Earlier this year, I profiled four “now generation” leaders to watch because they are, and will be, doing amazing things for social change in the next year.  But the main reason I wanted to coin the term ‘now generation’ is because I think the ‘next generation’ moniker gives young people (and everyone else) the sense that we have to wait for some undetermined time before we can lead. We have to wait until someone hands us the baton. We have to sit on the sidelines until someone passes us the ball. And until then, we’ve got to sit quietly with the other kids and try to catch the crumbs of wisdom and power that fall from the big kid’s table. We’ve got to wait until we get “next.”

If that’s what we mean by ‘next generation’ leaders, I sure don’t want to be one. To be clear, I don’t see anything wrong with the term in and of itself, but rather how it may be being used to reinforce the current distribution of power in the nonprofit sector.

The Normative Problem

In some ways, I see the term ‘next generation’ being used to further the normative problem we have in nonprofits. Harvard professor and scholar Ron Heifetz talks about how “normative issues” in leadership can make it difficult for new leaders to emerge. Basically, the term ‘normative’ means relating to an ideal model or standard for something, i.e. the “norm.” Heifetz says that we have a normative problem when a community believes collectively that leaders have certain characteristics like age, experience, pedigree, etc. And when a community believes that leaders come packaged in a particular way, they are more likely to wait for those types of leaders to come, instead of allowing different kinds of leaders to emerge. By saying ‘next generation’ leaders, I think we may be implying that young people are up “next” when we reach a certain age or level of experience, which is, in effect “the norm” for current leadership.

‘Next Generation’ Leaders are Not That Young

Most characterizations of the ‘next generation’ assume that these leaders are much younger than current leaders. Hence, the waiting “until we get old enough” connotation. But the reality is that young nonprofit leaders who are typically referenced as the ‘next generation’ are not as young as people think. We’re not all college kids anymore. This year, the oldest of Generation Y will be 30 years old. We’re no longer the “baby” in the workplace, we’re managers and directors and CEOs of great organizations. In short, the young professionals I’ve been talking about on this blog for three years have quickly become the ‘now generation.’ But I’m not sure the term ‘next generation’ takes that into account.

Who Decides When ‘Next Generation’ Leaders Become ‘Now Generation’ Leaders?

Having a cadre of bright young leaders in the nonprofit sector is great, but typecasting us as the ‘next generation’can also indicate that we need someone from up on high to deem us “ready” to lead when our time comes. Using the term can make it seem as if young people will lead after all the Baby Boomers are gone, however we all know that’s not gonna happen anytime soon. Baby Boomers are staying in their jobs longer as a result of the economic downturn, and many are taking on “encore careers” as nonprofit leaders. So it’s up to us, the young nonprofit leaders, to redefine who gets to say when we’re ready to lead. It can’t be our bosses, our mentors, or some older and wiser colleague. It is we who must decide for ourselves whether and when we will lead. I’ve heard too many stories of young people who come into the nonprofit sector, do their jobs well, and wait to be promoted or included or at the very least, heard. What I’ve realized in hearing these stories is that if young people wait for approval from their organizations to lead, if we wait for someone to deem us worthy of leadership opportunities, it will never happen. We have to make our own opportunities. Malcolm X once said (my brackets), “Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man [or woman], you take it.” I want to see us take it.

So the new question I think we need to ask ourselves is not what we will do as ‘next generation’ nonprofit leaders, but what we are already doing to lead right now today. How do you answer that question for yourself? Do you consider yourself to be a ‘next generation’ leader?