How Self-Serving Leadership is Keeping Millennials Away from Washington

We’ve all come across a self-serving leader at one point in our professional careers. They are the type of leader who is motivated by self-interest and adopts the “give a little, take a lot” mindset. Self-serving leaders make their own agenda, status, and gratification more of a priority than those affected by their thoughts and actions. Harvard’s Institute of Politics study, “Survey of Young Americans’ Attitudes Toward Politics and Public Service,” proves that Millennials have zero tolerance for this type of leader. The study reveals that 59% of this booming generation feels that “elected officials” seem to be motivated by selfish reasons.

Another discouraging fact that government leaders are currently in the trenches of is the quick and steady decline of trust levels amongst current public sector employees and potential future leaders. Only 22% of Millennials trust the Federal Government to do the right thing. That percentage declines even more to 18% when it comes to trust levels with Congress. Trust, morals, values all encompass doing the right thing, not just for yourself but for society. I recently had a conversation with a colleague about the moral compass of the world today and the deteriorating values that are becoming the new normal. If you were one of the unlucky few that watched Miley Cyrus’ performance on the MTV Video Music Awards, you have an idea of what I am referring to. Our conversation focused on behavior that was once considered shocking is now common behavior, devoid of any reflection of the consequences that may occur. No longer should we lead by example and as the target group of this survey has solidified by the findings of the study, they are well aware of this fact and are taking matters into their own hands.

  • 56 percent of Millennials agree that “elected officials don’t have the same priorities I have”
  • 48 percent agree that “politics has become too partisan”
  • 28 percent agree that “political involvement rarely has any tangible results”

Ron Fournier, author of the article, The Outsiders: How Can Millennials Change Washington If They Hate It?, took to several schools in Washington and Boston to uncover the truths behind what the Harvard IOP study unveiled. The students Ron interviewed seemed to have a general consensus of their outlook of the future if our government continues as it has been and it is pretty much aligned with Harvard’s survey results. A particular response that Fournier received to one of the questions asked at Langley High School in Washington was particularly unsettling. When Ron asked these students how many of them will pursue a career in politics or government, a student replied, “Is this a joke?” That same student commented, “The thing about social institutions is when you destroy them, they get rebuilt eventually, in a different form for a different time.”

If Millennials are set on “destroying” current social institutions so they can rebuild them to be more functional, who are the leaders that are guiding them down this path? Amongst the plethora of self-serving leaders that are shaping this generation’s perspective of our imminent future, where are the servant leaders that are providing balanced and positive examples and guidelines of how these individuals can change the world? We need these leaders. We need great leaders that serve our country rather than serve themselves.

Ken Blanchard wrote a book with Mark Miller, vice president of training and development for Chick-fil-A about how great leaders serve. In the book, the word serve is an acronym that outlines the traits that distinguish self-serving leaders from great leaders. The acronym stands for; S = See the Future, E = Engage and Develop People, R = Reinvent Continuously, V = Value Results and Relationships, and E = Embody the Values. The SERVE acronym is definitely not an easy thing to live up to on a daily basis. Yet, it seems as though the Millennials are on to something here.

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Kanika Tolver

I agree with this so much. Millennials are Corporate Rebels with a public servant cause. We want change and we are willing to put in the work when leadership is on the same page as us.

Martha Austin

I appreciate the frustration that the millennials feel, and I thank them for sticking their heels in the ground to demand the “up-leveling” of our public institutions to meet the needs of today’s world and today’s people. The good news is that the majority of my clients are mid-level government managers who have a similar mindset and are ready to learn how they can support the next generation in moving this change forward. We all know this is the equivalent of turning an aircraft carrier, and there ARE those who are willing to take on the challenge.

Darrell Hamilton

I actually see nothing different in the supposed millenial attitude than the attitude of any set of 20-30 years olds going back for at least 5 decades. The early boomers (the ones currently retiring) had a mantra of not trusting the “establishment” and hating “the man”. I see very little different here. The problem with all of the political leadership is that we have multiple standards of who would be a good leader. We want someone who can weather the storm of getting elected, looks like a movie star, speaks without any hint of embarassment, never makes any kind of mistake and has high moral standards to boot. Sorry folks, but those are pretty much mutually exclusive qualities. People with high moral standards also tend to be realatively humble — they don’t seek office. Those with excessively good looks (and they know it) are often not humble. Those who can weather the storm of the campaign usually have to have a pretty strong ego to be able to take all the bashing that goes on. What that means is that we tend to get highly motivated, self-centered, egotistical, excentric candidates to choose from and we the voters are left choosing from the “least worst” option. Notice, I did not have to say anything about their positions on topics. The millenials are just realizing the same thing we all realized when we were around 25 — the system doesn’t push the real best candidates forward.

