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The Leadership Quarterly 29 (2018) 44–57

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Leadership and generations at work: A critical review T

a,⁎ a b
Cort W. Rudolph , Rachel S. Rauvola , Hannes Zacher
Saint Louis University, USA
Leipzig University, Germany


Keywords: We present a critical review of theory, empirical research, and practical applications regarding generational
Aging differences in leadership phenomena. First, we consider the concept of generations both historically and through
Generations contemporary arguments related to leadership. Second, we outline and refute various myths surrounding the
Lifespan development idea of generational differences in general, and critique leadership theories that have been influenced by these
Leadership development
myths. Third, we describe the results of a literature review of primary empirical studies that have invoked the
notion of generational differences to understand leadership phenomena. Finally, we argue that the lifespan
developmental perspective represents a useful alternative to generational representations, as it better captures
age-related dynamics that are relevant to leadership, followership, and leadership development. Ultimately, our
work serves as a formal call for a moratorium to be placed upon the application of the ideas of generations and
generational differences to leadership theory, research, and practice.

Introduction Finally, across those studies that have attempted to tease apart the
effects of generational differences, there is little to no empirical
In the popular leadership and management literature, the notion evidence to suggest that such differences exist, or that they manifest
that there are demonstrable generational differences in work attitudes, as differences in work attitudes, motivation, or behavior
motivation, and behavior is so ubiquitous that it borders upon axio- (Costanza & Finkelstein, 2015, 2017). For example, a meta-analysis of
matic (e.g., Espinoza & Ukleja, 2016; Fitch & Van Brunt, 2016; Grubbs, K = 20 studies by Costanza, Badger, Fraser, Severt, and Gade (2012)
2015; Kelan, 2012; Tulgan, 2009). Beyond the popular press, the found no appreciable evidence for generational differences in job sa-
idea that generational differences exist has also emerged within tisfaction, organizational commitment, and turnover intentions (see
contemporary leadership theory (e.g., Balda & Mora, 2011; also Stassen, Anseel, & Levecque, 2016, for a systematic qualitative re-
Bennis & Thomas, 2002; Graen & Schiemann, 2013) and empirical re- view that arrived at similar conclusions). As a result of these three
search (e.g., Arsenault, 2004; Gentry, Griggs, Deal, Mondore, & Cox, fundamental problems, the scant evidence that does seem to suggest
2011; Sessa, Kabacoff, Deal, & Brown, 2007). For example, a recent that generational membership influences work outcomes (e.g.,
article published in The Leadership Quarterly decrees, “…millennials are Smola & Sutton, 2002; Twenge & Campbell, 2008; Twenge, Campbell,
most assuredly different than their predecessors with respect to ideas, Hoffman, & Lance, 2010) is based upon flawed logic (i.e., the in-
behaviors and viewpoints, and … organizational leaders will have to appropriate conflation of chronological age, contemporaneous period,
lead these employees, by necessity, differently” (Anderson, Baur, and/or birth year cohort effects), confounded methodologies, and ar-
Griffith, & Buckley, 2017, p. 245). guably weak theoretical rationales (Fineman, 2011; Walker, 1993).
There are at least three fundamental problems with these assump- Notwithstanding the weaknesses of theory and the lack of evidence to
tions, and indeed with the entire idea of generational differences at the contrary, even if generational differences did matter for work out-
large, that are theoretical, methodological, and empirical in nature. comes, we would be unable to capture such effects through available
First, theories of generational differences are based upon flawed as- empirical methodologies.
sumptions about the role that “generations” (i.e., represented as higher In response to the call for papers for the 2018 The Leadership
order, aggregate constructs) play in shaping individual-level outcomes. Quarterly Yearly Review, the present manuscript aims to “…identify
Second, because we do not possess sufficient methods for studying measures, theories, or practices that should be discontinued in the
whether or not generational differences exist, these tenuous theories field.” Specifically, we argue in the following critical review that future
cannot be empirically tested with necessary or sufficient precision. leadership research should abandon the concept of generations, and

Corresponding author at: Department of Psychology, Saint Louis University, Saint Louis, MO, USA.
E-mail addresses: (C.W. Rudolph), (R.S. Rauvola), (H. Zacher).
Received 8 November 2016; Received in revised form 24 August 2017; Accepted 26 September 2017
Available online 02 October 2017
1048-9843/ © 2017 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
C.W. Rudolph et al. The Leadership Quarterly 29 (2018) 44–57

that we should eschew the notion of “generational differences” as a generational differences at work, such reviews have not adequately
basis for future leadership theory, research, and practice. In other considered the role of generations in leadership processes and outcomes
words, we call for placing a moratorium on the generations concept as (cf. Rudolph & Zacher, 2017b, a conceptual work that debunks various
it is currently applied to our understanding of leadership. Moreover, “myths” regarding leadership and generations). Thus, there is still a
based upon and extending previous research in this journal and else- notable gap in our understanding of the totality and scope of this
where (e.g., Day, 2011; Rudolph & Zacher, 2017b; Walter & Scheibe, phenomenon, which can be explained by the fact that the literature on
2013; Zacher, Clark, Anderson, & Ayoko, 2015), we explain why a generational differences in leadership is quite fragmented and largely
lifespan developmental approach to leadership constitutes a promising prescriptive in nature (Anderson et al., 2017). Here, we begin closing
alternative to research on leadership and generational differences. this gap by offering a systematic review and critique of leadership
To frame our arguments, we have organized this manuscript around theory and research concerning generations that builds upon and ex-
five interrelated goals. First, we review the concept of generational tends past conceptual works.
differences, as it is broadly understood, by defining the concept, tracing
its historical development, and outlining its contemporary (mis)appli- Criticisms of generational differences research
cation to understanding various leadership-related phenomena. Second,
we debunk several myths surrounding the idea that generational dif- Beyond the general conclusion of literature reviews that generations
ferences matter in the workplace, and we offer theoretical, methodo- exert a null influence on various work processes and outcomes, it is
logical, and empirically grounded arguments to this end. Third, we important to critique how theories of generations influence the conduct
outline and critique leadership theories that have been influenced by of generational differences research. As suggested by Rudolph (2015),
popular myths regarding generational differences. Fourth, we review generational differences research most often adopts cross-sectional (i.e.,
and critique primary empirical studies that have invoked the notion of single time point) research designs. To translate theories of generations
generational differences to understand leadership phenomena. Finally, into operationalized variables, generational differences researchers ty-
we discuss the lifespan developmental approach as a promising alter- pically split the continuous variable chronological age into several ca-
native way of thinking about and representing the complexities of age tegories to represent the various assumed generational cohorts present
and leadership. With these five goals accomplished, we call for a “cease in their data. Subsequently, these artificially created categories are re-
and desist” on the application of the idea of generational differences as lated statistically to various work outcomes. This splitting is typically
an explanatory framework in leadership theory, research, and practice. justified on the basis of theory, which proposes that generations can be
constructed by grouping people together by ranges of age/birth year
Reconsidering the problem of generations cohorts. However, there is little to no consensus about how these ca-
tegorized ranges of age/birth year cohort should be constructed. Fig. 1
The modern notion of “generations” as distinct units of study depicts the range and variability in the different operationalizations of
emerged within the field of sociology. Beginning in the early twentieth generations found in the studies we review, below. There is a great deal
century, sociologists sought explanations for the mechanisms re- of overlap between these groupings from study to study, and, as sug-
sponsible for bringing about large-scale social change (Kertzer, 1983). gested by Costanza et al. (2012), “This lack of consistency has im-
The agent of such change, according to some, was the natural “churn” plications for the conceptual definition of the generations, their oper-
associated with over-time dynamics across birth cohorts (e.g., ationalization (i.e., when they start and finish), and the assessment of
Mannheim, 1952; Ryder, 1965). The argument offered by these re- their impact on outcomes” (p. 377).
searchers was that each successive birth cohort brings their own par- These categorization efforts are undertaken to circumvent what is
ticular experiences to bear on those problems faced by society. Because actually a far more complex mathematical concern regarding the nature
each successive cohort is temporally and, thus, historically embedded of chronological age and birth year cohort in single time point designs:
within a given social context, early formative experiences during they are perfectly correlated with one another (Glenn, 2005). More
childhood were thought to uniquely shape the “shared consciousness” specifically, with knowledge of the present year or “period” (e.g., 2018)
of each generation (Mannheim, 1952). The formation and codification and the birth year of a given leader or “cohort” (e.g., 1978), this leader's
of such a shared consciousness from cohort-to-cohort gives rise to un- “age” (e.g., 40) is determined. Thus, because “period” is a constant in
ique and distinguishable features that are broadly characteristic of each single time point designs, age and cohort effects are necessarily per-
new generation. From this thinking, the notion of “generations” as we fectly confounded with one another (i.e., not mathematically distin-
understand them today emerged. As we will review in greater detail guishable). To make this point more concrete, one cannot under any
later, the role of history and social context underlies explanations for circumstances draw valid conclusions regarding the influence of cohort
the emergence of generational differences in leadership in con- versus age effects from single time point data. Moreover, the categor-
temporary leadership theory (e.g., Bennis & Thomas, 2002). ization of the continuous variable age into categories comes at the ex-
While interesting from the perspective of a sociological thought pense of both theoretical precision, as arbitrary age boundaries are
experiment that offers explanations for the mechanisms of social imposed inconsistently across studies (see Fig. 1), and statistical pre-
change, the ideas of generations and their unique characteristics have cision, resulting in a distinct challenge to valid inferences (i.e., via
been adopted quite broadly to explain myriad other phenomen- decreased power, see MacCallum, Zhang, Preacher, & Rucker, 2002;
a–including cross-temporal changes in trait narcissism (Twenge, Rudolph, 2015).
Konrath, Foster, Campbell, & Bushman, 2008), preferences for wine These criticisms extend to various cross-temporal methodologies
packaging (Nuebling & Behnke, 2015), and changes in baseball fandom (e.g., Twenge et al., 2010), including so-called cross-temporal meta-
(Nightengale, 2016). The concept of generational differences has like- analysis (Twenge et al., 2008). Cross-temporal approaches investigate
wise made its way into the domains of IO/OB/HR research over the past similarly-aged individuals over time, and in doing so isolate (i.e., via
two decades (Joshi, Dencker, & Franz, 2011; Smola & Sutton, 2002), purposefully confounding) cohort and period effects from age effects.
and into research concerning leadership, specifically (Arsenault, 2004; For example, the responses of five independent samples of 20-year-olds,
Gentry et al., 2011). Recently, however, a general consensus has surveyed in 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2010, could be compared to
emerged from systematic qualitative (Stassen et al., 2016), quantitative one another. Under the strong assumptions of cross-temporal analyses,
(Costanza et al., 2012), and critical (Rudolph & Zacher, 2017a, 2017b) observed systematic temporal differences cannot be due to age (i.e., as
reviews of this literature which suggests that generational differences it is held constant across time and sample), however either cohort or
do not have an appreciable influence on work processes and outcomes. period effects are equally-likely “causes” of such observed differences.
While these reviews are by-in-large damning to the concept of Accordingly, cross-temporal methods ignore the possibly important

