What Soldiers Want: The Gen Z Perspective
By Sgt. First Class Roland Hanks
U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence
February 28, 2022
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“Since the Revolutionary War, NCOs [noncommissioned officers] have had the tasks of maintaining
standards, training their teams, and leading soldiers. These primary duties remain the same, but
NCOs have had to adapt as progression necessitated changes.”
(Fails, 2004, p. 3)
With each new generation comes a new set of values, learning styles, and effective leadership principles. Post-millennials (also known as Generation Z or Gen Z), born from 1996 to the present, now constitute nearly 90% of the Army’s active duty junior enlisted and nearly 35% of all junior officers (Defense Manpower Data Center, 2018, p. 29). In order to provide Soldiers with their preferred leadership style, NCOs and leaders must know what is required of them to effectively lead this new generation.
To discover this insight, I conducted a study and interviewed 20 Gen Z junior enlisted Soldiers stationed
at Fort Rucker, Alabama, in 2020. The gender breakdown of my study was 65% male and 35% female. The racial and ethnic makeup was 25% African American, 10% Asian-Pacific Islander, 15% non-White Hispanic, and
50% White. In addition to helping NCOs adapt their leadership styles, this data will enable those who develop NCO training and leadership schools to inculcate meaningful change to the current design or curriculum.
Generation Z Characteristics
Gen Z are different from their predecessors in that they are the first generation to grow up with computers, smartphones, and the internet (Patel, 2017). Moore (2019) describes Gen Z as valuing interconnection, information, interaction and therefore want to know why they are doing something, why it is important, and why they cannot attempt to do something a new and different way. And Miller (2019) wrote Gen Z favors leadership styles that emphasize competitiveness, creativity, and the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes.
Jenkins (2020) states:
93 percent of post-millennials revealed that an organization’s impact on society affects their decision to work there, 84 percent believed they have the necessary skills to be successful in a professional environment, 58 percent are open to working nights and weekends, 77 percent think they need to work harder than past generations, and 76 percent of post-millennials are willing to start at the bottom. (Jenkins, 2020, p. 72)
Gan (2019) states that Gen Z, who will make up over 90% of all new recruits, have the right attitude, values and behaviors to serve in the Army effectively. Based on that data, it would be easy to conclude that Gen Z would adapt well to military service. However, the Army has continued to primarily focus its training and instruction on the preceding millennial generation (millennials) (Reid, 2018). This has caused generational conflicts as Gen Z Soldiers view leadership horizontally as opposed to the traditional vertical hierarchy the Army has in place (Peebles, 2021). This results in a disconnect in how senior-level leaders believe they should lead Gen Z Soldiers as opposed to how Gen Z Soldiers wish to be led (Miller, 2019).
What Gen Z Soldiers want from NCOs
Participants in my research study stated they wanted NCOs to be fair in the way they led, empathetic to their concerns, confident in the way they led, and honest in their interactions. The 20 Soldiers also added that they preferred NCOs who took charge and pushed them to perform better. Overall, there were a total of six themes that I found which best represented the respondents’ answers to the research question of how Gen Z Soldiers wish to be led. They were Army Values, fairness, role models, confidence, motivation and inspiration, and empathy.
The Army Values of leadership, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage was the number one theme discovered during my research (Hanks, 2021). One participant summed this up best by stating that good NCOs do not lie to Soldiers or make promises they know they cannot keep.
Lips-Wiersma, Haar, and Wright (2020) state leaders exhibit fairness by holding subordinates to acceptable standards and being reasonable in their responses. The Gen Z Soldiers in my study related that fairness and engaging others without judgment or bias was important for them to establish trust. Therefore, NCOs who want to be successful should strive to look for alignment among Soldiers and try to create mutually effective outcomes.
According to Boatwright (2016), leadership role models are people who are already in positions of authority whom workers look up to and emulate. While role models may not necessarily be in leadership positions, Gen Z Soldiers prefer NCOs to serve as role models.
Gen Z Soldiers stated they want competent NCOs who are proficient at their jobs so they can properly train and lead Soldiers. Several Soldiers provided negative examples of NCOs who are not proficient at their jobs and view them as fakes and poor leaders who do not inspire trust.