Mark Dixon

So this is very interesting to me, both personally and professionally.

For lack of a better term, I see the open data and civic hacking movement as a digital revolution or sorts.

The issue for me, as a late boomer exposed to the end of the beatnik and hippie movements, is that we have a much better chance of changing the system now, mostly because of the internet…especially as it moves towards being a Semantic Web of knowledge. The hippie movement had no such way to share knowledge or create a constructive way to engage citizens. The issues they called out still remain, however, and we have not made very much progress on them in the last 40 years.

Frankly, I believe the “hippies” identified the key issues, but were unable to articulate the root causes, the unintended consequences and the necessary fixes. The movement, by and large, was a core emotional response that spun out of control as exemplified by the Timothy Leary quote: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”

If there is one thing we learned from the 1960’s, dropping out (disengaging) does not fix the problems. Ignoring problems does not make them go away. So I like the fact the millenials are engaging, albeit on somewhat of their own terms.

The challenge, at least for me, in light of the issues presented in “The Bridge at the Edge of the World” by James Gustave Speth, is how to lead this revolutionary and service spirit into constructive, sustainable change.

Some of my thinking on these issues will be posted on my new blog ( soon…I have some introductory posts there, but the first substantive one is in draft form – done appropriately over the Labor Day holiday.

I’m very interested in commentary on the blog posts…stay tuned.

Carol Kruse

This blog resonates SO completely with me, thank you for opening this topic, Kristina. I’m right there with you and Kanika!

Darrell is correct, this has been a perennial, intergenerational complaint. However, the difference I see in this generational transition is the extremely low level of societal confidence in Congress and the Federal Government, a truly non-functional Congress some of whose members refuse to find common ground even for the common good, a relatively self-sufficient generation in the wings, and the rather scary polarization both in politics and in society. And it’s not just two or three poles, as in the past, it’s many. [When local governments issue permits to anyone to shoot down goverment drones, and a group of counties put secession and creation of a new state on their ballots because their current legislature isn’t paying enough attention to their issues, and there’s serious talk about groups of states seceding to create mini-countries for the different minorities…that’s scary, for me.]

Some days it seems there isn’t a united America anymore, just many different groups of ideologues stubbornly touting their own values/beliefs with no tolerance — let alone appreciation — for different values/beliefs…and all those groups are located on the same piece of geography but are bumping off each other like unattached electrons, instead of coexisting as a multi-dimensional whole. The lost potential of a dynamic, thriving society that resolves challenges together through robust dialogue, drives me nuts. Some days I feel like running through the streets screaming, “Evolve, dammit!”

Okay, okay, I’ve taken a deep breath. Well, several.

So, I’m going to act the part of a baby boomer (which I am) and say, “Okay, you don’t like it, so change it.”

But as one who would desperately like to help create/promote significant change in the way government does business, but feels rather powerless to make those changes, I have to ask — can we change the system from within? Do we have to wait for the “Old Guard” to retire or die in office, or is there something positive we can do, proactively, now, to start turning that battleship? (Thank you for that analogy, Martha, and for letting the Millennials know there are many of us ready to help them in any way we can.)

Frustratingly, the ‘how to’ help, ‘how to’ facilitate the changes, is hidden in the shadows, for me.

Breaking down silos and collaboration across agency and department lines is a great start! Many minds working together come up with better solutions, and the more diverse the thinking, the better (The Next Homerun for the Federal Workforce). The idea of a self-serve government, with one portal to the branded federal government and each agency then having a link from there to its own webpage/brand/services/ information, is exciting enough to get me up out of my chair, pacing the building, trying to figure out how we can make it happen tomorrow (Building the Government Enterprise: What’s Missing is the Brand). Requiring Congress to telework from their home districts and live among their constituents, and having national public referenda, are other great ideas (Is Shutting Down the Federal Government Ever Justified?). I’ve seen many government employees who are servant leaders…with no opportunity to live it other than with their families and fellow worker-bees because those above them in leadership positions are power- and politically-oriented and disrespect the serving-leadership style.

