Articles 7 min read

Is the Generational Difference as Important as People Think with Roderic Yapp

We conducted a Q&A interview with Roderic Yapp, Director at Leadership Forces and TEDx Speaker, regarding leadership and the generational gap.

Could you introduce yourself and what you do?

My name is Roderic Yapp. I am a former Royal Marines Officer who was fortunate enough to lead Marines on Operations around the world. The highlights of my career include leading Marines in Afghanistan in 2007, evacuating civilians from Libya when the Gaddafi regime collapsed and then recovering the 55,000t MV Montecristo from Somali pirate control in 2011. I left the Corps because I wanted to spend more time with my young family. I worked for two years delivering Operational Excellence programmes in the Nuclear Industry before starting Leadership Forces which focuses on the development of leaders in organisations going through major change programmes.

We’re at a point where there are around 4 different generations in the workforce, but not all are deemed capable of leadership yet. Is there a specific leadership type or trait that is needed to lead such a variety of people?

I am not convinced that the generational difference is as significant as many people believe. Yes, millennials are different to the baby-boomers but when it comes to leadership I believe we are talking about a universal set of behaviours that inspire us to do our best work. Do you treat people fairly and with respect? Do you set a clear vision for the future and support/challenge your team to achieve it? Do you make decisions? How do you react to mistakes – do you blame people or take ownership for playing a part when things go wrong? Are you accountable and do you hold people to account? These are universal ways of behaving that people of all generations’ value.

Following on from this, there is various commentary about ‘millennials/Generation X possessing a variety of traits that aren’t suitable for the workplace or leadership’. How much of an ‘urban myth’ is this? Can you debunk this?

That’s a load of rubbish. At best, it’s naive, assuming that leadership is something that comes only with age or a title. At worst, it’s a way of protecting people who are currently in those positions of leadership.

Leading people is all about how you behave. It’s what you do every single day that counts, the example that you set. I would argue that someone like Owen Farrell (Saracens/England Rugby) is a great leader. If you watch him on the pitch, he’s not afraid to have those difficult conversations when people aren’t performing. His attitude and work rate ability to handle pressure are incredible – he’s only 26.

Mark Zuckerberg is 34, Evan Spiegel (founder of Snap) is 27. Both founded companies that are worth billions. They demonstrate that there is no correlation between age and the ability to lead a team.

What do you think are the biggest leadership issues today?

I think that there are two. The first one is that organisations promote top performers into leadership positions and then leave them to work it out offering minimal support and development. There is a belief that leadership must be learnt through experience with trial and error. I don’t believe that this is the case, I believe that leadership can be taught and leaders can be developed.

Secondly, not enough people in leadership positions take time to reflect and learn. It is often said that people learn from their mistakes but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. If it was, the people that turn up late to everything would plan more time to get things done. The reality is that this rarely happens.

How does organisational culture affect leadership?

Organisational culture is the reflection of an organisation’s collective leadership. If you have a culture problem, you have a leadership problem because your leaders set the tone for how people are expected to behave. They are so closely related it’s hard to divorce the two. Any team or organisation that is deemed to be high performing is well led and invests in developing leaders at all levels of the organisation.

Many organisations struggle with implementing frameworks like double-loop learning. What do you suggest to these organisations to begin single, double or even triple loop learning?

The ability for an organisation to become a ‘learning organisation’ and be able to adopt frameworks like double-loop learning is dependent on two key questions.

Are people given the freedom to innovate and try different things and how do leaders react to mistakes?

If people aren’t given any freedom to try something different, they will keep doing what they’ve always done. Why change when you don’t feel empowered to? Secondly, if leaders react negatively to mistakes/failure, then people simply won’t try and change anything. It’s too risky for them.

In my experience, the larger the organisation, the lower the appetite and capacity for change. The reason for this is that many people in leadership positions are playing a political game and focused on promotion. When people are reviewing the performance of a group of people, the person that has made mistakes and taken risks is less likely to be promoted than the person that has ‘played it safe, taken no risks and has an error-free record’

Organisations don’t realise it but this kills them in the long-term. The impact of continuously promoting people who don’t take risks means that the organisation is less agile, less capable of changing and conversely at risk of being beaten by more agile competitors.