C.W. Rudolph et al. The Leadership Quarterly 29 (2018) 44–57

Fig. 1. Definitions of generational cohort birth year ranges used

in the leadership and generations literature.
Note. Line endpoints indicate generational cohort minimum and
maximum values as reported by each study. If the authors pro-
vided ambiguous year parameters (e.g., “pre-1975,” Cox,
Hannif, & Rowley, 2014; “the early 1980s,” Nelson, 2012; “1975
and later,” Wilson, Squires, Widger, Cranley, & Tourangeau,
2008; “the 1980s,” Yi, Ribbens, & Morgan, 2010), approxima-
tions are reflected here (e.g., 1920 as minimum and 1975 as
maximum for Cox et al., 2014; 1980 to 1985 for Nelson, 2012;
1975 to 2000 for Wilson et al., 2008; 1980 to 1989 for Yi et al.,
2010). If only participant ages were provided, cohort year ranges
were calculated by subtracting participant age ranges from the
year of data collection, when provided by the authors, or from
the year of publication.

influences of contemporaneous contextual factors, and inherently rely generational thinking (Rudolph & Zacher, 2015, 2017a). From the
on a special case of the long-admonished ecological correlation (i.e., the standpoint of the “cognitive miser” (Macrae, Milne, & Bodenhausen,
dubious practice of correlating group-level means; Robinson, 1950) to 1994), construing generations and general characteristics of people
draw conclusions about cohort effects (see Rudolph & Zacher, 2017a, who “belong” to them has a distinct adaptive advantage. Within com-
for a review and critique of such methods). Importantly, several studies plex and dynamic work contexts, it is not surprising that it is simply
directly speak to the importance of period effects. For example, con- easier to understand age-related processes in terms of group-based
temporaneous unemployment rates have been linked to differences in generational differences, rather than continuous maturational differ-
both narcissism (e.g., Bianchi, 2014) and job satisfaction (e.g., Bianchi, ences.
2013) that are often attributed to generational differences. As Rudolph and Zacher (2015) suggest, a second explanation for the
A great deal of methodological innovation has emerged to account pervasiveness of generations and assumed differences among them is
for the confounded nature of age, cohort, and period effects. Recently, that they are strongly socially constructed. This is to say, in many ways,
Costanza, Darrow, Yost, and Severt (2017) reviewed three popular we have “willed” generations and generational differences into being
analytical methods for studying generational differences (i.e., group simply by acknowledging them and by various sociocontextual ele-
comparisons using cross-sectional data, cross-temporal meta-analysis ments that support their culturally embedded existence. This is
using time-lagged panels, and cross-classified hierarchical linear mod- the social determinism explanation for generational thinking
eling using time-lagged panels). When analyzing generational effects (Rudolph & Zacher, 2015, 2017a). Research concerning leadership age
from the same dataset using these methods, the comparative results of prototypes speaks to these phenomena. For example, a study by Spisak,
each method failed to converge upon the same conclusions. That is to Grabo, Arvey, and van Vugt (2014) examined how the perceived age of
say, common analytic methods for studying generations cannot be tri- a leader maps onto follower preferences for different situational dy-
angulated with one another. There is a twofold irony to this observa- namics. Specifically, adopting an evolutionary theoretical perspective,
tion: on the one hand, research has generally yielded equivocal results this research hypothesized and found support for the prediction that
regarding the impact of generational differences on work outcomes younger leaders are favored during times of change, whereas older
(Costanza et al., 2012). On the other hand, with very few exceptions, leaders are favored in times of stability. This finding was replicated
nearly every study that has ever attempted to tease these complex ef- across three empirical studies and suggests that these preferences serve
fects apart is based on a flawed methodology (Costanza et al., 2017). an adaptive function that is both culturally and socially situated
Perhaps more troubling, this tenuously grounded body of research has (see also Spisak, 2012, and similar arguments related to leader ap-
served to inform recent thinking about the role of generations in lea- pearance offered by Antonakis & Dalgas, 2009, and more recently by
dership processes and outcomes (e.g., Anderson et al., 2017). Antonakis & Eubanks, 2017).
Indeed, because many social institutions adopt a necessarily age-
graded structure, the social–cognitive and social constructivist ex-
The pervasiveness of generations planations for the pervasiveness of generations are both complementary
and mutually determined. On the one hand, we make sense of age by
Notwithstanding the preceding limitations and critiques, research in relatively automatic categorization (i.e., younger vs. older leader;
the IO/OB/HR realm is particularly wed to the notions of generations generation “A” vs. generation “B”) because it is optimally efficient to do
and generational differences as meaningful and useful concepts so. On the other hand, we have consequently designed various aspects
(Costanza & Finkelstein, 2015). This observation is particularly evident of social institutions to support and justify our efforts at such categor-
when considering leadership scholarship, specifically (e.g., Anderson izations.
et al., 2017; Graen & Schiemann, 2013). There are at least two possible Organizations support this process as well, as many administrative
explanations as to why this idea is so pervasive in our literature. First, a systems (e.g., recruitment and selection, promotion, retirement) are
social–cognitive explanation suggests that representing age in terms of inherently age-graded in that they follow a prototypical en-
generations rather than the continuous process of aging provides an try–ascension–exit timeline (Lawrence, 1984). Indeed, the sociological
inherent advantage for understanding the complex role of age within life course perspective (Diewald & Mayer, 2009) would argue that
one's social world. This is a reductionist sensemaking explanation for

