Small Wars Journal

Leading Millennials in the Military

Sun, 05/14/2017 - 1:36pm

Leading Millennials in the Military

Keith Humbard

One significant hurdle facing military leaders today is the unique challenge of leading millennials. Defined a person born between 1984 and 2000 depending on who you ask, millennials make up much of the active duty military force at the ranks of captain and below. According to the 2014 Military Demographics Review, 4 out of 5 active-duty service members were 35 years old or younger and more than half the active-duty officer corps fell in the millennial bracket.[i] Like many of the generational gaps between the leader and the led that have come before, millennials often confound their leadership and display behaviors or opinions that their leadership categorize as entitled, lazy, or even narcissistic. Though these assessments may be true depending the individual in question, it is incumbent on all leaders of this generation to gain a better understanding of what makes up a subordinate’s background and subsequently, how to best lead them.

Before delving into the many hurdles faced by leaders of millennials today as well as some potential answers to those problems, it is important to understand that although millennials come with a healthy set of issues, they have many positive qualities that, if the hurdles can be overcome, the payoff is well worth it. Millennials are very adaptive to new and emerging technology and practices due to the rise of modern technology and the internet boom occurring during their adolescent, teen, and early adult years. It is a common sentiment among older generations that technology has stunted the younger generation intellectually, rendering them incapable of critical thinking or even the most basic of common sense. This is not a new idea. In the late 400s B.C., the accepted manner of transference of information was the spoken word. Philosophers memorized and internalized ideas and stories and thought that writing things down was an act of laziness. Socrates spoke against the corruption of modern technology, the written word. Conrad Gessner echoed his sentiment in the 16th century when he spoke of the “confusing and harmful abundance of books.”[ii] Of course, these are extreme examples but highlight the fact that technology is ever changing and it is advisable to leverage those who are well-versed in its latest means of exchange. Technology has brought collaboration and the group mentality to a level not seen before. Millennials are capable of leveraging technology to form an intricate web of friends, acquaintances, and coworkers that previous generations were not capable of attaining. They are forming a tight-knit generation. This can be a substantial asset to an organization that operates in and with technology such as the most technologically advanced military in the world, the United States. It can also be a critical vulnerability as the internet, by its very nature, can be used to exploit personnel and undermine an organization’s culture. One recent example is the marines united scandal where nude photos of female service members were allegedly distributed via a Facebook group.[iii] Acts of this nature can be devastating to an individual and completely undermine an organizations positive climate and public opinion. Marine Lance Cpl. Marisa Woytek stated during an interview that photos were taken from her Instagram account and that, “Even if I could, I’m never re-enlisting,” Woytek said. “Being sexually harassed online ruined the Marine Corps for me, and the experience.”[iv]

Millennials are also typically people who have a strong desire to make a difference and who seek fulfillment in their day to day lives.[v] They are excellent team players who embrace an all-inclusive operational style. They are group oriented rather than being individualists. They may sacrifice their own identity to be part of the team. During their adolescent years, many participated in school activities and sports which lauded the group effort and gave equal acknowledgment to all. Everyone gets a trophy and no one keeps score.  Though this method fosters a team mentality it brings with it some unintended consequences. It can be a traumatic event to realize that real life does keep scores, not everyone gets a trophy, and your level of effort is directly comparable to your peers. Giving a trophy to even the mediocre performers will make the individual feel embarrassed and ashamed because the individual knows deep down that they didn’t deserve or earn it.[vi] This complex has given them no reason to strive to stand out among their peers, however, while they are group-oriented within their own cohort, they may “politely” exclude other generations. They want to be part of the group. They dislike selfishness and are oriented toward volunteerism.

Some negative aspects of millennials stem from what some would consider failed parenting. They have always been treated as special or vital. Every milestone was marked with celebrations and praise. They may carry an air of entitlement about them and have constant anticipation of frequent and positive feedback. It’s been taught to them that they are indispensable to society and the world at large. They feel an obligation to solve world problems that previous generations have failed to answer.

