Leading someone older than you can be challenging.
As the Boomer generation ages and hands the baton of leadership to the X’ers and Millennials, more and more young leaders find themselves leading those older than themselves.
This is an important question: Why do some young leaders do it well and some do it poorly?
I remember the first time this really hit me. On my first day as Executive Pastor in San Diego, I suddenly realized I would be leading staff who were older and more experienced than I was. That was intimidating, to say the least. Thoughts went through my mind like, “What do I have to offer them?” And, “Why would they listen to me?
When young staff leads older volunteers with more life experience, they often encounter the same feeling. Over the years I’ve learned that’s a pretty natural response. In fact, it’s actually healthy.
In contrast, if a younger leader assumes, and behaves like they know more than the older leaders they serve, that’s a pretty arrogant disposition. That never goes well.
Even though intimidation, insecurity or lack of confidence can be part of a normal response to leading people with more life experience than you, it’s important for you not to get stuck there. Don’t let your leadership become paralyzed because you are young. You have much to offer.
7 Insights to help young leaders lead older leaders:
1) Remember, you were chosen.
You were picked from all the others. There’s a reason for that. Someone, or several people, saw gifts, talents, and ability in you. Whether you were hired onto a staff team or you were asked to be a leader in a volunteer role, they chose you!
Don’t talk yourself out of deserving this opportunity to lead people. If you focus on their good and the good of the church, you are off to a good start.
2) Embrace the truth that they want you to win.
It’s extremely rare that someone wants you to fail, particularly those who are older than you. Yes, sometimes a few can be difficult, but every once in a while you can be difficult too. Right?
They want you to win. Think about how hard they have worked for a long time; they want all that effort to matter.
If you also want them to “win” spiritually, in their family life, at work and in life in general, this group will eagerly follow you! And they may become your most loyal and strongest advocates.
3) Lean into the truth of Scripture.
12 Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. I Timothy 4:12
Nearly every leader started young! This is a normal rite of passage. Reflect on the five words in verse twelve where you are challenged to set the example. They are – speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity.
I promise that you will have much to offer if you lead from that platform spiritually. From this foundation, serve those who are older as an encourager for their spiritual growth. Ask about their walk with God, how they are growing spiritually, and what they hear God saying. That will begin a conversation where you can invest spiritually.
4) Focus on the uniqueness you have to offer.
What are your unique gifts, talents and abilities?
Maybe you have a strategic mind, or you are great with people, or you are creative, or you have great communication skills. The list of possibilities is long. Lean into your strengths.
Get better at what you do. Develop your leadership ability. When you are improving, that always gets noticed. If you improve as a leader, that is appreciated and gains respect.
In contrast, if you assume your authority, or lead as if you are entitled to have them follow, I promise that never works well.
5) Learn from their life experience.
Just like you want to add value to someone older than you, they want to add value to you.
Carve out some time with several of the people you lead who are older than you. Get a cup of coffee and listen to their story. Ask questions. You’ll learn much. Take time to reflect on what you are learning and how that might help you lead better.
6) Figure out what they can do, that you can’t.
When I was a young leader, personal computers were just getting traction. There were guys in the church who understood the new language, and I didn’t. They were thrilled to help by engaging the skills they had that I didn’t.
I met so many teachers who understood kids and students better than I did. We had business leaders on the board who helped with a long list of things from salary and benefits to complicated land purchase deals. You get the idea.
Don’t be afraid to ask, they want to help.
7) Develop a partnership based on the vision.
A relational approach is always important. However, if you are, for example, 26 and relatively recently married with no kids, and they are 50 with graduating seniors in High School, your common ground may be thin at first.
If that’s the case, focus on the vision of the church, which helps to bridge the generation gap. It’s common ground that you can count on. It gives you more time to establish a relationship that is meaningful and enjoyable.
Lead in such a way that you partner together for the good of the church, and make it a point to enjoy the relationship.