Despite being the best-educated generation in American history, many millennials need fundamental practical advice about how to succeed. They have fallen behind their forebears in critical thinking and written and oral communication skills. They struggle with applying knowledge and skills in practical settings, and with ethical decision-making and collaborating in teams.
Recent trends in higher education are partly to blame. Grade inflation is rampant, especially at elite institutions, encouraging graduates to overestimate their abilities. In 1969, 7 percent of undergraduates had grade-point averages of A- or higher; today, 41 percent do. Similarly, the portion of undergraduates receiving grades of C or lower has dropped from 25 percent to 5 percent. Add to this the fact that the skills required for many jobs are changing rapidly, and it’s clear that colleges have not adapted to changing times. A 2015 report by the American Association of Colleges and Universities found that employers considered fewer than 30 percent of recent college graduates ready for work.
Refreshingly, some colleges, namely the service academies, are ignoring trigger warnings and safe spaces and instead preparing their graduates for responsibility in the real world. I was reminded of their serious efforts to teach leadership when I attended a recent conference, “The Military and Politics,” at the U.S. Naval Academy.
More than 1,000 Naval Academy midshipmen, a few dozen West Point cadets, and a handful of NROTC candidates from George Washington University were in attendance. All had given up their limited free time to listen to the impressive speakers, most of whose careers had peaked before anyone in this young audience had even been born. I was there, in part, to interview some of the participants for my newest book, What I Wish I Knew Then: Leadership Lessons for the Next generation of Leaders. But before I could probe the guests for advice to the young, the moderator, legendary reporter and author Bob Woodward, asked a panel that included former secretary of state Colin Powell and several distinguished retired naval officers: “What is the single most important leadership lesson you would tell these young men and women?”
First to answer was the former Chief of Naval Operations (and my Annapolis classmate) Admiral Gary Roughead, who said: “Your first responsibility is to the enlisted men and women who work for you.” Those in attendance had heard that instruction many times before in their leadership classes. The admiral then surprised them by adding, “but that doesn’t mean making it easy. Rather, it is to make their training as tough as necessary so as to ensure they are well prepared for difficult, dangerous jobs—whether that be in combat on the ground, flying fighter aircraft, or sailing ships into hostile waters.”
Many of the insights I have been gathering this past year through my interviews with successful professionals—corporate CEOs, entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and military leaders among others—are relevant to millennials. That’s because I ask the interviewees what they wish they’d known when they were in their twenties—and what they wished their twentysomething employees would learn today.
Some of the lessons the CEOs wish to impart are very practical, while others are more philosophical and reflective. “I had bosses early on in my career who did manage through fear, and I didn’t think it worked,” Marjorie Kaplan, who just retired as president of Discovery Networks International, told me. “It didn’t work for the organization or for the individuals. More importantly, I knew it wasn’t me. I think to be a good leader or manager—and they are different—you have to be true to yourself, to who you are.” She continued: “Empowerment and high expectations go together. You have to make it clear to people what you expect, and then allow them to do their best. Get out of their way; great work is not an orderly process.”
John Katzman, the highly successful education-technology entrepreneur—he was the founder and CEO of The Princeton Review, 2U, and Noodle—said, “I was an entrepreneur before I even knew I was one; or what was expected of an entrepreneur. And I certainly didn’t have any real understanding of how being an entrepreneur was different from being a manager or a leader. I heard lots of advice, and probably should have listened to more of it. But patience wasn’t one of my strengths. We were having fun, and we were successful. And of course when you are successful early on in your career, you start to believe your own BS. There is a tendency to believe that if you’re smart—or lucky—about one thing, you’re smart about other things.”
Stephen Rudin, founder and principal mentor at Peak Year, often speaks about the six “secret” skills that successful, happy people share: emotional intelligence, executive function, mindfulness, grit, design thinking, and flow. “These skills are unlikely to be learned in college; they are rarely part of a curriculum,” Rudin said. “But just trying to learn them can make a real difference in a person’s life; and they almost always can be acquired.”
These insights from successful people—from executives to naval officers—strike consistent themes of taking responsibility and treating subordinates fairly. The audience at the Naval Academy was most moved when Woodward asked Senator John McCain what advice he had for future officers. “That’s easy,” said the one-time presidential nominee. “Do the right thing. Always. And I haven’t always done that.” But McCain also recalled a time when he had done the right thing: much of the young audience didn’t know that McCain had declined early release from captivity during the Vietnam War, insisting that every prisoner captured before him be released first. That principle cost him five more years of imprisonment—and torture.
The millennials listening at the Naval Academy conference are fortunate to have access to such solid lessons on leadership and on life. Their civilian peers need them, too.