Generation X Takes the Stage

Image of Book CoverI recently read the book Generation X Presidents Leading Community Colleges: New Challenges, New Leaders, edited by Martha M. Ellis and Linda L. García (published by Bowman and Littlefield).  Although I have been encouraged to write a review of the book, I want to first spend some time reacting to it.  Because I expect to use this book both in my own research and in class, I focus here strengths, weaknesses, and technical errors that appeared in the book.

Strengths: Advice for New & Aspiring Presidents

As someone who conducts research on community college presidents, I found this book to be both illuminating and frustrating.  The book ambitiously seeks to present data from a study of Gen X presidents along with chapters authored by both Gen X presidents and the researchers.  As a result, there is a lot of information ranging from empirically-based data to assertions (opinions) of chapter authors.  The authors generally provide good advice for new (and aspiring) presidents to consider.  Although there is some contradictory advice about handling the first year, each new president will have to weigh the advice in the context of their own presidency.  One solid word of advice was to have a mentor – not just in preparing for a presidency, but also once in the position.  Being president can be an isolating experience so having a trusted mentor will provide the space for candid conversations, advice, and possibly some tough love while preparing for a presidency and once in the position.

One tip from the book that resonated with me was that presidents re-consider the use of committees.  Rather than work solely through standing committees, the Gen X presidents encourage creating ad hoc committees that have a short life and specific goal.  Once the goal has been met, they advocate disbanding the committee.  Although this is not a new idea (see, for example, ad hoc management or adhocracy), it is one that merits re-examination.  Savvy leaders will recognize the need to honor existing agreements about some committees and will also want to communicate their intentions about changing committees with constituent groups in the organization.  Failure to communicate with groups around any change to established procedures – even when the changes are for the best – has been known to de-rail a presidency.

Noticeably absent from the advice on preparing for the presidency is any mention of the doctoral degree.  Perhaps the editors and contributors see this as an obvious credential so they focus not on doctoral studies but on a variety of professional development programs for aspiring presidents.  Such programs not only provide insight into the role of president, they offer excellent networking opportunities for participants.

Weaknesses: Massive Eye Rolls

Frustrating aspects of the book involve sweeping generalizations about generations, with a bias toward focusing on how wonderful Gen Xers are and how limited other generations are.  As a Boomer, I was insulted by the dismissive perspectives, condescension, and arrogance of many of the contributors (as well as the study participants).  Many seem to view Boomers as hopelessly inept when it comes to technology, seemingly forgetting that faculty (many of whom are Boomers) are using technology in their classes every day in new and inspiring ways.

In other sections it felt as though these Gen X presidents thought they had singled-handedly invented key leadership concepts.  For example, in one chapter the contributor presents two organizational charts.  One is the typical hierarchical chart most of us have seen with the CEO at the top and other boxes branching out in roughly the shape of a pyramid.  The second chart is presented as a “Generation X organizational chart” showing the CEO at the bottom – basically an upside-down pyramid.  To describe this as a Generation X idea disregards the work of Robert Greenleaf who, in the 1970s, promoted servant leadership, a concept that upended the traditional organizational chart and envisioned the CEO as someone in service to the organization.  Similarly, another contributor discussed the “novel” idea that presidents get out of their offices to lead by walking around campus.  This idea, once described as MBWA (or management by wandering around) was first developed at Hewlett-Packard in the 1970s and popularized by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in their 1980s book, In Search of Excellence.

Technical Errors

Some of the technical errors such as the occasional misspelled word, are not unexpected.  In a book, this can happen regardless of the number of people who have reviewed and edited it.  Other errors, such as a misspelled name or a glaring mistake in the description of the generations, specifically the Millennials (Gen Y), really should have been corrected prior to publication.  In one chapter, the generations are described as the Silent Generation, Baby Boomer Generation, Generation X, and the Millennial Generation.  Later in the same chapter the generations are referred to as Veterans, Boomers, Xers, and Nexters.  This sudden shift in the use of terms can be confusing to readers causing them to wonder who the Veterans and Nexters might be and where the Silent Generation and Millennial Generation went.

Would I Use or Recommend This Book?

In spite of its irksome qualities, I cautiously recommend this book.  I will use portions for my own literature reviews and also in classes (one on leadership development and one on writing).  It certainly generated a lot of energy and reaction on my part, which suggests to me it could be a good book for discussions about leadership and about working with different generations.  The technical errors can be used as teachable moments, helping to illustrate why attention to detail and consistency in writing are important.

Final Thoughts

We must look to future generations to lead us – in higher education, in politics, in business, and in service.  The hubris/arrogance of younger generations is the very characteristic that will enable them to disrupt the status quo and to be bold in their thinking.  Knowing how to balance this hubris with a concern for other perspectives is a challenge faced by most good leaders.