C.W. Rudolph et al. The Leadership Quarterly 29 (2018) 44–57

because initial entry into the workforce generally occurs en masse, it one's birth year), they are relatively immutable and thus must be ac-
follows a cohort-like biocultural process (see Schaie, 1986). tively managed in the workplace. This assumption rests upon a fallacy
that others have characterized as “cohort determinism” (Walker, 1993),
Theoretical frameworks of leadership and generations which is the idea that assumed qualities of generational cohorts are
prescriptive of the behavior exhibited by its members. Second, a failure
Scholars have written about leadership and generations for quite to manage generational differences will somehow be maladaptive to the
some time. Early works on this topic generally considered the concept success of an organization (i.e., assumed differences between genera-
of generations in terms of continuous lineage and leadership succession, tions are understood to be negative or counterproductive if left un-
and the implications that these have for transitions of power and the checked).
maintenance of continuity within organizations from one generation to Bennis and Thomas (2002) present an inductively generated theory
another. It is important to note that this conceptualization of genera- of leadership and generations based on 43 interviews with both
tions in a genealogical sense is quite different from more contemporary younger and older leaders (pejoratively labeled as “geeks” and “gee-
treatments of generations in the IO/OB/HR literature as separate and zers,” respectively). The crux of this theoretical model is that leadership
meaningful units in and of themselves. For example, early work by competencies develop because formative events (i.e., those surrounding
Gusfield (1957) discusses the emergence of age-graded hierarchies of one's “era”) along with individual differences mutually inform a process
authority within organizations, and outlines how various intergenera- that is termed a “crucible.” According to Bennis and Thomas, “It is a
tional conflicts may arise when such organizations are faced with model that explains how individuals make meaning out of often diffi-
questions regarding the allotment of power and the adoption of new cult events–we call them crucibles–and how the process of ‘meaning-
policies. Other early works reflect similar questions about leadership making’ both galvanizes individuals and gives them their distinctive
and the role of generations. For example, Diamant (1960) describes voice” (p. 4).
generational differences in political leadership. Still other early works The crucible model attempts to differentiate between the concepts
by Paul and Schooler (1970) and DeSalvia and Gemmill (1971) both of generation and era, however these two mechanisms are somewhat
report on “generation gaps” in work values that may influence man- indistinct. For example, generations are defined by Bennis and Thomas
agerial outcomes. A more recent, yet by many accounts “seminal” for its as “those periods that occur every eighteen years or so and define all
sheer impact (over 1300 citations on Google Scholar), work concerning who fall within them” (p. 10). Eras, in contrast, “…are characterized by
generational differences by Smola and Sutton (2002) concludes with defining events, and may occur every twenty years or less” (p. 10).
the suggestion that, “Continued enquiry in this field is important to According to Bennis and Thomas, differences between the “analog” and
business leaders as they attempt to understand, motivate, and suc- “digital” eras define the current workforce. We suggest that these two
cessfully lead the individuals in their organizations and function as concepts (generation and era) are indistinct as defined by Bennis and
good corporate citizens” (p. 381). Thomas, because the idea of era closely maps onto the proposed causal
In his classic work on leadership and organizational culture, Schein mechanisms that are posited to give rise to generations in other lit-
(2004) invokes a lineage-based argument to explain how leadership eratures (i.e., this distinction is inherently tautological when compared
influences culture within organizations. Schein refers to the unique role to other theories of generations). For example, from a sociological
that leadership plays in the establishment and maintenance of organi- perspective, Eyerman and Turner (1998) offer that generations are
zational culture as an “evolutionary perspective,” suggesting that, “… groups of people born during the same time span who have shared si-
cultures begin with leaders who impose their own values and as- milar life experiences (e.g., “eras” as Bennis and Thomas would de-
sumptions on a group. If that group is successful and the assumptions scribe them) simply because of sharing similar chronological age. Si-
come to be taken for granted, we then have a culture that will define for milar sentiments are presented in earlier work by Mannheim, 1952.
later generations of members what kinds of leadership are acceptable” Two other points raised by Bennis and Thomas bear some further
(p. 2). Schein also applies this argument to explain the transmission of consideration here. First, these scholars correctly offer that, “Members
culture via a socialization process across “generations” of organiza- of the same generation may react quite differently to the opportunities
tional members: “Once a group has a culture, it will pass elements of and challenges that each new era creates” (p. 10). As we have sug-
this culture on to new generations of group members…” (p. 18). Of gested, the overemphasis on the role of generations for shaping psy-
note, these arguments provide no inherent meaning to the idea of chosocial manifestations of attitudes, motivations, and behaviors has
generations other than as a unit of succession and transmission of been deemed the “cohort trap” (Walker, 1993). Second, Bennis and
culture within organizations. Moreover, generational differences and Thomas take a far less deterministic perspective on the role that gen-
their potential associations with work outcomes are not invoked here erations play in shaping leadership behaviors than other perspectives
at all. (e.g., Anderson et al., 2017). For example, Bennis and Thomas offer
Other theorists take a very different perspective on the role of that, “The one key asset that our leaders share, whether young or old, is
generations for understanding leadership. They make several strong their adaptive capacity. The ability to process new experience and find
assumptions about how generations operate in the workplace, and how their meaning and to integrate them into one's life is the signature skill
they influence leadership processes and outcomes, specifically. The of leaders…” (p. 18). The introduction of this concept of adaptive ca-
underlying argument is that members of different generational pacity across age groups that supersedes generations further erodes
cohorts desire and/or require different forms of leadership to realize their power for explaining the emergence of leadership competencies,
optimal performance (e.g., Anderson et al., 2017; Deal, Stawiski, and hints at a developmental perspective rather than a “gen-
Gentry, & Cullen, 2014). This argument has given rise to several myths erationalized” one. Indeed, this notion of the potential for change re-
about leadership and generations recently outlined by Rudolph and flects the basic tenets of the lifespan developmental perspective (i.e.,
Zacher (2017b): 1) That generational differences affect work attitudes, interindividual differences in intraindividual change; see Nesselroade,
motivations, and behaviors, 2) that generational group membership 1991).
matters more than age-related changes or contemporaneous contextual More recently, a theoretical extension of the leader–member ex-
influences for predicting work attitudes, motivations, and behaviors, change (LMX; Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1995) theoretical framework by Graen
and 3) that actively managing generational differences (i.e., applying and Schiemann (2013) suggests the need for organizations to design
differentiated strategies for leading members of generational groups) team structures to optimally and strategically engage members of
can alleviate differences in work attitudes, motivations, and behaviors. younger generations. This need is justified based upon the assumption
Two ancillary assumptions about generations support these myths. that such individuals have undergone an “…entitled socialization pro-
First, because assumed differences are tied to generations (and hence cess, and have seldom been subordinated by a command and control

C.W. Rudolph et al. The Leadership Quarterly 29 (2018) 44–57

style from parents, teachers, or other authority figures until perhaps Finally, while the works of Schein, Bennis and Thomas, Graen and
their first organizational role” (p. 459). Graen and Schiemann's (2013) Schiemann, and Anderson and colleagues represent reasonably codified
extended LMX theoretical framework therefore integrates the idea of theoretical perspectives on leadership and generations (i.e., in terms of
generational differences, and this integration is supported by the as- developing explicit and testable propositions and predictions), there
sertion that, “Recent data suggest that the leadership of people is not have been other less-formal attempts to outline new theories of lea-
adequate work [sic] engaging millennial employees (Espinoza, dership and generations. For example, Balda and Mora (2011) integrate
Ukleja, & Rusch, 2010). We cannot afford to lose the creativity and the concept of generations into the existing servant‑leadership model.
other contributions of this generation as a result of less than friendly The crux of this integration is that, “…millennials will actively seek
managerial climates” (p. 458). Of note, the Espinoza et al. (2010) text leadership opportunities as well as extrinsic rewards for leadership
cited herein is a popular-press text, which espouses the need to differ- roles due to parental messages about the benefits of leadership in terms
entially manage millennials. Thus, all of the assertions offered in sup- of individual achievement and success…” (p. 19). This argument is
port of this model are based on secondary data that, like all research offered on the basis of assumptions that “…millennials need hand-
concerning generational differences, are of questionable validity. holding (i.e., attention), rapid advancement, and job flexibility…” be-
The crux of the Graen and Schiemann model is that leadership cli- cause of their “…powerful egos and selfish ambition…” (p. 19). A si-
mates must be adapted to be more “millennial friendly” (p. 452). Such milarly vague model, “cloud leadership,” is offered by Rodriguez and
climates should be adapted by enhancing leadership skills, changing Rodriguez (2015). This model suggests that, “The millennial require
reward and incentive systems, and recognizing those individuals who [sic] information in a lighting speed using the latest gadgets and apps
model effective leadership behaviors. Of note, these very broad sug- with flexibility and diversity. A ‘Cloud Leader’ shows availability ‘to be
gestions could apply to changing organizational leadership climate in accessed’ with an open schedule for personal encounters and gains re-
general. Moreover, Graen and Schiemann derive a variety of more spect and ascendency by showing updated, pertinent and condensed
specific propositions from their model. The first and most relevant information” (p. 859).
proposition is that, “The new ‘Leadership-Motivating Excellence’ prac-
tices will be more effective with members of the millennial generation Review of the empirical literature on leadership and generations
than traditional command and control management practices” (p. 462).
Speaking to the possible policy implications of this model, these ideas In this section, we outline the results of a literature review of pri-
have been translated into a SHRM and SIOP co-sponsored white paper mary empirical studies that have invoked the notion of generational
(Graen & Grace, 2015) and an associated text by Grace and Graen differences to understand leadership phenomena and/or have applied
(2014) that forewarns the coming “millennial spring” and the need to generational theories of leadership. Interestingly, there is relatively
radically redesign organizational structures to account for the on- little empirical research that studies leadership and generations, sug-
slaught of this new generation in the workforce. gesting that most of the literature that claims evidence for generational
A more recent “generationalized” reconceptualization of various differences in leadership phenomena is based on little more than
leadership theories by Anderson et al. (2017) offers 16 propositions on (theoretical) supposition and (anecdotal) conjecture. While there is
how various assumptions regarding generational differences must be scant empirical evidence present in the literature to refer to, this has not
integrated into leadership theory. Their propositions are organized stopped a minor proliferation of peer-reviewed academic journal arti-
within five main categories related to specific leadership theories, in- cles that purport to summarize such phenomena.
cluding transformational leadership, information processing (i.e., cog- To identify the literature relevant to leadership and generations, we
nitions and attributions regarding leadership), leader–member ex- searched common databases (e.g., Web of Science, Google Scholar) for
change, authentic leadership, and ethical leadership, as well as a the search terms “leadership” and “generations.” We also conducted
broader category pertaining to leaders in general. To take one example, forward searches from Arsenault's (2004) frequently cited and foun-
citing work by Twenge and colleagues (Twenge, 2010; Twenge et al., dational study of generational differences and leadership preferences.
2010) on generational increases in individualism and the desire to Then, we conducted additional backward searches from relevant stu-
reach personal rather than collective goals, the authors contend that dies that were obtained through this process to locate further literature
transformational leadership is less effective for motivating members of pertaining to leadership and generations. Of the literature identified via
younger generations to place organizational needs above their own. our searches, we further considered only empirical studies that were
They also propose that members of younger generations, who are published in peer-reviewed, SSCI (social sciences citation index) or ESCI
purported in the generational work values literature (e.g., (emerging sources citation index) journals, or non-indexed but society-
Hansen & Leuty, 2012) to be more highly motivated by extrinsic factors, sponsored (e.g., American Psychological Association; Society for the
are less motivated to pursue quality relationships with leaders (i.e., Advancement of Management), journals (K = 18). Our review includes
LMX relationships). Aside from changes in individualism and extrinsic K = 14 (77.78%) studies from SSCI journals, K = 1 (5.56%) studies
motivation, the authors' other propositions rest on additional assumed from ESCI journals, and K = 3 (16.67%) studies from society-sponsored
generational shifts in work values and attitudes. Decreased work cen- journals. Table 1 summarizes the studies reviewed here; Fig. 1 provides
trality and an increased focus on work–life balance are cited as sources a visual representation of the generational cohort year ranges used in
of younger generations' reduced desire to “emulate leaders with a these studies. In the following, we first review studies that used cross-
strong work ethic” (p. 252) and, thereby, the degradation of lea- sectional survey studies, followed by a review of mixed-method ap-
der–follower relationships between authentically work-driven leaders proaches. Unless otherwise specified, these studies utilized participant
and younger generations (e.g., Twenge & Kasser, 2013). Similarly, samples from a variety of industry sectors.
cross-temporal increases in self-entitlement and rejection of authority
(e.g., Laird, Harvey, & Lancaster, 2015) are cited as the source of em- Cross-sectional survey studies
ployees' decreased interest in being led by others, which, in turn, is
assumed to lead to the re-definition of traditional leader–follower re- As is the case with many other topics, cross-sectional survey
lationships and to prompt reformulation of leadership theory to fit these methods are most common in the leadership and generations literature.
shifts. Interestingly, the authors also present evidence to contradict While many studies directly analyze leadership variables (e.g., ranking
many of their points, including suppositions that millennials may leader attributes), a number of other studies examine generational
benefit from the personalized attention and feedback provided by differences in work outcomes to generate recommendations for cohort-
transformational leaders and could pragmatically use high-quality LMX specific leadership practices. Wilson et al. (2008), for example, were
relationships to attain the extrinsic rewards they seek. interested in how components of job satisfaction that differ across

