HR News & Trends, Leadership

Leadership Lessons From the Uproar in Egypt: The “Youth Bulge” at Work

Egypt Uprising solidarity protest Melbourne 4 Feb 2011

Early in the development of the protest in Egypt, David Kirkpatrick, as part of his extensive reporting in The New York Times from Cairo wrote:

A small group of Internet-savvy young political organizers gathered in the Cairo home of an associate of Mohamed ElBaradei, the diplomat and Nobel laureate. They had come to plot a day of street protests calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, but within days, their little clique became the effective leaders of an opposition movement previously dominated by figures more than twice their age.

‘Most of us are under 30,’ said Amr Ezz, a 27-year-old lawyer who was one of the group as part of the April 6 Youth Movement, which organized an earlier day of protests via Facebook. They were surprised and delighted to see more than 90,000 people signed up online to participate, emboldening others to turn out and bringing tens of thousands of mostly young people into the streets.”

Leading the way were these young adults who had put it all together via social media. What we’re seeing is a perfect storm of elements coming together — angry young people, the sour economy, and the leadership they’ve been given.

The “youth bulge” theory at work

I’ve traveled to Egypt several times over the last decade. Our organization, Growing Leaders, has a base in Cairo. I’ve predicted this scenario for three years now and have written about it long before the events of the past couple weeks.

Our world is seeing a swelling of youth, populating so many influential nations. When the young people make up more than 30 percent of the total population (especially when jobs are scarce), this unrest is to be expected. Violence follows.

German sociologist Gunnar Heinsohn has researched centuries of history and developed this “youth bulge” theory. Over the last 200 years, we saw it play out in Latin America and Africa. America got a dose of it in the 1960s when the Baby Boomers were young.

Here’s what scares me: Today, 66 nations meet the criteria of a population where youth makes up more than 30 percent. Of those 66 nations, 60 of them are experiencing violence or civil war. Twenty-seven are in Islamic regions.

Look at Palestine. Look at Afghanistan. Yemen’s mean age is 15. Do you see what’s happening here? We may be in for a rough ride, and Egypt is only the beginning. “I believe events in Egypt have a real chance of spilling over. It’s a volcano with real lava waiting to spill over,” one Pakistani security official said.

“Command  and Control” leadership is the problem

In addition, this kind of turmoil emerges when a youthful population is under a regime that only knows how to lead via “command and control.” I have friends in Egypt who’ve been intimidated and imprisoned because of their faith. Others frequently complain of being picked up by Egypt’s security forces, confined to illegal safe houses and tortured.

It’s déjà vu. Do you remember 20 years ago when communist regimes fell in the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries? Half the problem was leaders who didn’t know how to lead except through intimidation and power. They didn’t listen. They didn’t know how to read and interpret the culture around them. Their egos blinded them to their followers’ needs or numbed them from even caring.

When economies are in such disarray, with fewer jobs available than people, we have a breeding ground for trouble. Much of the trouble in Egypt stems from the fact that the young have time to conspire — when they are not busy working.

There’s a lesson for us to learn from this. In the U.S., the Millennials (Generation Y) have just passed the Baby Boomers in size. We have a youth bulge again. As a generation they are brash and vocal. And, jobs are scarce. I wonder how we’re going to lead them, mentor them, connect with them, and prepare them for the future?

Your choice: a perfect storm or a perfect story?

No one enjoys following a dominant leader like those described above. Youth, however, won’t put up with it. If they sense a leader is full of ego or emotional insecurities – they’ll leave faster than you can say “dysfunctional.” If it’s all about the leader rather than the cause, and you can expect a demonstration of some kind.

When the squeeze is on, what’s your default leadership style? Are you out of touch with the young people you lead? Do they laugh behind your back? Do you get impatient and demanding? Do you digress to “command and control?” The need of the hour is leaders, teachers, coaches, employers and pastors who know how to: engage the young people under them, create incentive for those who follow them, and inspire rather than insist on compliance.

What will you do to transform a potential demonstration into a conversation? The emerging generation can either be part of a perfect storm or a perfect story, depending on how we lead them.

Dr. Tim Elmore is the founder and president of Growing Leaders, an Atlanta-based international non-profit organization created to develop emerging leaders. He has written more than 20 books and delivered leadership training and keynotes to hundreds of academic and corporate organizations in more than 30 countries. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/TimElmore , or contact him at tim@growingleaders.com.