How to Lead Someone Older Than You
I hope you and your loved ones are well. As a Family and Emergency Room Doctor, this season has been quite challenging. We have seen several COVID cases in our facilities, and many of our staff contracted it as a result. As a student of leadership, I’ve had a lot of thoughts about managing crisis, which I will share with you in coming articles. For today, I want to share a topic that most, if not all, leaders have faced at some point in their journey.
Imagine you are in your mid-20s, a newly-minted leader, and in line to become the supervisor of a person in their mid-30s or 40s. At one point in my leadership career, I can tell you that this very situation made me feel intimidated, scared, and out of place. I recently had a conversation with a young leader in this position, which made me reflect on my own experiences and the awkwardness of being the boss of someone older than you.
Read on and share with someone who may have similar concerns.
What are we afraid of when leading someone older than us?
In my 15 years of leadership, I clearly remember my struggles when these instances arose. I still detect a little anxiety any time I’m in a setting where people are older, more experienced, or more esteemed than me, or at least I perceive them to be. Identifying our fears helps us face them head on:
- What if they are too set in their ways?
- What if they say, “You should listen to me because I am older than you.”
- What if they dominate conversations around others and make me feel or appear small?
- What if they completely ignore me and do their own thing?
- What if they outsmart and outmaneuver me emotionally or cognitively?
- What if they refuse to let me lead them or influence them?
These principles eliminated my fears almost completely.
All the fears I listed above can be squashed by one simple principle: Mature people respect and follow their leaders regardless of age. Throwing age as a means of control is a sign of immaturity. So, the first way to combat these fears is to simply acknowledge, “If anyone I lead does not want to follow me because I am younger, that’s due to a problem they have.” If a person we lead thinks, “Oh, they’re a kid. I am going to ignore them,” then they are simply acting immature, unprofessional, and unwise.
If someone refuses to heed your leadership because you are young, your tendency may be to revert to your child-like reflexes to “listen to your elders.” But you are not a child relating to an elder in this situation. So, change the way you see the person as someone older and worthy of unquestionable reverence, to a person who is lacking development in a key area of their professional behavior.
After you understand that your age is not the problem, then you can successfully diagnose the person’s immaturity. You can tailor your responses the way you would to anyone lacking professional maturity. Honor them, offer them dignity, and demonstrate kindness, all the while clarifying that such immature thinking and behavior will not be given room in the workplace.
Will people follow me if I am young?
You might think that it’s just a law of leadership, that people simply do not like to follow those who are younger than them. That’s not true. People follow you because of who you are, not because of your age. People follow a leader regardless of their age because of their:
- Depth of Character – We all like to follow a compassionate person with integrity.
- Mature Spirit – Our maturity informs our responses when things go wrong; when in crisis; when we have power and others don’t; when we can talk badly about others, but decide not to; and when people are putting others down, but we stand up for what is right. We tend to follow people who demonstrate mature thinking and habits, regardless of their age.
- Experience – You don’t have to be older to have more experience in an area. I have known leaders in their 20s who had much more experience in some areas than people in their 60s.
- Previous Success – When we have had success in an area, it gives us faster buy-in with others. Being older does not necessarily equate to greater previous successes.
- Position – Even though we cannot rely on our position alone to give us impactful and lasting influence on those we lead, a position of leadership does get you started. In the end though, character and skill will sustain you.
What if they are a better leader than I am?
If the person you are about to hire is a better leader than you, regardless of their age, this usually becomes a problem. When the leader I am to follow is much less developed or capable than I am, I usually feel like they are diminishing my potential. I find that people follow leaders who are better than them in at least one or two areas, and are secure enough to submit to others around them who are better in other areas. Therefore, your lid is not your age, rather it is your development as a person and a leader.
How should you respond if someone invokes their age?
If someone who reports to you tells you, “I am older than you, therefore I have a lot more experience,” how will you respond?
One response might be, “You might have more experience than me in some areas, but the experience I have does not lead me to believe what you are saying. I really appreciate your input; I want you to continue giving those to me. However, in my position, I need to be the one making the decisions. I hope you understand where I am coming from.”
You must, with all respect and clarity, draw a boundary that both invites them to give their opinions for your consideration, but makes it clear that you are in the position to make a final decision.
I hope these principles will help you navigate the sometimes unnerving task of leading someone older than you. Stay well, my friends.