Millennial leadership prevails in 1879, 2010 and beyond

  • Published
  • By Col. Lee Fox
  • 52nd Operations Group commander
In their 2007 article "Military of Millennials," writers Art Fritzson, Lloyd Howell Jr. and Dov Zakheim described the next generation of soldiers as "tech-savvy, open-minded, multitasking, and perhaps unprepared" for the command structures of the modern military. They described a gap in understanding between senior leaders and the new generation, known as Generation Y, or the Millennial Generation. A leader's role is to bridge this gap with a careful balance of creativity and discipline in order to maximize the potential of the individual and the unit. The military leader's role has always been to strike this balance in order to achieve success, particularly in the unpredictable turmoil of combat, just as it was the case in South Africa in 1879.

Generational differences are not new to the military. Baby boomers began life in the optimistic aftermath of World War II, only to become disenfranchised later in life and sometimes rebelled against authority. Generation X lived primarily as dual-income couples and endured waves of layoffs, which caused them to favor entrepreneurial ventures over corporate employment.

By contrast, Millennials strive for service-oriented careers such as the Peace Corps and the military. They are deeply committed to family, community and teamwork. Air Force leaders have much to work with as they strive to lead Millennials effectively; this generation has the unselfishness and determination to inspire even the most jaded observer. But if leadership fails to adapt, it could miss an opportunity to energize the Air Force and overcome the many challenges we face on a daily basis.

Millennials have always lived in an interconnected world with the internet, cell phones and remote controls. It is likely that Millennials will enthusiastically respond to leadership styles that encourage creativity, initiative and information-gathering and sharing. Millennials will be comfortable working in teams. The true leadership challenge, then, is to maintain the balance between empowering Millennials and providing them with required discipline to be successful.

In January 1879, in South Africa, another generation of soldiers and leaders demonstrated the creativity, initiative, courage and discipline that exemplify the spirit of the current Millennial Generation. It is important to note that soldiers are more than warriors - and yes, Airmen are soldiers, too. Both can be brave, valiant and skilled fighters, but the soldier is distinguished by his organization, discipline and ability to achieve a common goal against incredible odds.

In January 1879, 139 British Army soldiers met more than 4,000 Zulu warriors at a remote medical outpost called Rorke's Drift. They had just learned about the crushing defeat of 1,800 seasoned British troops at nearby Isandhlwana against 20,000 Zulu warriors. They knew the enemy force captured .45 caliber British rifles and ammunition and that another 4,000 fresh Zulu warriors were on the way to Rorke's Drift to reinforce. The "Millennials" of 1879 knew creativity and discipline would be required to overcome the incredible challenge that lay ahead.

Rorke's Drift was commanded by two "unexceptional" lieutenants and was described as "indefensible." At first notice of an impending attack, however, the inexperienced - albeit creative and disciplined - officers built a layered, fortified defensive position, stationed men at proper intervals, distributed ammunition, established fields of fire, and gave instructions to offset the vast numerical superiority of the Zulus. Unlike their "exceptional" leader counterparts at Isandhlwana - who had every advantage but failed to be creative and disciplined - these officers demonstrated the unique characteristics of Millennial leaders in their disciplined preparation for the impending attack.

The attack began. For 16 hours the British faced a near continuous onslaught of Zulu snipers and vigorous spear and machete assaults. Their Martini-Henry rifles became red-hot due to volume of fire, frequently jammed and bayonets often bent or broke because of vicious close-quarter fighting. In the end, the British lost only 15 men, with 12 more wounded, while the Zulus lost more than half of their force, with 1,000 dead and 1,000 wounded.

There are many reasons for the lopsided victory, but key among them is the remarkable discipline and teamwork of the relatively few soldiers at Rorke's Drift and the leadership of their "unexceptional" officers. These men remained together as a team despite the common tendency toward desertion in similar circumstances. They used all of the information they had available to develop a plan for success against unbelievable odds, and their disciplined approach resulted in a layered defense, adequate ammunition and deconflicted fields of fire.

In our shrinking, resource-constrained Air Force, leaders face tremendous challenges that seem insurmountable. We must capitalize on the Millennial soldier's ability to gather and disseminate information and give them the training they need to be disciplined under stress, with various constraints and sometimes under fire. The Millennial Generation makes our military the most unselfish and adaptable force that has ever been assembled. Leaders of all ranks, accept your challenge and live with creativity and discipline to achieve success!