Table 1
Empirical studies of leadership and generations.

Citation Brief description Methodology & sample size Generations of interest Summary of reported findings
C.W. Rudolph et al.

Ahn and Ettner (2014)b Reports a study of generational differences in Cross-sectional mixed-methods; N = 150 “Older,” “younger” There are few observed difference in leadership values between
leadership values. “generations” (i.e., CEOs vs. MBA students).
Arsenault (2004) Reports a study of “admired” leadership Cross-sectional mixed-methods; N = 790 Veterans, baby boomers, Members of all generations admired “honesty” most and
characteristics. Generation X, Generation Y “imagination” least among preferred leadership characteristics.
Brunetto et al. (2013) Reports a study of generational differences in various Cross-sectional survey; N = 726 Baby boomers, Generation X, Supervisor–subordinate relationship satisfaction, as well as
work outcomes for nurses. Generation Y teamwork satisfaction, did not differ across generational cohorts,
although some other outcomes did.
Brunetto, Farr-Wharton, Reports a study of generational differences in Cross-sectional survey; N = 900 Baby boomers, Generation X, Satisfaction was uniformly low in the three generational groups
and Shacklock (2012)a satisfaction with training and supervisor–subordinate Generation Y studied
communication in nurses.
Collins, Hair, and Rocco Reports a study of age-reversed Cross-sectional survey; N = 319 “Older,” “younger” Older workers with younger supervisors expected and reported less
(2009)a supervisor–subordinate dyads, leadership effective leadership, supporting the “reverse pygmalion effect.”
expectations, and leadership effectiveness.
Cox et al. (2014)a Reports a study of generational differences in Cross-sectional mixed-methods; N = 57 Pre-1975, 1975–1986, post-1986 Each generation expressed leadership style and attribute
perceptions of and responses to different leadership (interviews); 5–6 in each of 6 focus groups preferences (e.g., oldest generation valued directive as well as
styles. performance-oriented leadership).
Farag, Tullai-McGuinness, Reports a study of generational differences in Cross-sectional survey; N = 394 Baby boomers, Generation X Generational differences in perceptions of unit climate, but not
and Anthony (2009)a perceptions of leadership style and climate. leadership style, were observed.
Farr-Wharton, Brunetto, Reports a study of generational differences in Cross-sectional survey; N = 900 Baby boomers, Generation X, Supervisor–nurse relationship quality differed in its importance for
and Shacklock (2011)a supervisor–nurse relationship quality. Generation Y other positive work outcomes across generational cohorts.
Gentry et al. (2011)c Reports a study of the influence of generational Cross-sectional survey; N = 6869 Baby boomers, Generation X, Managers from different generations show more similarity than
differences in leadership practices on leadership skills. Generation Y differences in terms of both favored leadership practices and skills.
Kultalahti and Viitala Reports a study examining “millennial” responses to Cross-sectional qualitative survey; N = 62 Millennials Qualitative responses suggest that millennials prefer encouraging

(2014)a positive and negative work motivation-related and attentive supervisors who support intrinsic motivators (e.g.,
anecdotes. development opportunities).
Murphy, Gibson, and Reports a study of generational differences in Cross-sectional survey; N = 4446 Baby boomers, Generation X, Generational differences were observed in both classes of values,
Greenwood (2010)c instrumental and terminal work values for managers Generation Y and the authors conclude that Gen Y employees would benefit from
and non-managers. leader support for status, rank, and ambition values.
Nelson (2012)a Reports a study of generational differences in Cross-sectional survey; N = 550 Baby boomers, Generation X, Observed generational disparities were very minimal, and nurse
leader–member exchange and other work outcomes in Generation Y cohorts seemed to be more homogenous than different.
Sessa et al. (2007)c Reports two large studies of differences in leadership Cross-sectional survey; N = 447, 20,640 Matures, early baby boomers, late There is variability in preferences for different leadership styles that
preferences between generations. baby boomers, early Gen-Xers, late can be tied to artificially-constructed generational groupings.
Gen-Xers, millennials
Shacklock and Brunetto Reports a study of generational differences in factors Cross-sectional survey; N = 900 Baby boomers, Generation X, All three generations studied were influenced by work attachment,
(2012)a impacting continuance intentions (e.g., Generation Y but each cohort also manifested specific differences in relative
supervisor–nurse relationship). factor importance.
Wieck, Prydun, and Walsh Reports a study of leadership trait preferences in two Cross-sectional survey; N = 234 “Twenty-somethings,” baby There were no differences found in generational rankings of
(2002)a generations of nurses. boomers desirable and undesirable leadership traits.
Wilson et al. (2008)a Reports a study of generational differences in various Cross-sectional survey; N = 6541 Baby boomers, Generation X, Gen X and Gen Y nurses would respond well to leaders who support
categories of job satisfaction. Generation Y self-scheduling, career development, formal recognition, and shared
Yi et al. (2010)a Reports a study of desired manager attributes in Cross-sectional survey; N = 277 “Cultural Revolution,” “Social Millennials “expect more” from their leaders than do other
different generational groups. Reform,” millennials generations, evidenced by differences in ratings of mentorship and
loyalty, among other traits.
Yu and Miller (2005)a Reports a study on generational differences in Cross-sectional survey; N = 437 Baby boomers, Generation X Mixed results for culture-by-generation interactions on leadership
preferred leadership style. preferences.

