I know y’all remember Milli Vanilli. They were a 80s/90s pop/R&B group made of up two hardbody models named Fab and Rob. If you’re a Gen Y baby like me, you might have had their posters on your wall just like I did, singing along to their many hit songs on the radio: Girl You Know It’s True and Blame it on the Rain and Baby, Don’t Forget my Number. Milli Vanilli’s debut album skyrocketed to the top of the charts and earned a Grammy Award in 1990. However, their success turned to failure when their Grammy was revoked after it was revealed that they were lip-syncing all their songs. The actual vocals on the record were not the voices of Fab and Rob. Turns out they were just mimicking the voices of other singers.
Milli Vanilli’s downfall reminds me of what can happen when Gen Y nonprofit leaders try to copycat Baby Boomer leadership. It just doesn’t work. Let me tell you about this guy I know. He’s a young, energetic nonprofit leader in his field and in his extensive volunteer work as well. We are about the same age, but our leadership styles are so different. Not to say that my style of leadership is perfect, just that I get put off by the way he works. He acts like a Baby Boomer stuck in a Gen Y body, choosing to follow hierarchy versus letting the team decide. In meetings, he behaves like an older CEO of a large nonprofit who can’t be bothered with the opinions of people lower on the totem pole. On the Blake Mouton leadership grid, he is probably closer to the Authority-Compliance/Produce or Perish style. He rarely showcases any personality or aspects of his personal life, as if afraid it would taint his image as a nonprofit professional on his way to executive leadership. This is not to say that all Baby Boomer nonprofit leaders act like this. But for many young professionals who complain about their older bosses, this is one of the issues they often bring up. That the relationship is all about the tasks, and there’s not room for much dialogue or building a relationship of mutual respect with their boss. So why, then, would we want to lip-sync that kind of leadership?
Better to be like Maya Enista, the Gen Y CEO of Mobilize.org. Maya is the kind of person you can relate to. Even though she is the head woman in charge of an entire organization, her down-to-earth personality still shines through as she talks about her passion for engaging young people in democracy and decision-making. Her leadership style motivates others to join her cause and help in any way they can.
Or we might examine the collaborative leadership style of Ben Rattray, the Gen Y CEO of Change.org. Ben’s team player attitude makes it easy for him to find win/wins for Change.org’s many partners that allow them to reach so many people interested in social issues. Ben recognizes that he doesn’t know everything, so he regularly invites input from stakeholders, and respects their opinions. This allows his organization to test new ideas with the support of as many people as possible.
The key to successful next generation leadership is to be who you are, not what you think an “official” nonprofit leader looks like. Loosen your tie and let your unique personality shine through. Stop acting like you were born in the 50s, because it’s obvious for all to see that you are young as hell. So make it work to your advantage, instead of trying to seem older than you are. Don’t make the same mistakes you complain about in your Baby boomer bosses. You can end up alienating your peers, and missing an opportunity to build lasting relationships.
Craft your own brand of leadership, and others will see you as an authentic person they can follow and trust. After all, it’s pretty easy to tell when somebody’s lip-syncing. Just ask Milli Vanilli.
Rosetta Thurman is an emerging nonprofit leader of color working and living in the Washington, D.C. area. She holds a Master’s degree in Nonprofit Management and blogs about nonprofit leadership and management issues at Perspectives From the Pipeline.