In our latest blog exploring leadership in the context of the climate emergency, Charles Brook writes about reverse mentoring and the need for established leaders to collaborate with the younger generation and allow themselves and their ideas to be challenged. 

When, at the age of 15, Greta Thunberg sat outside the Swedish Houses of Parliament, not many would have marked her out as a global leader. Barely more than a year on, she has been in conversation with presidents and executives, refusing monetised environmental awards, inspiring both her own generation and many others.

 That is not the entire story, as she says, “It’s sometimes annoying when people say, ‘Oh, you children are the hope, you will save the world.’ It would be nice if you could help a little.”

 We need to turn leadership on its head. Thunberg is as Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, describes her: a “Joan of Arc” of our time. But just as Joan of Arc did not remain a lone leader after she rallied an army against the English, we should be inspired by Thunberg to act, not just be inspired in an ephemeral way. Reverse mentoring needs to be more than hoping that youthful vigour and an understanding of social media will organically rub off on older leaders. If we are long-time leaders, we need to allow the core of who we are to be influenced by emerging leaders to the point where we change the way things always were.

Reverse mentoring is more than a buzzword

 “Preparedness, coalition-building, imagination, experiments, bravery – in an unpredictable age, these are tremendous sources of resilience and strength… the less we know about the future, the more we’re going to need these tremendous sources of human, messy, unpredictable skills.” –  Margaret Heffernan, former CEO of five companies, TED Summit 2019

 Thunberg is a reminder that older leaders need to learn from the young, no matter how young they are. No matter how well we have led during our own lives, we will inevitably have left gaps. To believe otherwise is to deny our need to learn, and the limits of our own humanity. We are humans after all, not just leaders. And we need other humans to remind us what it is to be one. Sometimes, that person might be a sixteen-year-old.

To create a leadership culture that the young will want to inherit, we need to listen to them now, not later. Otherwise they will go elsewhere, and our legacies will eventually expire, even if we remain successful for a little while longer. We need to, as Marc Benioff outlines in Trailblazer, create a culture where the young feel “that what they did when they arrived at the office every day truly mattered.”

 Such a culture can only occur when everyone is given opportunity to influence others both “above” and “below” them. If you feel you influence no-one to any meaningful degree, you soon feel isolated and you will find a lack of meaning in your work. As Benioff goes on to say, “it’s often something intangible – like a diverse, inclusive, values-driven culture – that determines where the best and brightest talent decide to work.”

Rising above business-as-usual

“Millennials are just as interested in how a business develops its people and its contribution to society as they are in its products and profits. This should be an alarm to business in the way they engage Millennial talent or risk being left behind.” – Barry Salzberg, CEO of Deloitte

To make Extinction Rebellion a point of national conversation in the UK, Dr Gail Bradbook said she needed to get out of the way and let the artists take the lead on ideas. She had the core drive, and the capacity to organise, but she needed others to make the movement into more than “spreadsheets and graphs”. They turned it into something full of mischief and music. And it went viral.

 We need to create room, operationally, for those outside the established leadership to take the lead in ways that make us a little uncomfortable. Particularly if we are going to effectively tackle issues we have been ineffectively tackling for a couple of decades. Business-as-usual won’t suffice. We need radical ideas, unusual approaches, mischievous action plans – and many of these can only come from those who haven’t been in the system for twenty or thirty years.

 Some of these ideas will inevitably become failed experiments. But as Margaret Heffernan notes, “Failed experiments look inefficient, but they’re often the only way you can find out how the real world works.” No-one has a comprehensive guide on what works yet. And much of our naysaying has gaps in its reasoning. We need to experiment – and we need to let the young dictate what some of those experiments should be.

No longer passengers

 “There is no certainty, only adventure.” – Robert Assagioli

You are – we are – adventurers at heart. We didn’t get into leadership so we could play it safe, we aren’t in leadership now so we can hold the fort. The opportunity now is, as Marc Benioff says, “to stop thinking like a passenger along for the ride, to set aside the fear of the unfamiliar, to use your values as a compass, and start blazing a new trail.” Check out our transition to leadership course designed to prepare emerging leaders for greater responsibility. And for further advice on how to bridge the divide between older and younger leaders, read our previous blog examining reverse mentoring in detail.