Motivation & Inspiration
Gen Z Soldiers not only want NCOs who can motivate them to complete regular tasks, but who can also inspire them to achieve bigger goals through positive motivation and inspiration. Many respondents used motivation and inspiration interchangeably; however, they are different and distinct. Inspiration means to give somebody the urge to do or feel something, while motivation is something from the outside that compels one to take action (Badubi, 2017). Farag et al. (2009) described the difference between the two, suggesting motivation comes from an external source in an external environment, and inspiration comes from within. It is important for NCOs to note the differences to cultivate their Soldiers.
Empathy enables people to develop rapport and trust with others. It is also a critical skill for leaders to develop and practice in order to successfully lead teams accomplish their missions. Though empathy, emotions, and viewpoint are all important to achieve outstanding evaluations, they are not necessarily part of the NCO evaluation process.
Gen Z Soldiers believe leadership is a major factor influencing their decision to reenlist and continue their Army careers, or not. As NCOs, we are the ones directly responsible for shaping and developing young Soldiers into future NCOs.
During my study, I concluded that Gen Z Soldiers desire NCOs who have high moral values and practice what they preach. More than 60% emphasized the importance of having leaders they can trust. They also stress the need for NCOs to have experience, knowledge, and skills in the areas they lead, which will build trust and demonstrate competence. Therefore, NCOs who want to lead the Army into the future must be honest, competent, and trustworthy.
Badubi, R. M. (2017). Theories of motivation and their application in organizations: A risk analysis. International Journal of Management Science and Business Administration, 3(3), 44-51. https://doi.org/10.18775/IJIED.1849-7551-7020.2015.33.2004
Boatwright, K. J. & Forrest, L. (2000). Leadership preferences: The influence of gender and needs for connection on workers’ ideal preferences for leadership behaviors. Journal of Leadership Studies, 7(2), 18-34. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1177/107179190000700202
Fails, R. (2004). The shaping of the NCO Corps: From the draft to the modern volunteer Army. Sergeants Major Academy. https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/AD1129019.pdf
Farag, A. A., Tullai-McGuinness, S., & Anthony, M. K. (2009). Nurses' perception of their manager's leadership style and unit climate: Are there generational differences? Journal of Nursing Management, 17(1), 26-34. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2834.2008.00964.x
Gan, J. (2019). Communicating across the Army. U.S. Army.. https://www.army.mil/article/228275/communicating_across_the_army
Hanks, R. D. (2021). How post-millennial soldiers desire to be LED: Implications for current and future Army noncommissioned officer leadership training (Publication No. 28411265) [Doctoral dissertation, Regent University]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. https://www.proquest.com/openview/2df24e39273e010cccd808e1a045b24c/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y
Jenkins, R. (2020). The Generation Z guide: The complete manual to understand, recruit, and lead the next generation. Ryan Jenkins, LLC.
Lips-Wiersma, M., Haar, J., & Wright, S. (2020). The effect of fairness, responsible leadership and worthy work on multiple dimensions of meaningful work. Journal of Business Ethics, 16135-52. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-018-3967-2
Miller, C. A. (2019). Preparing the millennial generation for leadership. NCO Journal. https://www.armyupress.army.mil/Journals/NCO-Journal/Archives/2019/September/Preparing-the-Millennial-Generation-for-Leadership/
Moore, C. C. (2019). Engaging Gen Z. NCO Journal. https://www.armyupress.army.mil/journals/NCO-journal/archives/2019/august/generation-z/
Patel, D. (2017). 8 ways Generation Z will differ from millennials in the workplace. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/deeppatel/2017/09/21/8-ways-generation-z-will-differ-from-millennials-in-the-workplace/#7c8e00da76e5
Peebles, S. (2011). Welcome to the suck, narrating the American soldier’s experience in Iraq. Cornell University Press.
Reid, K. C. (2018). How the network generation is changing the millennial military. War on the Rocks. https://warontherocks.com/2018/03/how-the-network-generation-is-changing-the-millennial-military
Sgt. First Class Roland Hanks s is currently the senior paralegal NCO at the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence and Fort Rucker, Alabama. He has served for 15 years in multiple assignments including Advanced Individual Training instructor, operations coordinator (U.S. Embassy Conakry), and chief paralegal. He has a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership with a concentration in Human Resource Development
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