So…how do we get these ideas moving, on a course toward realization? What can we worker-bee employees do now, to help facilitate these changes? How can the serving-leaders among us make a difference? We need a good, old-fashioned Movement!

(Maybe that’s what all this discussion is starting, and I’m just impatient!! 🙂 )

[*Worker-bee meaning we aren’t in leadership positions and have relatively small spheres of influence]

Charles Roberson

I also agree with Darrell in that this sort of rhetoric spans generations. I also don’t think that Millenials have a corner on the market of wanting to create positive changes in the world. Like with others who have commented here, Kristina’s piece strongly resonates with me and does speak to a frustration I have with the inability of our government to…in the words of Carol…”evolve, dammit.” Having said that, all one has to do is take a look around at the instability of the world around us to realize that while our government may have many faults, it could certainly be a lot worse. I also would strongly caution against errantly “destroying our social institutions” without first taking a hard look at how they became dysfunctional originally. It is easy…very easy…to blame politicians for our woes as a society. These people, however, don’t elect themselves (not even in Chicago). As an electorate we’ve taken uninformed and unenlightened to a whole new level and what we’ve tolerated as a society – things like debating complex issues with soundbites, backing candidates who spout off about the evils of the Constitution without actually having read the document, or allowing unchecked funneling of dollars into political campaigns – is unconscionable. If the Millenials discussion actually gets us to finally have the dialog we’ve sorely needed to have about the structure and direction of government, then I’m all for it and “all in.” In order for that dialog to be productive, I think we’re going to have to look in the mirror and take some measure of accountability for what is going on around us…and that includes the “Corporate Rebels” who are under 30. “In a democracy, people get the kind of government they deserve.” That quote is relevant in this, and any other, millenium.

Henry Brown

Could be very closely related!

An Article in Fiscal Times brings to the table the differences between Generations….

What this article does NOT do is address how to span the differences….

Since this article was written with the Private Sector as it’s primary audience would offer that the problem of dealing with Generational differences is somewhat Universal and not limited to one group of employees or another

Marie Koko

Would have been interesting if the article author had gone OUTSIDE of the NE corridor to places like IL, and WI and MN and KS and OK and NV to see what students there think. I help students at UW Madison who want to work in federal jobs and they are by and large a very optimistic bunch. Sure, they hate Congress, but they see opportunities for change within agencies…if they could just get in the door to start working there.

Carol Kruse

Mark, thank you for introducing me to Speth’s work. His book is on my reading list! I’m also intrigued by, and will follow, the ruminations of thedigitaldruid.

Your explanation of the challenge — to “lead this revolutionary and service spirit into constructive, sustainable change” (a great slogan!!) was so concise that it braked my whirling mind and made a possibly constructive thought pop out of the fog….perhaps the first step is to “name the monster.” Maybe we need to start by specifically identifying the underlying government dysfunctions, as Robert said — once the problem is clearly stated, we can begin working on solutions. Dannielle Blumenthal mentioned the same thing in the conversation following her blog, 5 Social Tools In The War on Groupthink . I see the thinking in both that and this blog having a common thread — we should bring the two conversations together!

Robert, you stated a great reminder for me — whatever it’s faults, our government is among the best. The fact that we’re having this conversation in a public forum is testament to that! Like you, I would hate to see our social institutions destroyed…seems to me that leads to “reinventing the wheel.” As a point to ponder, though, are the dysfunctions are so ingrained that incremental change just won’t work, and we need some sort of wholesale change? Still, that isn’t necessarily destruction-as-in-annihilation.

I agree wholeheartedly with your comments on politics, politicians, the electorate, and especially campaign financing, Robert. How did we ever let things get to this point?!? I know many people who bemoan the state of things, but feel powerless to make any change (including me, at times). That’s a self-fulfilling illusion — we made, or let it get, this way — together, with determination, we can effect substantial and constructive change. And you’re absolutely right, that effort DOES begin by looking at “The Man [or woman] In The Mirror” (Michael Jackson). Next, we need to identify a locus for our efforts — again, see Dannielle’s blog.

Marie, your point is excellent. There are different cultures, different perspectives, different ways of thinking in the different parts of this country. We need to remember those differences, as well, when bringing together a diverse problem-solving community!

I’m loving this conversation!!