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Tips for Leading Older, and Often Wiser, People

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In my first management position, I was a 19-year-old college sophomore working full-time and leading a small staff of four people in the men’s clothing area of a major department store. I was placed in the position almost by default, because the previous manager left unexpectedly. I was already there and eager to lead. Everyone working for me was older than I was, including one man who was in his 60s.

Throughout my leadership career, I have continued to have positions where people older than me, with more experience than I have in many areas, report to me by position.

In our church plant, where I was the founder, most of our staff was younger than me. But, even there, I personally recruited a staff member almost 15 years older than me, which meant there were literally three generations of leadership in our church plant. It was gold for our organizational structure.

In the church where I was recently pastor, I didn’t just “inherit” people with more experience—I recruited them. On purpose. I do not believe we could have had the success in revitalization we had without their input. We needed younger voices on our team also, but these seasoned leaders helped navigate major change in ways I couldn’t have done on my own.

In my new role, everyone on our team has more direct experience with the organization than me. Everyone. And, many on the team are older than me. We certainly need younger faces (and more diversity), but I continue to value people with experience.

Leading people who are older and more experienced in an area than the leader can be one of the more challenging parts of leadership, but I highly recommend it.

I work with many pastors and church planters who, as they begin their ministry career, will likely encounter the same experience with either volunteers or paid staff. I can tell you, from experience, your leadership will be better if you learn how to lead people older—and wiser—than you are today. Don’t be afraid to recruit them. (I expand on this idea in my book The Mythical Leader.)

Here are seven tips for leading people older than you:

Recognize the obvious.

The obvious is you, as the leader, are younger than the person/people you are trying to lead. There’s no sense pretending otherwise. When a person is 10, 20 or even 30 years older they likely have different needs and expectations from their leader and the organization. They may need different benefits, different work schedules and even different leadership styles, depending on their age and stage of life. You should maximize your leadership by adapting your style to the person you are leading anyway, but this will be especially true when you lead someone who doesn’t always “need” your leadership.

Give credit for wisdom earned.

This is key. If you don’t recognize and value the fact that age and experience has given them something you may not have, you’ll never effectively lead someone older than you. Most likely there will naturally be things the other person has experienced that you haven’t. Don’t let that intimidate you. Allow it to work for you by gleaning from their wisdom. There will be times you’ll be the one more experienced and you’ll want people to value what you’ve learned too.

Stand your ground, but do it respectfully.

If you are in the position, then do your job. Some older generations were raised in a time where they expect you to lead. I certainly was, but as you should with any person you lead, be respectful. If someone is older, most likely he or she will be more sensitive to a younger leader being disrespectful and react negatively when you are not. They may not say anything, because this may be part of their culture too, but you won’t have their full respect if you aren’t actually leading.

Humbly be willing to learn from them.

You’ve already recognized they may know a few things you don’t, so be honest when you don’t know how to do something. There may be something hard, such as handling a difficult issue or a difficult person. If the older person has dealt with things like this before, let them share with you some things they’ve learned. It’s OK that you have some things to learn. We all do. (The older we become the more in tune we are with the fact no one knows everything.)

Ask good questions.

“Have you ever experienced something like this before in your leadership?”

“What would you do if you were in my shoes?”

“Am I missing anything in your opinion?”

Those are great questions.