SSCI journal.
ESCI journal.
Society-sponsored journal.
The Leadership Quarterly 29 (2018) 44–57
C.W. Rudolph et al. The Leadership Quarterly 29 (2018) 44–57

generations could be used as tools for leading and managing different (1980–2000) nurses. The authors found no differences in (dis)satisfac-
cohorts of nurses. As such, they examined job satisfaction differences tion with supervisor–nurse communication relationships or training
among registered nurses from different generations (“baby boomers” and development opportunities across generational groups, suggesting
(1940–1959), “Generation X” (1960–1974), “Generation Y” (1975 and that low levels of satisfaction were present regardless of one's genera-
later)) using a cross-sectional survey design. Their results indicated that tional cohort membership.
generational cohorts did not differ in their satisfaction with social in- Brunetto et al. (2013) conducted a similar study with a sample of
teractions in the workplace; in fact, no differences between Gen X and nurses, finding that the supervisor–subordinate relationship and team-
Gen Y were observed at all. The baby boomers, however, manifested work satisfaction did not differ across generational cohorts (although
higher satisfaction with extrinsic rewards (i.e., compensation and other outcomes, such as affective commitment, well-being, and turn-
benefits) and scheduling than did Gen X and Gen Y, as well as higher over intentions, did). While most of their operationalizations of gen-
satisfaction with professional opportunities, praise and recognition, and erations were similar to previous studies, the “baby boomer” cohort
control and responsibility than did Gen X. As such, the authors re- differed, encompassing individuals born during the years of 1943 to
commend that nurse leaders support self-scheduling, career develop- 1964. The authors recommend generation-targeted retention strategies
ment opportunities, formal recognition programs, and shared govern- to counteract nursing turnover, particularly given that supervisor–nurse
ance models of decision-making to better lead and retain Gen X and Gen relationships, teamwork, and well-being explained almost half of the
Y nurses. variance in affective commitment and turnover intentions across co-
Farag et al. (2009) also examined generational differences in re- horts.
gistered nurses with a cross-sectional survey approach, focusing on Nelson (2012) also studied nurses and supervisor–subordinate re-
“baby boomer” (1946–1964) and “Gen-Xer” (1965–1980) nurses' per- lationships (i.e., LMX), as well as other related outcomes such as
ceptions of their manager's leadership style (i.e., transformational, work–family conflict (WFC), discretionary power, and affective com-
transactional, passive–avoidant) and their unit climate. They found no mitment, using a cross-sectional survey approach. This study examined
generational differences in perceived leadership styles, but they did find “baby boomers” (1946–1965), “Gen X” (1966–1980), and “Gen Y”
generational differences in perceptions of unit climate. Specifically, (early 1980s) as generational cohorts, finding mean differences in su-
baby boomers characterized their climate as warmer and more ad- pervisor relationship satisfaction across the three groups. These differ-
ministratively supportive than did Gen-Xers. Gen-Xers were particularly ences were very small, however, and baby boomers and Gen-Xers in
dissatisfied with rewards and recognition, their (in)ability to “speak particular seemed to be more homogenous than different in their sa-
their mind,” at work, and the focus of their manager's energy and re- tisfaction. Although the other results of the study (i.e., path analysis
sources (i.e., they prefer managers who focus on “getting things done” examining LMX, WFC, discretionary power, and commitment) did not
within the nursing unit rather than at an organizational level). The suggest the three former variables accounted for a high percentage of
authors attributed these differences to Gen-Xers' need for immediate variation in affective commitment, their impact was even less pro-
gratification as well as their reluctance to follow traditional chains of nounced in Gen-Yers in particular. Overall, there was neither support
command, and to adhere to leader-imposed structure or expectations. for substantial generational differences in relationship satisfaction nor
In the first of a number of studies by these authors, Farr-Wharton clear management practice recommendations as a result of the study.
et al. (2011) used cross-sectional surveys to examine the quality of Instead of examining more general workplace outcome variables as
nurses' relationships with their supervisor and their impact on intuitive they relate to leadership, Murphy et al. (2010) used a ranking approach
decision-making as well as consequent perceived empowerment and to examine generational differences in work values. These authors used
affective commitment. Specifically, they found that the super- the Rokeach Value Survey to assess generational differences in 18
visor–nurse relationship quality explained more variance in intuitive terminal (i.e., aspirational) and 18 instrumental (i.e., modes of conduct)
decision-making in Gen X (1965–1979) and Y (1980–2000) nurses as values. Their cross-sectional sample represented “baby boomers”
compared to baby boomer (1946–1964) nurses. The authors conclude (1946–1964), “Generation X” (1965–1979), and “Generation Y” (1980
that management practices for nurses must, as a result, become more and later) cohorts in both managerial and non-managerial roles from
sensitive to the differing importance of supervisor–nurse relationships airline companies, public sector organizations, and government agen-
for workplace outcomes across different generational cohorts and re- cies. Differences in terminal and instrumental value rankings were
commended “stratified, targeted” management policies. Shacklock and found for both managers (30 of the 36 traits) and non-managers (36 of
Brunetto (2012) further reported findings from this sample with addi- the 36 traits), and the authors used this data to derive recommendations
tional outcomes and different analyses included. They examined gen- for applied management practices. While baby boomer and Gen X non-
erational differences in factors affecting continuance intentions, in- managers placed less value on ambition as compared to capability, Gen
cluding supervisor–nurse relationships, autonomy, and flexible working Y non-managers ranked ambition as the most important instrumental
arrangements. They found that all three generations' intentions to value. Thus, the authors suggest that this cohort is more concerned with
continue working were influenced by work attachment, while Xers status and rank than are their other generational counterparts, and
were also influenced by their supervisory relationship and baby leaders would do well to support these instrumental values for this
boomers were influenced by work–family conflict, work autonomy, generation of employees.
satisfying interpersonal relationships, and work centrality. Taken to- Rather than examining individuals in isolation, Collins et al. (2009)
gether, the authors recommend that leaders focus on improving re- examined age-reversed supervisor–subordinate dyads (i.e., older
lationships with Gen X and baby boomer subordinates and take a more workers with younger supervisors) and their respective leadership ex-
complex approach with boomers, such as supporting participative de- pectations and ratings of leadership effectiveness. The authors utilized a
cision-making and providing time and opportunities for peer relation- cross-sectional sample for their survey-based study and found that older
ships. They further suggested that Gen X and Y may benefit most from workers (i.e., ages 50 and above) with younger supervisors (i.e., ages 39
leaders who help them develop a “passion for nursing.” or below) expected less effective leadership behaviors as compared to
Brunetto et al. (2012) examined a variety of generational differ- all other supervisor–subordinate dyads (i.e., older–older, young-
ences in a nursing sample using a comparable sampling and methodo- er–younger, older–younger). This same effect was found in older sub-
logical approach. Among other variables, the 2012 study examined ordinates' ratings of their younger supervisors' effectiveness as well. The
satisfaction with training and development and supervisor–subordinate authors suggested that these findings confirm the reverse pygmalion
communication relationship quality (i.e., communication frequency, effect, with subordinates' (lower) expectations having a deleterious ef-
mode, direction, content) using self-report surveys completed by “baby fect on their supervisors' performance. Moreover, they attribute these
boomer” (1946–1965), “Gen X” (1966–1980), and “Gen Y” exchange relationship effects to generational differences.