Culture is integral to leadership, but how do you build the ‘right’ culture and if there is an already ingrained culture in place, how do you change these ingrained organisational ideals?

I have already talked about the relationship between culture and leadership. High performing teams and organisations with great cultures are well led. The reverse is also true.

Changing a culture is very difficult to do. In a large organisation, it will take and at least ten years and will require constant attention and dedicated resource. Too many organisations try and short-cut this process leading to superficial change at best.

The first step is to look at who you recruit. Do you recruit people primarily for their skills and experience or do you recruit people based on their attitude and potential? These aren’t easy to assess but it can be done. Secondly, who do you promote and why? Promotion is a way of rewarding a set of behaviours. So if you promote the toxic leader that drives their team through fear and enforced compliance, you will create more of them. If you promote people who are regarded as great team leaders, they will create more of them through the example that they set.

You will get more of the behaviours that you reinforce and reward. So, if you want people to truly work as a team, don’t pay them individual bonuses – let them share a team bonus and create the conditions for them to be successful (or unsuccessful) together.

Changing culture is about changing behaviour. Changing behaviour usually requires people to change habits. Anyone who has successfully broken a bad habit will tell you it’s not easy!

The concept of leadership changes per person: What’s your definition of leadership?

My thinking on ‘the definition of leadership’ has evolved over the years. I think the word leadership is like the word religion. It means so much that it actually means very little. My wife’s family are religious and regularly attend church – but then so is a Jihadi fighting for ISIS in Syria. The word describes them both, it is the behaviour that sets them apart.

Most leadership practitioners will want to sell you a recipe for leadership based on their experience. I think that’s helpful to some extent but I prefer to use a principles-based approach because principles are universal and can be applied regardless of circumstances and context.

For example, I can’t cook. It’s a legacy from my military service coupled with a bit of disinterest! However, I can follow a recipe and make something that tastes okay. But the ability to follow a recipe does not make me a chef. A chef is an expert and understands ‘the principles of what foods work together’. They could come into my house, or yours, open the fridge and cupboards and make something that tastes amazing because they understand how to cook on a principles-based level.

I believe that there are ten principles of leadership. This is an approach that I am constantly trying to break because, in order to improve it, I have to break it.

If you can understand these principles, you can apply them in whatever situation you find yourself. See this PDF on the Ten Principles of Leadership for more detail.

You often hear that people buy into leaders, which can increase loyalty and motivation. Do you think that there is a specific way that leaders can encourage buy-in during a transformation period to maintain loyalty?

I think that this comes down to the relationship with the individual. People buy-in to leaders when they believe that they are listened to, valued and respected. They buy-in to people that know them, understand them and want to help them.

How well do you know your people? Do you know about their history, their family, their interests, their hobbies? This sort of knowledge is invaluable. If you know this, it means you’ve asked people about the important parts of life outside of work. This is what a real relationship looks like. These are the people that create buy-in with their teams.

During a transformation period, people often struggle with the uncertainty that comes with change. Continuing to restate the case for change reminds people why the organisation is going through the transformation. You cannot over-communicate this message. It is a bit like telling your spouse that you love them on your wedding day and never mentioning it again – there are some messages that you cannot over communicate.

With the constant discussions around AI in the workplace, do you think that robotic leaders are the future despite their lack of human aspects, or will there always be a place for human leaders?

As long as there are people working together to achieve a common goal, we will need leaders. We need leaders who inspire us with their passion and great visions. We need leaders that are focussed and dedicated to making the world a better place.

AI is a tool. It has the potential to add tremendous value but it will never replace leadership.

This Q&A interview is exclusive for The Business Transformation Network, in preparation for The Excellence in Leadership Summit.

Sign up above, if you would like to hear Roderic talk at the Excellence in Leadership Summit in October. The tickets are currently on Earlybird release at £195 for two days of talks and networking, don’t miss out.

Hear it first

Stay up to date with our latest content and events

Watch, read or listen to content from the brightest leaders across the world of People, Process & Technology.

Find out about the latest events across Europe

Network with like-minded professionals in your industry

Find and apply for the best jobs

See content that you like?

Share your experience by joining your exclusive roundtables, or contribute to our content like industry peers.

Get involved