MADISON, Wis. --
Military organizations, including the Wisconsin Army National Guard, develop and enforce a distinct culture that influences every aspect of military life - how the uniform is worn and training is conducted to codes of conduct, and so on. This culture ensures a baseline of standards which facilitates the ability of individuals or units to communicate and function with one another.
Continuing that culture from one generation to the next requires effectively communicating the value of that culture, and overcoming any generational barriers that may interfere with that message.
"We're a very diverse organization - we cross numerous subsets," state Command Sgt. Maj. George Stopper told Wisconsin National Guard enlisted leaders and officers Saturday (Feb. 25) during a session on generational differences at the Wisconsin National Guard's Wisconsin Military Academy at Fort McCoy. "Wouldn't it be awesome if you had some more tools in your toolbox to break down those barriers to help you communicate more effectively with those subsets within our organization we might be having a difficult time reaching?"
Brig. Gen. Mark Anderson, commander of the Wisconsin Army National Guard, recalled joining "pretty much a homogeneous group" of Baby Boomers as a young commander.
"We pretty much understood where each other came from - we had similar backgrounds, so we knew how to interact with each other," Anderson said. "But we are a much more diverse organization now."
That diversity, according to Dr. Elisabeth Nesbit of the Denver Seminary, extends to worldviews and motivations, which translate into different reasons for joining or staying in the military, different approaches to accomplishing tasks, and different methods of social interaction.
"We need to look at generations as cultures, not as people that are older or younger than us," Nesbit explained. "We value multiculturalism, we value diversity. But we haven't applied that [across age groups]. If we start applying it that way, it takes some of the angst out of the process - that it's not just an old person who doesn't get me and it's not just a young person who doesn't have responsibility and doesn't understand how the real world works."
Nesbit defined three generations presently in the military - Baby Boomers (born between 1945 and 1964), Generation X (born between 1961 and 1981) and Millennials (born between 1982 and 2001) - and outlined some broad characteristics of each. For example, she said Baby Boomers value "paying your dues," identify themselves by their occupations, attach to organizations, and don't require much affirmation. Members of Generation X, on the other hand, value competence over next-in-line promotion, are skeptical of organizations, have a strong sense of self-reliance and seek occasional affirmation.
"One thing about Millennials," Nesbit said, "we don't know who they are yet. They're still figuring out who they are and what their place in the adult world is going to look like."
If Generation X was the "latchkey generation," Nesbit said the Millennials are the "helicopter parent" generation. They highly value regular affirmation and are very collaborative, working better in small groups than independently.
"Millennials have been told their whole lives that they can be whatever they want to be, but no one taught them how," Nesbit said. She added that not every Millennial fits this broad definition, but that the definition was useful in bridging the generation gap.
"The choice is mine in my attitude, that I can either get upset or view it as a fun challenge," Nesbit said. "The same is true in management and leadership. You can either be really upset that someone didn't teach them what you think they should have learned at that age, or you can reassess if this person is teachable. You have to come alongside and mentor from there."
Millennials are seeking mentorship, Nesbit said, but not finding mentors in the Baby Boom generation.
"There's something about passing on a legacy, about understanding what has come before us that we value and is important to our survival," she said. "Now we have a generation that is asking for it and doesn't take it for granted."
Steve Tonkin, a presenter from Denver Seminary, said that people are born with one or more of seven motivations - motivator, orchestrator, teacher, illuminator, value builder, empathizer and server. Understanding individual motivations and how they interact with other motivations can help develop better mentoring skills, he said.
"The question is, as we grow does that change? The answer is fundamentally 'no,'" Tonkin said. "If a person is born a leader, they're going to be a leader. If a person is born a teacher, they're going to be a teacher. But it's how you function in that role. It doesn't mean you can't lead if you don't have that orchestrator motive - it just means you're going to do it differently."
Anderson echoed the importance of mentoring the younger generation.
"The organization is not broken - I just want to make it better," he said. "I really want to take the organization to the next step. And I recognize that we have a lot of young folks in this organization, whether they are enlisted or young officers, who are going to be the future leaders of this organization. I want to impart some of my experiences upon that younger group, and a big component of that is mentoring."
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