Leadership anxiety on the rise among young talents

Year after year, the motivation to assume leadership roles is decreasing among young managers. The new generation of potential leaders is scared by the prospect of working a 60-hour week, or even longer. “Yet, there is another way,” says Katleen De Stobbeleir, Professor and expert in Leadership at Vlerick Business School.

The first leadership role is the hardest

“I mainly focus on leadership transitions, where we often see leadership anxiety, or fear to assume a leadership role,” Katleen explains. “The transition into the first leadership position often instils fear and insecurity in people. The same goes for the transition to a middle management role. The last transition too, to a senior management position, often goes hand in hand with a certain degree of anxiety.” However, the transition to the very first leadership role is the hardest and the one that causes the most fear.

“Do I really want this?”

“When assuming a leadership role, people are often scared of the idea of entering an entirely different world. When on the managerial ladder, they often feel more political games are played.” Katleen adds that the younger generation is also scared to disrupt the balance between their work and their private life. “In fact, people often have their own idea of what it means to be a leader. They feel strongly about it, and that can cause them to ask ‘Do I really want this?’, ‘Do I want to play those games?’ and ‘Am I prepared to give up part of my private life?” she continues.

“Am I up to it?”

“A second question that feeds into this leadership anxiety is ‘Am I up to it?’ That’s fear creeping up again. The question ‘Do I really want this?’ combined with ‘Am I up to it?’ generates anxiety,” Katleen explains, based on her conversations with the potential leaders she coaches at Vlerick Business School.

But there’s another way: authentic leadership!

Katleen is convinced that the leaders of the future need not meet their personal idea of what the ‘ideal leader’ should be. “When you see how determined these potential leaders are, many of their insecurities are anything but justified.” She does not deny that political games and overtime are an issue, but by giving their role a personal interpretation, they can choose to go about it differently.

Katleen explains, “Today, we see that these leadership roles are assigned to specific profiles within the organisation, but in reality, there is a lot of scope and freedom for different interpretations.” That is precisely what organisations should focus on in the future, according to Katleen. “The first step is for organisations to showcase that a personal, authentic interpretation of these positions is always possible.” In other words, the organisation should highlight that authenticity is key when it comes to leadership roles.

Prepare, don’t despair

Another aspect is insecurity about one’s skills, which can be countered thanks to good preparation. “As an organisation, you have to teach people the skills they need to assume their leadership role.” Katleen explains this refers to questions like ‘How do I lead difficult discussions?’ or ‘How do I prepare a budget?’. In a nutshell, all those things that can lead to insecurities, but are sometimes overlooked by companies.

Change is on the horizon

Through her many contacts with businesses, Katleen has realised that companies are aware of the fact that they need to move away from the existing model in order to find new leaders. “More and more companies have come to this realisation and are looking for leaders with a touch of diversity. And by that I don’t mean demographic diversity only, but also a mix of people working full-time and part-time. More organisations are considering this option. If you only have full-time employees in leadership roles, you exclude many potential leaders who are not prepared to give up on certain things for such a role.”

Untapped potential

Katleen has noticed personality is increasingly factored in. “In the past, the idea was that all leaders had to be extroverts. The result was that more introvert staff members were less inclined to apply for leadership roles. Now the trend is for people to assume leadership roles by tapping into both their strengths and weaknesses.”

“However, many organisations have not yet come this far,” Katleen explains. “They effectively struggle with the question ‘Where do we find the leaders of the future?’. The answer is: look for them actively. Often it’s a matter of untapped potential. Don’t be scared to look beyond what is typically considered a leader and find a good balance between the traditional view and these new insights.”

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