount of time they spend with their children and the structure they provide. The Obamas exemplify this trait and openly celebrate the ability living “over the office” has given them to spend time with their daughters. The President recently described his personal greatest blessing of the past year as the fact that he has dinner with his family every night.

The way President has structured his team may serve as a useful model for X’ers as they assume the corporate reins. He has built an operational staff of largely Gen X’ers and Y’s, but tapped Boomers for the expertise and wisdom in key roles, including the overwhelming majority of his Cabinet.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Boomers and X’ers, from my research, is the diminished emphasis X’ers place on winning for winning’s sake, on being right. Boomers, reared in a zero sum world of overpopulated classrooms and too-few jobs, have by necessity often taken a highly polarized line. Obama, in contrast, appears to shape his communications to eliminate the language of combat. He often reminds us that he has no personal pride of authorship.

I wonder, however, whether the drive to communicate the “rightness” of your position might not be an essential element of political leadership. In a recent interview, Obama said, “. . . I think the assumption was, if I just focus on policy, if I just focus on the, you know this provision, or that law, or are we making a good, rational decision here that . . . people will get it. . . . What I haven’t always been successful at doing is breaking through the noise and speaking directly to the American people. . .”

In a world as complex and rapidly changing as ours, I admire the X’ers’ bent toward multiple options. I’m skeptical of anyone who argues there is only one way. But I also admire those who, after considering multiple options, present a persuasive and engaging case for the course they’ve chosen. Perhaps this is one change we will see in President Obama’s approach over the year ahead and a useful lesson for all X’er leaders.

Read the whole story here, by Tammy Erickson @ Harvard Business Publishing