C.W. Rudolph et al. The Leadership Quarterly 29 (2018) 44–57

While these studies are not explicitly linked to leadership attributes, showed parallels with these attribute rankings, with managers in cer-
other authors utilize much more direct (i.e., focused on leadership tain cohorts manifesting behaviors in line with attributes that were
preferences rather than work values, generational perceptions, or highly valued by those in their cohort (e.g., matures were more likely to
dyadic phenomena) methods in their surveys. Yu and Miller (2005) exhibit delegation behaviors).
utilized two generational groups for their cross-sectional survey study: Yi et al. (2010) also surveyed generational differences in desired
“baby boomers” (1945–1964) and “Xers” (1965–1980). While they did manager attributes. These authors used cohorts specified in accordance
not find generational group differences in work expectations, work with political and societal shifts in their country (i.e., China), including
characteristics, and preferred leadership styles in the overall sample, the “Cultural Revolution” (1960s), “Social Reform” (1970s), and “mil-
they did find differences between the two industries included in their lennial” (1980s) generations. All three generations differed in their
sample (i.e., education and manufacturing sectors). Specifically, they preferences of manager “ambitiousness,” with the Social Reform re-
found generational differences within the manufacturing (but not the spondents expressing the strongest desired manager identification with
education) group, such that baby boomers preferred a task-oriented this trait, followed by millennials and then by Cultural Reform re-
leadership style, while Xers preferred a relationship-oriented leadership spondents. Additionally, mentorship, “team player,” and loyalty traits
style. Generational differences in work values, attitudes, and expecta- were most highly preferred by millennials, followed by Social Reform
tions (e.g., job security, job satisfaction, reward preferences) were also and then by Cultural Revolution respondents. Taken together, the au-
observed in the manufacturing group within the sample, but the specific thors conclude that this is evidence for millennials “expecting more”
manifestations of these differences were unfortunately not elaborated from their leaders than do other generational cohorts. In summary,
upon in publication. In contrast, Gentry et al. (2011) explored gen- results of cross-sectional survey studies on leadership and generations
erational differences from a managerial perspective. They used a cross- provide mixed results regarding the existence of generational differ-
sectional survey approach to examine generational differences in per- ences in leadership preferences. The recommendations derived from
ceptions of leadership skill importance and actual leadership skill in these studies are accordingly contradictory. For instance, it is difficult
these areas. They included “baby boomer” (1946–1963), “Gen X” to reconcile the need to focus on improving relationships with boomers
(1964–1976), and “millennial” (1976 and later) cohorts in public and with their low ranking of leader availability and friendliness
private sector organizations, finding that managers from different (Shacklock & Brunetto, 2012; Wieck et al., 2002).
generations showed more similarities than differences in preferred
practices and skills, with no generational skill or preference effect sizes Mixed-method approaches
of practical significance.
Wieck et al. (2002) examined desired leadership traits using cross- In the leadership and generations literature, a number of divergent
sectional samples of nursing students and management, which were methodological approaches (i.e., aside from cross-sectional surveys)
intended to be representative of both “emerging workforce” (ages have been undertaken. In perhaps one of the most formative papers in
18–35, the “twenty-something generation”) and “entrenched work- this literature, Arsenault (2004) conducted a cross-sectional mixed-
force” (35 +, the “baby boomers”) cohorts, respectively. These re- methods study with four generational groups: “veterans” (1922–1943),
spondents were asked to indicate and rank the six leadership traits that “baby boomers” (1944–1960), “Xers” (1961–1980), and “nexters”
they viewed as most and least desirable (each with three traits, re- (1981–2000). This study was intended to investigate different genera-
spectively). There were no differences between the generational groups tions' cultural experiences as well as their views of admired leadership
with regard to desirable and undesirable leadership traits, with both characteristics (e.g., “ambitious,” “caring,” etc.). For this latter goal,
groups valuing honesty, supportiveness, and good communication, Arsenault (2004) made use of a modified version of the Checklist of
among other qualities. Still, areas of divergence between the genera- Admired Leaders (Kouzes & Posner, 2002), upon which respondents
tions are noted: while “twenty-somethings” placed higher value on af- were asked to rank 10 leadership characteristics. Analysis of the four
firmation and confidence building (i.e., leaders who are “team players” groups' mean rankings indicated that veterans and baby boomers
and “motivate others”) as well as knowledge, baby boomers valued ranked honesty and caring as more important than did Xers and nexters,
different professional skills (i.e., “high integrity,” “fair,” and “empow- while Xers and nexters ranked determination and ambition as more
ering”). Furthermore, the twenty-somethings ranked vision and a sense important than veterans and baby boomers. However, most of the traits
of humor as less desirable in leaders, while the baby boomers ranked (e.g., honesty, loyalty, competence, and many of the others) were in
friendliness and availability as less desirable. similar relative ranking positions across the generations (e.g., all groups
This trait ranking approach has been used by others in the literature ranked “honesty” as most important, “imagination” as least important).
as well. For instance, Sessa et al. (2007) conducted two large survey- Arsenault (2004) also used qualitative data from interviews, and spe-
based studies of leadership attribute and behavior preferences. They cifically those responses pertaining to individuals' “favorite leaders,” to
defined six generational groups of interest (“matures” (1925–1945), corroborate trait ranking inferences: for example, Xers and nexters
“early baby boomers” (1946–1954), “late baby boomers” (1955–1963), noted admired leaders such as Bill Gates and Tiger Woods, which,
“early Gen-Xers” (1964–1976), “late Gen-Xers” (1977–1982), and Arsenault (2004) argues, supports these groups' preferred leadership
“millennials” (1983 or later)), although not all generational groups qualities of competence and ambition.
were represented in both studies. In examining respondents' top 12 Ahn and Ettner (2014) completed a qualitative study of generational
rankings of leadership attributes in the first study, the authors con- differences in leadership values, conducting interviews and surveys
cluded that there are similarities as well as differences related to gen- with both business leaders (i.e., CEOs) and MBA students to examine
erational cohort membership. All cohorts valued honesty, organiza- their views on and rankings of leadership values (e.g., leadership by
tional knowledge, listening, and helping others. However, matures example, good judgment) derived from Virgil's 19th century B.C.E. epic
valued delegation more than other groups, while millennials valued poem The Aeneid. There were very few differences observed between
focus, dedication, and optimism more highly, and honesty, big-picture these two “generations,” with only integrity (rated more highly by ex-
orientation, and cultural sensitivity less, than the other groups. There ecutives) and trust (rated more highly by MBA students) having dif-
were additional differences as well, such as the high value placed on ferent ratings between cohorts. Cox et al. (2014) took a mixed-methods
feedback by late bloomers and Gen-Xers (and the relatively low value approach as well, including interviews, focus groups, and case studies,
on feedback attributed by millennials), and younger generations' pre- to assess generational differences in perceptions of and responses to
ference for individually caring leaders and day-to-day focus (rather different leadership styles (i.e., participative, performance-oriented).
than “big-picture focus,” as with older generations). Furthermore, their Similar to Yi et al.' (2010) approach, they adopted nation-specific
behavioral analysis (using a 360-degree leadership evaluation tool) generational cohorts for their study, examining (a) those who were

C.W. Rudolph et al. The Leadership Quarterly 29 (2018) 44–57

born before 1975, (b) those born between 1975 and 1986, and (c) those Adopting a lifespan perspective offers leadership researchers a more
born after 1986 (as 1975 and 1986 were established as key social and sophisticated toolkit for thinking about age-related differences.
historical turning points in Vietnam). They concluded that those in the Compared to investigating simple mean differences between broad
oldest generational group were characterized by “resilience,” naturally generational groups, leadership research based on the lifespan per-
preferring a strict hierarchical order and directive leadership but also spective focuses on age as a continuous variable and developmental
open and adaptive to performance-oriented leadership. The middle changes, relationships of age with important leader and follower ex-
generation was characterized by “adaptability,” as well as a need for periences and behavior, and individual or contextual mediators and
autonomy and comfort with both participative- and performance-or- moderators of relationships between age and leadership outcomes (cf.
iented leadership. The youngest generation (referred to as the “arrival” Zacher, 2015). Beyond providing more sophisticated methodologies,
generation) was highly individualistic and willing to question their the lifespan perspective offers a way of thinking about aging that
leaders' decisions, valuing autonomy, delegation, and proactive in- transcends the limitations of generationalized thinking, reviewed above
volvement in setting objectives within performance-oriented leadership (Rudolph, 2015). We next review core propositions from the lifespan
contexts. perspective to introduce this mode of thinking about aging to leader-
In yet another approach, Kultalahti and Viitala's (2014) study, which ship researchers. Then, we review leadership research that has already
gathered data using the method of empathy-based stories through Fa- successfully adopted lifespan thinking. Finally, we consider applica-
cebook, was primarily concerned with “millennials'” (1982–2000) mo- tions of the lifespan perspective for leadership development practice.
tivational influences in the workplace. By examining millennials' re-
sponses to positive and negative work motivation-related anecdotes, the Core propositions of the lifespan perspective
authors concluded that “nice” (i.e., supportive and attentive) supervisors
and intrinsic motivating factors (e.g., development opportunities) were Baltes (1987) put forward a set of seven propositions that char-
most relevant to this generation. Subsequently, they recommend leaders acterize the lifespan perspective and have implications for research on
adopt a “coaching” style for millennial employees. In summary, the re- age and leadership. First, the lifespan perspective assumes that devel-
sults of these mixed-method studies on leadership and generations are opment entails both continuous (cumulative) and discontinuous
equivocal in nature: while some qualitative differences between gen- (emergent) processes, and that no age period (e.g., young, middle, older
erational cohorts were found, particularly in terms of leadership trait age) is superior to others (Baltes, 1987). This implies that there is no
rankings, many of these thematic divergences are not mutually exclusive clear-cut distinction between “younger” and “older” leaders and fol-
(e.g., “resilience” and “adaptability” can coexist; Cox et al., 2014) and lowers, and that leadership research could focus either on the entire
suggest overlap between generations. adult lifespan or on specific age-related transitions (e.g., school-to-work
transition, retirement entry). Second, development occurs along mul-
Recommendations for leadership theory, research, and practice tiple dimensions (e.g., cognitive functioning, personality) and can take
multiple directions (e.g., growth, decline, maintenance). Third, gains
Considering the preceding critique and review, and the arguments and losses in functioning are possible at all phases of the lifespan, but
we have offered regarding the dubious nature of applying generational losses increasingly outweigh gains with age. Fourth, development is
thinking to the study of leadership, we are left to answer the question, malleable at any age (i.e., plasticity; Baltes, 1987). These propositions
“If not generations, then what?” To address this question, we next imply that leadership research based on a lifespan perspective needs to
consider the lifespan developmental perspective as a promising alter- take multidirectional age-related changes in multiple psychological
native way of representing age-related leadership phenomena (in- dimensions into account.
cluding both leader and follower processes and outcomes), as well as Fifth, development takes place in and is influenced by a given his-
leadership development. Because this theoretical perspective focuses on torical and sociocultural context. Sixth, development is influenced by
individual trajectories of continuous development, it is arguably better age-graded normative influences (e.g., decline in memory experiences
positioned to explain age-related differences and changes in leaders' and by most people), history-graded normative influences (e.g., historical
followers' attitudinal, motivational, and behavioral outcomes across events), and non-normative (idiosyncratic) influences (e.g., becoming
time. Our discussion is based on and expands previous research that has unemployed). Finally, the study of human development requires a
applied the lifespan developmental perspective to understanding lea- multilevel, interdisciplinary approach, ranging from the neurobiolo-
dership processes and outcomes (e.g., Day, 2011; Walter & Scheibe, gical, to the behavioral, and the macro-institutional levels (Baltes,
2013; Zacher et al., 2015). 1987). These propositions suggest that leadership research based on a
lifespan perspective needs to take contextual factors as moderators of
A lifespan perspective on leadership relationships of age with leadership processes and outcomes into ac-
The lifespan perspective is an integrative meta-theory that origi- While Baltes (1987) outlined seven lifespan theoretical proposi-
nated from the field of developmental psychology. It focuses on general tions, the fifth (i.e., that development is influenced by historical, evo-
principles of intraindividual development, interindividual differences lutionary, and sociocultural factors) and sixth propositions (i.e., that
in developmental trajectories, and malleability of development at dif- development is the result of the interplay of normative age-graded in-
ferent ages (Baltes, 1987; Baltes, Reese, & Lipsitt, 1980; Nesselroade, fluences, normative history-graded influences, and non-normative
1991). For example, lifespan researchers have observed that, on idiosyncratic influences) are arguably most relevant to an alternative
average, fluid cognitive abilities such as fast information processing, way of representing age and leadership phenomena. Importantly, while
memory, and reasoning decline with advancing age (Baltes, the lifespan perspective does not use the concept of generations, it ac-
Staudinger, & Lindenberger, 1999). However, research also shows that knowledges that historical and sociocultural conditions can impact
people differ not only in the absolute level, but also the rate, of cog- experiences and behavior at the individual level. However, the lifespan
nitive decline. For example, people who work in more complex jobs or perspective does not assume that contextual factors have shared effects
occupations over their careers show slower cognitive decline and later on entire generations at an aggregate level (Rudolph & Zacher, 2017a).
onset of dementia (Finkel, Andel, Gatz, & Pedersen, 2009; Thus, a fundamental difference between a generational and a lifespan
Kohn & Schooler, 1978; Oltmanns et al., 2017). Moreover, intervention approach to leadership concerns levels of analysis (Chen,
research has shown that fluid cognitive abilities can be maintained Bliese, & Mathieu, 2005). While the generational approach analyzes
and improved even at higher ages (Hertzog, Kramer, relationships at the group level only, the lifespan perspective explicitly
Wilson, & Lindenberger, 2009). takes a dynamic and multilevel approach.

