Are Millennials the Problem?

We hear it everywhere: Millennials are the problem. They’re lazy. They don’t care. They’ve had everything handed to them on a silver platter, and they don’t want to do the work.

But take a minute to think about it. Are millennials really the problem here? Can we truly say the dirt world’s workforce issues can be laid at their feet?

Willink’s take on the situation isn’t what you normally hear online or in the streets. His advice? Take a deeper look at where the problem really lies.

Follow the lead of Vietnam War combat leaders.

If you sometimes feel millennials are the most difficult workforce to deal with, it’s time to dive into a bit of Vietnam War history. Combat leaders during this time had to lead a workforce made up of draftees. These were people who often didn’t believe in the war and didn’t want to be there. And as a leader, you were making them do the work in situations where they could very easily be killed.

“I can’t fathom a more difficult workforce to work with,” Willink noted. “So how did it play out? Well, it boils down to this. Leaders who were not good leaders had a really hard time. They didn’t like their draftees. And they said the same thing about them that people say about millennials these days: They’re lazy. They don’t care.”

But Willink has read the history books, and he’s talked to former Vietnam War combat leaders. And there are two consistent responses he got from the good leaders, responses from which a different story emerges.

“First, these leaders loved their draftees, because they asked good questions,” he said. “Their pushback was often warranted. So these leaders didn’t tell their people to shut up, and do what I told you to do. Instead, they listened, and then they adjusted their plans if needed. And the second thing? These leaders couldn’t tell the difference between a draftee and a lifer. You want to know why? Because they were good leaders.”

Explain the “why.”

“Think back to when you had a foreman who told you to just shut up [because something's] out of your pay grade,” Willink advised. “Did it make you a better worker? Did it help you get the job done better? No, it did not.”

His suggestion? Explain to your people why they’re doing what they’re doing. This gives them ownership of the task, empowering them as individuals. Sure, it might take you an extra four or five minutes to tell them why, but will do a better job as a result.

Ask questions and stay humble.

As a SEAL leader, the people on Willink’s task team weren’t all SEALS. There were supply people, logistics people, intel people. And he often found himself working alongside the Army or the Marines, or with foreign or indigenous soldiers. Yes, he had command of a SEALs team, but he also had to lead people who weren’t in his chain of command.

“They’re not all SEALS, and in some cases, some of them were barely even soldiers,” Willink said. “And yeah, you could say, they’re going to be terrible and we’re going to fail this mission. Or you could say, okay, so how can we communicate properly with them? Even if they don’t speak the same language as us? How do we convey vital information in a way they can understand?”

Asking these questions changes your focus. You’re no longer thinking about how tough it is to lead these people. Instead, you’re asking yourself, how can I best lead these people, even the ones who aren’t in my chain of command? “You have to build relationships to get them to work with you,” Willink noted. “I listened. I let them influence me. I asked earnest questions, and I treated them with respect. I stayed humble. If you can do these things, you’ll be able to lead people both in and outside of your chain of command.”

What about the turnover problem?

One of the most common problems in the dirt world is the high worker turnover rate in the field. How do you get your people to stick around for that first year? At times, it feels like there’s nothing you can do. You just have to accept that 80% of them will leave before the year is up.

But the reality is, if you’re having trouble with your workforce, whether or not it’s made up of millennials, it’s not your workforce that’s the problem. “The millennial thing isn’t a problem with millennials,” Willink said. “It’s a problem with leaders.”

Willink’s advice? Take ownership of the problem. “Start talking to the people you need to last a year, start explaining the benefits they’re going to get out in the field and how it’s going to impact the rest of their life. Tell them, ‘Give me a year, and I’ll write you a referral that will get you a job elsewhere.’ Let them know they can do this.”


It’s all too easy to lay the blame at the feet of millennials. After all, everyone else says it’s their fault. But the problem isn’t with millennials. The problem is with leadership.

Willink’s advice for leading a workforce made up of millennials?

  • Listen, and stay humble. Be open to input from your workforce, and be ready to adjust your plans if that’s what’s needed.
  • Empower your workers by explaining why they’re doing what they’re doing.
  • Tackle turnover problems by talking with your people, and showing them how a year out in the field will benefit them.

It’s not an uncontrollable situation. Lead the millennials on your team by practicing good leadership and take ownership of the problem.