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Generation transformation: Wharton leadership coach sees students put making a difference above all else

The students I have been coaching, 16 of them, range in age from 24 to 29. They are first-year MBA students at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. I'm their "executive leadership" coach, which means we meet one on one at least

The students I have been coaching, 16 of them, range in age from 24 to 29. They are first-year MBA students at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. I'm their "executive leadership" coach, which means we meet one on one at least four times during the academic year and figure out what they have and what they lack as future high achievers. We discuss how to increase the achievement-growth hormone and decrease all in their being or behavior that might stunt that growth. No problem.

After all, I've been coaching executives and managers for more than 30 years, including extremely high-achieving CEOs and small-business owners. These young folk in the Executive Coaching and Feedback Program should be a cinch.

They are quite a group. Energetic, assiduous, articulate, and smart - those attributes are pretty much guaranteed by Wharton's acceptance standards. Less expected, at least by me, are the qualities I've been privileged to observe during these many closed-door sessions with young people who really do see themselves as tomorrow's leaders.

Their individual personalities are as varied as their splendidly diverse backgrounds. Some are quiet, some more animated. Others are serious, still others more lighthearted. Most seem to have parents who themselves are highly educated and prosperous, and those parental accomplishments constitute an ever-present factor in these students' aspirations and rebellions. Pretty much like the rest of us.

They anticipate working very hard for the rest of their lives. One told me how happy he was to get an internship at a big investment bank where, he added, the work day went from "9 a.m. to 1 a.m." As someone who has always sought work hours that stretched from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., this expectation struck me as . . . well, it struck me. Hard.

Gluttons for punishment, they don't merely want to be leaders; they want to be "transformational leaders," the kind who inspire workforces, who imagine powerful change and take their organizations on a thrilling charge through uncharted terrain to that amazing new world of breathtaking innovation and higher definition than anyone ever conceived. Heck, I thought they all just wanted to be rich enough to afford car elevators.

I was very wrong. Their notion of transformation extends to this world we all inhabit. A startling number of these high achievers see futures in which they build a legacy of betterment. There's the woman who wants to consult with hospital administrators for the simple reason that we who occasionally get ill need better hospitals. "Oh, please," I wanted to yell. "Start today!"

There was the young man who insisted that none of his already vast educational preparation was worth anything if he couldn't "make a difference." I told him he reminded me of my scoutmaster, who always told us to leave our campsite better - "than you found it," he interjected. He had been a Boy Scout, too, and he agreed that this was what he was talking about.

One guy finally sounded like the stereotype of the future captain of industry as he painted a picture of fabulous success buying and selling enterprises, building spectacular edifices of profitability. I felt a little like Julia Roberts up in the penthouse in her bathrobe listening to Richard Gere end every sentence with "because it's the best."

Then the student messed it up by offering me $500 for the hour. No, actually, he messed it up by telling me he didn't want to do all this buying and selling in a big city. "I'm newly married," he said. "We want kids, and we want to raise them right." The dream will be harder to achieve in a smaller setting, but that's where his family will achieve it.

These aspiring transformers revealed another quality that surprised me with its frequency and plainness: humility. That's right. They all want to change the world, but they are humble about it. When the Beatles sang to my generation, a lot of us thought there was gonna be a revolution. But the transformations these brave leaders-in-training foresee won't come about in one spectacular revolution, but, rather, thousands of smaller ones. You know, like a new hospital wing, or a very good home for a family of four. A better campsite, you might say.

Much has been written about this generation of twentysomethings, much of it critical and unhopeful. During the last year, I've encountered 16 of them issuing sharp new messages into the blogosphere. They unroll the carpets of their brilliant lives into the world we have chosen to leave them, and there is a smile on their faces.

They expect it to be as brutal as we keep telling them it will be. But the lesson learned is not, "So just give up." The lesson is to work even harder to prepare, to adopt a vision of the future where the bettering is less grand but no less wonderful, where one small transformation counts because it is one of thousands initiated by leaders who feel in their hearts that, no matter how lonely the battle may get, they are not, not ever, alone.

These protostars gathering light and heat have a lot more than we give them credit for. They have each other.