C.W. Rudolph et al. The Leadership Quarterly 29 (2018) 44–57

Previous applications of a lifespan perspective to leadership characteristics, and behaviors with follower attributions and identifi-
Thirty years ago, Avolio and Gibbons (1988) pointed out that re- Over the past decade, a small but growing number of studies have
search on leadership was largely “timeless,” in that it did not explicitly adopted a lifespan perspective to investigate the role of age in leader-
adopt a lifespan perspective. An exception is an early article by Post ship. For example, Kearney (2008) showed that age differences between
(1973), who suggested that average age-related increases in cerebral team leaders and team members moderated the association between
degenerative disease may impact older leaders' cognitive functioning transformational leadership and team performance, such that the re-
and personality which, in turn, may negatively impact their political lationship was positive when the team leader was older than the
and decision-making abilities. Moreover, Post (1973) proposed that, members, and non-significant when the leader's age was more similar to
“there is a tendency for an increased urge [among older leaders] to the average team age. In a series of studies, Zacher and colleagues
accomplish long-cherished goals… Of particular importance is the in- (Zacher & Bal, 2012; Zacher, Rosing, & Frese, 2011; Zacher, Rosing,
teraction of exaggerated pre-existing attitudes with decrease in judg- Henning, & Frese, 2011) showed that follower evaluations of older
ment” (p. 109). leaders' effectiveness depend on whether followers perceive a fit be-
Since Post's (1973) article, only a few researchers have used pro- tween leaders' age and their behavior (e.g., older leaders are expected
positions from the lifespan perspective to gain a better understanding of to show more supportive and mentoring behavior than younger lea-
leadership processes and outcomes (e.g., Day, 2011; Walter & Scheibe, ders), as well as follower age stereotypes.
2013; Zacher et al., 2015; see Rosing & Jungmann, 2016, and More recently, Buengler, Homan, and Voelpel (2016) showed that
Truxillo & Burlacu, 2015, for reviews). However, in contrast to the younger leaders deviate from common leader prototypes in terms of
current article, this research does not explicitly position the lifespan (older) age and (high) status. Moreover, these researchers found that
perspective as a useful alternative to the notion of generational differ- contingent reward behavior was more effective among younger com-
ences in leader and follower behaviors and outcomes. In the following, pared to older leaders in terms of negatively predicting turnover. In
we describe initial theoretical and empirical approaches that demon- contrast, participative leadership was ineffective among younger lea-
strate the usefulness of adopting a lifespan perspective on leadership. ders, supposedly because this form of leadership behavior requires
Reflecting on a set of special issue articles presenting longitudinal leaders to be prototypical and to have high status. Finally, Kunze and
studies in The Leadership Quarterly, Day (2011) observed that re- Menges (2017) conducted a study on the consequences of average age
searchers had neglected studying changes in leadership across the en- differences between leaders and followers, specifically age differences
tire adult lifespan: “The focal question in this area is why do some in- between younger leaders and older followers, at the organizational
dividuals continue to be effective and productive leaders well into their level. Using a sample of 61 companies, they found that greater average
60s, 70s and even beyond that age, yet others reach a pinnacle in their age differences were associated with the experience of more negative
40s and 50s?” (p. 569). Adopting a lifespan perspective, Day (2011) emotions, which, in turn, related to company performance. Moreover,
suggested that investigating successful aging and lifelong development follower expression of emotions moderated these relationships, such
with regard to leadership would be particularly important in times of that there was only an indirect relationship between average age dif-
demographic change and workforce aging. ferences and company performance if followers expressed their feelings
Walter and Scheibe (2013) reviewed the literature on relationships toward their supervisors. Overall, these recent empirical studies de-
of age with leadership behaviors (e.g., task, relational, and change-or- monstrate the usefulness of adopting a lifespan perspective to study
iented) and outcomes (e.g., task and relational effectiveness), and age-related differences in leader and follower processes and outcomes.
concluded that findings are highly inconsistent. They developed a fra-
mework of leadership, age, and emotional experiences based on the Lifespan perspectives on leadership development
lifespan literature on emotional aging (Charles & Carstensen, 2010).
According to the model, and consistent with the lifespan theory of so- Beyond research on leadership processes and outcomes, the benefits
cioemotional selectivity (Carstensen, Isaacowitz, & Charles, 1999), lea- of lifespan thinking could inform leadership development practice.
ders' age influences leadership behaviors and outcomes via two paths, Popular press works have offered a variety of top-down strategies for
an increase in emotional regulation abilities and an increase in posi- managing generational differences via various provisions for devel-
tivity maintenance orientation with age. The links between leader age oping younger generations at work (e.g., Dep, 2016; Espinoza & Ukleja,
and these mediators are moderated by leaders' “functional age” (e.g., 2016). One recent publication has gone so far as to suggest that equine-
physical health) and “psychosocial age” (e.g., future time perspective). assisted interventions (i.e., leadership development involving horses)
Furthermore, the effects of the mediators on leadership behaviors and may be useful for promoting leadership competency development
outcomes are moderated by cognitive and emotional demands pre- among millennials (Meola, 2016). Interestingly, more recent works
sented by the work context. have offered corollary bottom-up strategies (i.e., specifically aimed at
A limitation of Walter and Scheibe's (2013) model is that it does not members of younger generations) about how to overcome generational
take the role of followers into account. However, researchers have differences when assuming leadership roles in organizations (e.g.,
emphasized the importance of followership in leadership processes and Espinoza & Schwarzbart, 2015; Karsh & Templin, 2013). Apart from
outcomes (e.g., Foti, Hansbrough, Epitropaki, & Coyle, 2014; Uhl-Bien, the popular press, recent academic works have likewise emphasized
Riggio, Lowe, & Carsten, 2014), and generational research also focuses leadership development from a generationalized lens (e.g.,
frequently on follower preferences for certain leadership styles (e.g., Hagemann & Stroope, 2013; Marcinkus-Murphy, 2012).
Cox et al., 2014; Sessa et al., 2007). To address this gap, Zacher et al. As alluded to, a lifespan perspective takes a more nuanced and
(2015) proposed a broader lifespan model of leadership that takes continuous approach to understanding age-related influences on the
follower characteristics into account. Specifically, they proposed that development of leadership skills over time. This perspective is thus a
leader age is not only associated with changes in certain leader traits natural link to improved thinking about aging and leadership devel-
and characteristics (e.g., task competence, interpersonal attributes, and opment (cf. Day, 2011). From a lifespan perspective, learning and de-
motivation to lead) but, based on implicit leadership theory (Lord, velopment is a lifelong process. Arguably, leadership development
Foti, & De Vader, 1984), the relational demography approach theory has already adopted a lifespan perspective to some extent. For
(Tsui & O'Reilly, 1989), and theorizing on organizational age norms example, Day and Harrison (2007) have offered that, “…investments
(Lawrence, 1984), also with follower attribution and identification made in leader and leadership development need to be strategically
processes. The age difference between leaders and followers is likely to made over time and with an integrative purpose” (p. 370). Likewise,
influence the strength of associations of leader age, age-related Day, Fleenor, Atwater, Sturm, and McKee (2014) comprehensively

C.W. Rudolph et al. The Leadership Quarterly 29 (2018) 44–57

Table 2
Dangers of generationalized thinking and advantages of lifespan thinking.