A common goal for millennials is fulfillment in their lives. They want to make a difference in however they define what making a difference means.[vii] The problem is that years of growing up in an immediate gratification society has left them without the patience to see their efforts through until fruition. They are used to seeing something they want and getting it. If fulfillment is the peak of the mountaintop of making a difference they, of course, desire to reside on that peak every day. They stand at the bottom of the mountain staring at the peak, reaching for it unattainably. They fail to see the mountain in front of them that must be conquered first.[viii] Their life experiences have left them without the tools necessary to begin the arduous journey from beginner to difference maker. Those tools are fortitude, determination, and patience. The time it takes someone to scale their own mountain varies with every individual and every peak as they define it. The journey could take years or it could only take months depending on the individuals own capacity for improvement but whatever measure of time it takes, it is never immediate.[ix] This is the first true hurdle in leading millennials.

How a leader effects change in a subordinate is through the proper apportionment of influencing tactics and the application of power. Millennials differ from the baby boomers and even the gen-x in their response to position and personal power. Baby boomers and gen-x respond more positively to hard tactics and position power than do millennials. Hard tactics are effective at gaining follower compliance and is useful as a short-term fix for getting things done.[x] It can be very difficult in such a fast-paced environment such as the military where leaders are often completely reactionary to the multitude of fires that require extinguishing. If a leader does not make the development of their subordinates a priority than positional hard power will become the default and will quickly exacerbate a millennials devotion to the organization and its leaders. Personal power is often the more effective tactic when leading millennials though a mixture of both personal and position power is ideal. Millennials identify with the influencing techniques of soft tactics like ingratiation, inspiration, relationship building, and consultation over hard tactics of a coalition, legitimate requests, and pressure.

Ingratiation can be a powerful tool in the leader’s arsenal as it appeals to a millennial’s need for validation and positive reinforcement. Ingratiation is best used in moderation. It is important to avoid validating their affinity to believe that they are indispensable and its overuse could lead to a lack of respect from subordinates.

Millennials are also very susceptible to appeals of inspiration. Inspiration targets a person’s values, needs, hopes, and ideals. As a generation who believe that they are here to solve the unsolvable problems of our forefathers, change the world, and make a difference, they often look for inspiration and will cling to any leader who offers it regularly. Inspirational appeals must be viewed as genuine and in line with the leader’s own personal ethos. If it is not than the appeal will be seen as ingenuine and promptly dismissed by the subordinate.  For millennials inspiring is synonymous with enabling. Allow them the latitude to lead their own shops how they see fit. Enable them by promoting initiative. Steven R. Covey breaks down initiative into 5 levels;[xi]

Level 1. Wait until told. Pure gofer delegation. Don't do anything until I tell you.

Level 2. Ask. You see a problem, ask me about it.  Ask me what to do.

Level 3. Recommend. Bring me a problem, and bring me your recommendation along with it.

Level 4. Do it, and report immediately. So, that if there's a mistake, it can be fixed immediately.

Level 5. Do it, and report routinely.

Depending on the task and the person tasked, the level of initiative expected will vary somewhat but it is best to avoid levels 1 and 2 if at all possible. Keep a millennial in the level 3 to 5 range and clearly articulate that expectation to them in order to enable and thus inspire on a daily basis.

Providing a subordinate the latitude to lead also means allowing them the potential to fail. Failure is not generationally specific but is an important aspect for all leaders to understand. In a typically zero defect society such as the military, failure is about as appealing as a veggie omelet MRE.  Enabling subordinates in order to gain their buy-in carries with it some inherent risks of failure that a leader must underwrite. If there is no risk to life, limb, or eyesight, no potential financial loss to the military, and no risk of embarrassment to the unit than failure is an absolutely essential training aid. This is especially true with millennials who do not disassociate their personal and private lives and who are working ultimately towards a sense of fulfillment. Failure will not quickly or easily be forgotten.

