Engaging and inspiring the next generation of national security leaders

Daniel Edwards

By Daniel Edwards, Guy Neale

The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy (the Integrated Review) confirms the need for the UK to rethink how it collectively responds to cross-cutting threats and opportunities. This demands a new model of leadership across national security, to develop leaders who are able to operate effectively in an environment of extreme breadth, complexity and ambiguity. Whether the challenge is raising cross-government situational awareness at a grand-strategic level; a national response to counter terrorism that better connects agencies, law enforcement, communities, and the military; or contesting adversaries in the cyber domain, this means breaking down silos, leading across departmental boundaries and fusing together public-private alliances.

Given the review’s focus through to 2030, it’ll be Generation Z (Gen Z) leaders who bring its initiatives to life at the heart of an effective, enduring integrated approach. This is why the UK Government should be rethinking its offer now. There are three actions Government can take immediately to make progress here:

Excite Gen Z about the future – a national security career ticks all their boxes

Government needs to craft a bold, positive message to build trust and attract the best of Gen Z into challenging national security careers. Without it, new endeavours such as the National Cyber Force and the Situation Centre may find themselves struggling to attract the best talent.

Gen Z are often described as digital natives, entrepreneurial by nature, with a more fluid sense of identity – well suited to pan-security leadership in a science and technology driven age. What is less known is Gen Z’s general desire for stability; to work on purposeful endeavours; to explore and make sense of a complex world often characterised by disinformation. These characteristics are a great fit in a world where Gen Z can lead the pursuit of objectives like climate security.

To capture this opportunity, Government needs to pitch the right message that speaks to the interests and concerns of this generation. Unlike younger millennials who came of age throughout the Great Recession, Gen Z anticipated a strong economy and high employment. COVID-19 and Brexit uncertainty turned this on its head. Restoring economic prosperity is therefore a key generational concern.  

Currently, there is no central ownership for crafting and owning this message – so the first key move for Government is to determine which department takes ownership of this space.

Engage with and recruit Gen Z leaders on their own turf and their own terms

The challenges identified in the Integrated Review require leaders to understand, think and act differently. Expanding on existing initiatives to broaden diversity, such as NCSC’s CyberFirst initiative, is therefore operationally critical. Recruiting fast-track leaders through ‘proven’ narrow and shallow channels will not be enough.

Government must identify and engage people who wouldn’t normally consider a security career. This includes more women, broader race representation, wider neuro-diversity and improving access across wider socio-economic and geographic boundaries. Expanding the cyber footprint into the North of England is a great start to help better reflect the full diversity of the UK’s communities and population. In order to make an enduring difference, Government must go further, using digital and social recruitment to find people with the aptitude and mindset that differentiate those able to lead through complexity and uncertainty.

Authenticity is key. Global trust in security organisations has been shaken and the lack of representation is obvious to all. Recruitment campaigns must address this, mirroring Gen Z values by being open about issues such as mental health and personal identity, while being honest about the challenges faced and progress still to be made.

Accelerate Gen Z development in an adaptive and authentic leadership ecosystem

Once future leaders have been recruited, the aim should be to nurture an adaptive leadership mindset through a broad range of experiences and insights from across departments, domains, partners and industry.

This path should take a focus on experiences and exposure, utilising elements of military training. This should blend theory and real-world experience, experimenting with new approaches and ‘outside-in’ insights to address national-level challenges such as an escalating challenge to UK interests in the Indo-Pacific.

The environment and the challenge will continue to shift at pace. Development interventions should therefore be designed to be modular and delivered ‘just in time’, enabling individuals to shape and map out their own career journey. It should also recognise Millennial and Gen X leaders who will have a key role in pulling-through their Gen Z peers.

Gen Z will be central to an effective, enduring integrated approach. On current assumptions, the best of this generation will be in mid-management roles within the life of many IR initiatives. This could and should be accelerated. Their experiences and traits, if nurtured appropriately, are a great match for the challenges the UK faces.

About the authors

Daniel Edwards
Daniel Edwards PA people and performance expert
Guy Neale PA Collaboration and design Expert Guy is an operating model design and transformation specialist working predominantly with Defence and Security clients. He has extensive experience designing new organisations and partnerships that knit the national security ecosystem together behind a common purpose.

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