Forbes ran a great blog article recently on 7 reasons why millennials fail to get promoted at work. You’ve got to go read it. Seriously. Especially if you are a millennial…or you have a job.

I’m not going to rehash that list here, but the 7 reasons are spot on. They got me thinking of some traits that I’ve observed over the last 20 years that makes for successful, valuable, and transformational members of a organization.  I’m purposefully not putting this in the context of what makes a good leader because, while this happens to be true, its really not about leadership in spite of our obsession with it. Its about being great citizens of a community of people engaged in a common endeavor or effort.

This list is by no means exhaustive or categorical; merely practical observations about what makes some people shine brighter and with greater effect. People who do these things make a difference. Leadership is made possible and happens when these folks show up and do their thing.

  1. Find a problem and solve it or a job that needs doing and do it
  2. Be a self-starter, stop needing to be told exactly what to do
  3. Practice being curious, think and learn about things outside your job description
  4. Become an expert at something but never stop being teachable
  5. Learn to dig beyond the surface and look for other angles, other perspectives, or hidden problems
  6. Master the art of careful, attentive listening
  7. Be a great asker of questions
  8. Take risks, don’t be afraid of mistakes, learn from failure
  9. Learn to write and verbally communicate correctly and clearly — yes, your spelling and grammar really do matter!
  10. Study art, music, the Bible, and philosophy. You’ll be amazed at how these disciplines can influence any kind of work (this is a good place for a rant about how STEM-only thinking is killing American education…)

One interesting note in the Forbes piece. 80% of millennial see themselves as leaders and embrace the rather curious and vague notion that anybody can lead from any position. [Just one of the numerous vague definitional problems the (my) field of leadership suffers from.] Yet, according to Forbes, only 12% of this group had held leadership or management positions in 2013, a number that had been steadily declining.

Of course, as Forbes has also noted, it could be that this due to a lack of failure to provide leadership training to millennials, or the different set of values many millennial hold that may cause them to not remain at one organization long enough to be promoted. Whatever the case may be, our culture has an obsession with leadership. We are in a steady slide backwards for people who actually can do it, even at the highest levels. I wonder if some of what we see in the millennial generation’s apathy about some of these things is just a subconcious weariness with what often is a shallow and manufactured industry that seems to exist only to generate revenue for those who come up with new leadership secrets.

A better approach is to stop focusing on trying to be a leader and start trying to be a better, more well-rounded, informed citizen who is genuinely interested in the possibilities of the world around you. Focus on how to make the people and organization around you better because of your presence there. Do good work. Let people matter. Be curious about everything. Make a difference. Leadership tends to come along more organically when that happens.