October 19

Lead the young men as you lead their girlfriends

Many leaders experience that it is a new challenge to understand and lead modern, young men. They are not driven by the same things as their fathers were. Here’s a crash course inspired by, among others, Jonas Vingegaard, Tobias Rahim, and Jonas Risvig. 

By Emilia van Hauen, sociologist, board member, bestselling author


“I don’t quite understand why they can’t handle the pressure?! We certainly could when we were young.”

I have heard variations of this question from many leaders in recent years, and it reflects how big of a challenge it is today to lead the younger generations. However, I have also noticed that it’s not always a genuine question being asked, but rather an expression of frustration that Generation Z (born between 1995-2010) does not want to work under the same conditions that the leaders themselves did when they were young.

Here’s something you need to understand: To be a good leader for the young, it’s not about how they should learn to handle the pressure. The problem lies in the pressure itself.

The labor market has been challenged for years by young women who, upon becoming mothers, insisted on better working conditions that would allow for a well-functioning career and a balanced leisure and family life. This has led to many studies and statements claiming that women were not truly willing to make the sacrifices necessary for a successful career.

In this way, the problem was conveniently placed within the gender debate. However, that is no longer possible because now young men are also no longer willing to accept the working conditions that a traditional progressive career development has demanded. Because those conditions simply make people sick.

Deloitte conducts their Millennial Survey every year, focusing on young people, and this year it shows that over half of the respondents had been absent from work due to stress and anxiety. Only half of them dared to tell their supervisor the reason! 41 percent feel constantly stressed, and here’s the worst part: a whole 40 percent feel burned out.

We are talking about people who have been in the workforce for less than 10 years! Therefore, it is not surprising that, according to the survey, what young individuals are seeking in leaders is prioritization of well-being over high salary, significant responsibilities, job security, and progressive career development. In other words, they believe a leader is good when they are competent in mental health and can prevent, discuss, and handle these issues. This expectation cuts across gender.

As you may have noticed, we are in the midst of a gender revolution, which a few years ago mostly focused on how girls and women created new roles in society and achieved higher status. However, in recent years, it is especially the young Generation Z men who have made themselves noticed in the media and workplaces because they want to live by different rules than their fathers did.

Sara Louise Muhr, a professor of organizational research at CBS and the author of the book “Gender Leadership,” based on 150 in-depth interviews with middle and senior managers, quotes ‘Mads,’ who works in a large organization and has been designated as a rising star:

“It sometimes feels like a prison, something I can’t escape from. Sometimes I wish I were a woman—or got sick—so I could just get out of it, escape. But I can’t go to my boss and say I don’t want it anymore. He counts on me. What should I say? That I actually just want to spend time with my kids. He would laugh in my face.”

Muhr describes how many young men in the accounting, consulting, and legal industries, which are considered to be among the most competitive sectors, feel like they are trapped in a career prison, and this imprisonment is initiated by their gender. In other words, their male bodies become a career destiny that is restrictive and heavily dominated by values they do not wish to embrace but feel compelled to live up to.

What they desire is to be able to pursue their professional ambitions, perform at a high level, and at the same time be whole individuals where there is time and space for their close relationships and, most importantly, their emotional well-being. This aligns well with what young individuals demand from a leader, as per the Millennial Survey: someone who understands and recognizes their entire lives, not just their performance.

Young men are no longer automatically subscribing to a traditional vertical career path. While they may be willing to work long hours, it is only for specific periods (so goodbye to the traditional partner model that lasts at least 15 years before achieving the goal). The conventional perks such as luxury cars, higher salaries, and future executive positions hold far less weight and appeal than they did just 10 years ago.

In other words, young men no longer aspire to follow in their fathers’ career footsteps but instead prefer their mothers’ or even better, their female friends’. The goal is a much more balanced lifestyle that allows for meaningful work and close relationships, which also includes a close relationship with oneself.

Recently, a TV series about the dynamics of young men was launched by the young successful director, Jonas Risvig. It is titled “Drenge” (Boys) and is actually a perfect crash course on how to, and how not to, lead young men as a male leader. While actor Dar Salim portrays a complete hellish father figure that mirrors the manifestation of internalized extreme toxic masculinity, his son manages to build mutually committed relationships. This is primarily based on a willingness to be more balanced and fundamentally humane in the world. The son’s struggle to not adopt his father’s values but instead follow his own emotions is beautifully depicted and highly relevant.

Director Jonas Risvig himself is a good example of a young man who demonstrates what young men seek in leadership today. Risvig has stated that the series is inspired by his own youth in Silkeborg, where for many years, he behaved much more like the father does in the series than the son. He was the leader of what he calls the “wolf pack.” As he expressed in an interview with Berlingske: “What I regret the most was my way of treating the other boys. I pushed others to keep up with my, our, pace. I should have been better at asking how others were doing. I should have been better at addressing the obvious.”

It was only when he got to know his girlfriend that he realized how dysfunctional their way of being together was. Today, he and his male friends have a completely different friendship—one where they build each other up instead of tearing each other down.

The two times winner of Tour de France (2022, 2023) Jonas Vingegaard is another shining example of a young generation’s men who understand the value of setting ambitious goals and achieving the utmost, but who also help their competitors when they have fallen and clearly emphasize the importance of maintaining close relationships with their partners and children. He demonstrates the significance of having balance in life, such as choosing not to participate in Post Danmark Rundt or the World Championships after winning the Tour de France because he was exhausted and also wanted to spend time with his wife and child.

On September 22nd, another comet, Tobias Rahim, won the main prize at P3 Gold Music Award. He was the only nominee for the award, which had never happened before, but he did not show up to accept it. A few days earlier, he had experienced a panic attack, which he openly disclosed. “Tobias Rahim is two meters tall and carved in granite, and at the same time sensitive and poetic. His songs are as complex as he is, and we can see ourselves reflected in the lyrics and music,” the jury stated during the award ceremony.

It is precisely this complexity that leaders of young men can advantageously make room for, both within themselves and among their young male employees, in order to reach them.

Because men (of course!) are also sensitive souls who need good relationships, recognition, a sense of belonging, and care in order to perform and achieve strong results that propel the community forward. This is something that, in my experience, leaders more often expect and demand from young women.

Ultimately, however, it is not strange at all because what young men insist on today is simply the right to be human. And if one is unsure how to embody that in their leadership, they can start by asking themselves: How do I personally want to be treated by my leader?


Column in lederstof.dk in 2022 

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