Dr. Gene Klann offers several options on influencing and leading at an organizational level. Relationship building is a technique that must be developed over time as it requires mutual trust from all participants through their displayed competence. Relationship building is at times closely linked to ingratiation as it requires positive reinforcement through the offering of praise for jobs well done in order validate the trust gained. This technique plays on a millennials desire to be a part of the group, be seen as an integral part of the organization at large, and be directly responsible for the success or failure of the group.

Consultation is closely tied to relationship building and requires the leader to symbolically or sometimes literally give up a measure of power to the subordinate by seeking the subordinate’s opinion on what to do or how to do it. Consultation can be a simple form of manipulation if the leader already knows what they are going to do before seeking input from the subordinate. It is most effectively used once a solid relationship has been built and a foundation of trust has been made and the expertise of the subordinate is truly needed to make an informed decision. If these conditions can be achieved than the subordinate will be very emotionally invested in the outcome and will do everything possible to ensure its success.

Once a strong foundation of trust has been formed between the leader and the subordinate through a majority of personal power or commitment, and a minority of position power or compliance, then a harmonious and productive relationship can be achieved that is settled in the rational application of power through persuasion, exchange, apprising, and collaboration.[xii] Critical to the healthy use of rational influence techniques is to avoid the potential blurring of lines between the leader and the led. Clearly defined boundaries are critical when dealing with millennials. They have a propensity to make no distinction between work life and personal life. What they do is synonymous with who they are.

In summary, although millennials come with an interesting set of challenges this is by no means a new venture. Clear generational divides have always been an issue. There are clearly behavioral trends for each generation. Understanding those generational stereotypes allows a leader a good jumping off point to begin to identify how best to influence their subordinates and lead their organization. These stereotypes do not apply to every member of the generation. Every leader has the responsibility to understand their subordinates on an individual basis, take the time to develop an effective mentorship plan, and apply the appropriate techniques to lead them daily.


“2014-Demographics-Report.pdf.” Accessed March 26, 2017.

Covey, Stephen R. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Greg Toppo. “Photos of Naked Female Marines Reportedly Shared on Social Media.” Accessed March 24, 2017.

Nowak, Peter. “Boo! A Brief History of Technology Scares -” MACLEANS, November 1, 2011.

Sinek, Simon. “Simon Sinek on Millennials in the Workplace - YouTube,” October 29, 2016.

End Notes

[i] “2014-Demographics-Report.pdf,” 35, accessed March 26, 2017,

[ii] Peter Nowak, “Boo! A Brief History of Technology Scares -,” MACLEANS, November 1, 2011,

[iii] Greg Toppo, “Photos of Naked Female Marines Reportedly Shared on Social Media,” accessed March 24, 2017,

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Simon Sinek, “Simon Sinek on Millennials in the Workplace - YouTube,” October 29, 2016,

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] The Application of Power and Influence in Organizational Leadership; Dr. Gene Klann; US Army Command and General Staff School

[xi] Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989).

[xii]The Application of Power and Influence in Organizational Leadership; Dr. Gene Klann; US Army Command and General Staff School


About the Author(s)

Major Keith Humbard, U.S. Army, is a student at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College, Ft. Leavenworth, KS.


"Millennials": Prefab or looking for a "military identity"
This article is great at defining what or who millennials are. It seems that a lot of effort has gone into it.
Has as much effort gone into how malleable they would be to more Army traditions and suggesting parental fail in this article suggests an opportunity to discover the most positive aspects of what each have to offer.
The second attempt to install a new Secretary of the Army collapsed, the failure is attributed to the persons Christianity as was the first and because of that belief it is automatically assumed they are a threat to LGBTs?
I can't help but feeling there is a lot of smoke being blown, maybe its just my Chemical Corps training.