Generationalized thinking... Lifespan thinking…

1. ... is exclusive, not inclusive: It encourages a focus on groups and … directly conceptualizes and operationalizes age as a continuous variable; does not impose meaning
group differences. on age by constructing and comparing artificially construed age groups/clusters.
2. ... represents reductionism: It distills very complex age-related … represents the complexities of aging more accurately by taking an inherently multilevel approach
phenomena into grossly over-simplified terms. (i.e., focusing on changes in individuals within and across developmental contexts).
3. ... focuses attention on “wrong” mechanisms of age-related change by … focuses on interindividual differences in absolute levels and rate of change and intraindividual
overemphasizing the role of cohorts. development (i.e., ontogenesis).
4. ... is deterministic: It assumes category membership determines … explicitly includes principles of plasticity and malleability – i.e., change is possible at any age;
individual attributes. individual characteristics are not “set in stone” at a certain age.

review various developmental theories that have been applied to lea- to unite our arguments for a differentiated lifespan developmental
dership development. perspective on leadership by extending previous efforts in The
Quite a bit of scholarship has focused on intergenerational learning Leadership Quarterly (e.g., Day, 2011; Walter & Scheibe, 2013) and
and mentoring as a means of facilitating leadership development. elsewhere (e.g., Zacher et al., 2015).
Indeed, a recent review by Gerpott, Lehmann-Willenbrock, and Voelpel
(2016) outlines a comprehensive agenda regarding the classification, Summary of the critique of generational differences
promotion, and design of such initiatives. Beyond obvious benefits for
leadership development, at least two relevant and important outcomes We have been particularly critical here of past attempts at under-
of intergenerational contact may be realized through such mentoring standing the role of generations and generational differences in the
programs. First, intergenerational exchanges are of central importance workplace in general, and to leadership more specifically. Our criticism
to the transfer of both institutional (i.e., organizational) and substantive of this mode of understanding the complexities of age underlies what
(i.e., job) knowledge (Harvey, 2012; Rudolph & Zacher, 2015). Second, we can classify here as four dangers in “generationalized thinking” (i.e.,
intergenerational exchanges are important for engaging the gen- engaging the schema of generational differences to interpret age-related
erativity motives that emerge in older adulthood (Henry, phenomena) with respect to leadership processes and outcomes. In
Zacher, & Desmette, 2015). Generativity motives include both a con- contrast, the lifespan perspective has corollary advantages to that of-
cern for guiding future generations and for leaving an enduring legacy fered by generational thinking. Table 2 summarizes these dangers and
(see McAdams & de St Aubin, 1992). Generativity has been shown to be how adopting a lifespan perspective remediates them.
an important mechanism in a variety of leadership processes and out- The first danger in generationalized thinking is that it creates false
comes. For example, Zacher et al. (2011) examined the moderating dichotomies; it is exclusive rather than being inclusive as it encourages
influence of generativity on relationships between age and various a focus on groups and group differences, rather than on individuals and
leadership behaviors, finding that higher generativity in older leaders individual differences. The lifespan perspective does not require one to
facilitates both transformational and transactional leadership beha- artificially construct age groups or clusters, but rather conceptualizes
viors. Similarly, Zacher et al. (2011) found that leader generativity and operationalizes age directly as a continuous variable (Baltes, 1987).
moderated the relationships between leader age and three criteria of Second, generationalized thinking is dangerous because it represents a
leadership success (i.e., lower perceptions of leader effectiveness, fol- crude model of the world; it represents reductionism in that it distills
lower satisfaction with leader, and follower extra effort). More speci- very complex aging phenomena into grossly over-simplified terms. The
fically, older leaders with higher generativity had higher levels of lea- lifespan perspective represents the complexities of aging more accu-
dership success than leaders lower in generativity. In summary, a rately by adopting an inherently multilevel approach (i.e., by con-
nuanced and dynamic lifespan developmental perspective (i.e., con- ceptualizing development within contexts). The third danger in gen-
trasted against a reductionist and static generational perspective) on erationalized thinking is that it is distracting; it focuses attention on the
leadership and leadership development is better positioned to explain “wrong” mechanisms of age-related change by overemphasizing the
age-related patterns in leadership. A lifespan developmental perspec- role of cohorts at the expense of developmental processes (i.e., onto-
tive offers that age-based and history-based normative effects, as well as genesis). The lifespan perspective focuses instead on interindividual
various idiosyncratic influences, must be taken into account to fully differences and intraindividual development in absolute levels and rates
understand intraindividual dynamics in leadership. of change. Finally, generational thinking is dangerous because it pre-
scribes a resignation to fate; it is deterministic in that it assumes cate-
Contributions to the leadership knowledge base gory membership determines individual attributes. The lifespan per-
spective explicitly includes principle of plasticity/malleability, which
This critical review contributes to the accumulated “knowledge suggests that intraindividual change is possible at any age (i.e., in-
base” regarding leadership in at least three important ways. First, we dividual characteristics are not explicitly codified/ratified at any cer-
would argue that the leadership literature has run amok with claims tain age). By calling attention to these dangers and how adopting a
that generational differences are worthy of our (i.e., researchers' and lifespan perspective can address them, our hope is that they can be
practitioners') attention. We have attempted to redirect these in- proactively mitigated in the future.
tractable claims to more important issues surrounding aging and lea-
dership that have empirically demonstrable and substantively mean- Summary of literature review
ingful implications to leadership theory, research, and practice (i.e., a
lifespan perspective on leadership and leadership development). Despite the dangers of generation-based leadership research as it is
Second, even if we could suspend our judgment of the evidence for or currently conducted, is it apparent that this topic of study has taken
against generational differences, claims either way would still be mis- hold within the empirical literature. This research is not limited to any
applied on the basis of developmental theory. Finally, our critique of one industry or perspective in particular: from nursing to education,
leadership theories that invoke the notion of generational differences from managers to employees (and dyadic relationships between the
will hopefully sound the call for more thoughtful and integrated theo- two), studies exploring generational differences in leadership pre-
retical perspectives on aging and leadership. We see a great opportunity ferences and other relevant outcomes are increasingly found in the

C.W. Rudolph et al. The Leadership Quarterly 29 (2018) 44–57

literature. Additionally, this research has been conducted not only in existence of several “myths” surrounding generational phenomena,
the United States, but also in Asia, Australia, Europe, and South which were refuted accordingly. We also critiqued academic leadership
America. A variety of methods are present across this literature, in- theories regarding generations and reviewed primary empirical studies
cluding qualitative interviews and focus groups alongside more tradi- that apply generational differences to understand leadership phe-
tional cross-sectional survey approaches, and data analysis approaches nomena. To account for the shortcomings and dangers of gen-
vary accordingly. erationalized thinking, we presented an integrative and extended life-
Regardless of the methods employed by these authors, however, span developmental perspective that better captures age-related
valid generational inferences cannot be drawn from this work. There is dynamics that are relevant to leadership and leadership development.
great variability in how authors operationalize generational cohorts, Considering the various perspectives reviewed and critiqued herein
with ages or birth years varying widely even for the same defined group (i.e., theoretical, empirical, or applied) and the paucity of evidence to
(e.g., Generation Y: 1986 and later in Cox et al., 2014; 1975 and later in support the existence of distinct generational groups, we now call for a
Wilson et al., 2008; “the 1980s” in Yi et al., 2010), or even collapsed formal moratorium to be placed on the application of the idea of gen-
into “younger” and “older” groups rather than more traditional gen- erational differences as an explanatory framework in leadership theory,
erational cohorts (e.g., Collins et al., 2009; see Fig. 1). Not only does research, and practice. Our hope is that this manuscript serves as a
this lead to a lack of continuity across the leadership and generations critical and provocative, yet also theory- and evidence-based call-to-
literature, but, as aforementioned, these arbitrary generational group- reason, and that we can catalyze new debates by bringing controversies
ings are implicitly conflated with chronological age. Moreover, the surrounding these phenomena to light.
results of these studies are mixed at best, suggesting minimal differ-
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