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Leadership & Age

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When it come to leadership age doesn’t matter – competency does. History is full of examples of leaders who have succeeded and failed at every age. The intangibles of passion, character, commitment, discernment, and talent are of infinitely greater importance than someones date of birth. I don’t care about your generational category (Gen X, Gen Y, or Boomer), but I do care about your ability to contribute. In today’s post I’ll give you a different take on the topic of ageism.

Whether your advantage is youth or experience isn’t really the issue – competency is. Regardless of your age, venturing beyond your area(s) of competency can be a very dangerous thing to do. It has been my experience that there are generally two types of people: those that don’t know what they don’t know, and those that do know what they don’t know. All other things being equal, the difference between the two groups boils down to experience and discernment. Those people who don’t know what they don’t know typically tend to be either younger professionals beginning their careers who have a lack of experience, or older professionals who have not gained wisdom and maturity as they have progressed along their career path.

The Early Stage Professional:
On the positive side of the equation young, inexperienced, and energetic professionals sometimes accomplish great things because they don’t have the experience to know what they are not supposed to be able to accomplish. As a result of their professional naivete, they sometimes appear to achieve the impossible. However more often than not, young professionals operating outside of experiential and/or educational boundaries are met with failure and frustration by having what appear to be great ideas eventually unwound by unforeseen factors that only were unforeseen to them due to their inexperience or lack of discernment.

The failures and setbacks of the early stage professional can be healthy learning experiences that lead to professional maturation so long as learning actually takes place, and mistakes of naivete don’t become patterns for future disruption. It is essential that young professionals gain an understanding of where their skill sets and competencies begin and end. Once the boundaries of knowledge are understood, then definitive steps can be taken to create a plan for personal and professional growth. The decision can be made to ignore weakness by design by playing to your strengths, or you can choose to improve weak areas by closing the gap between where you are and where you want or need to be.

The Tenured Professional:
Regrettably it takes more than time on the job to reach true professional maturity. I have personally witnessed people 20+ years into their careers that have reached executive level positions and they still don’t know what they don’t know. It is all too common for these types of people to operate in a vacuum by believing that their experience alone is a cure-all for any issue or problem.

How many times have we all observed an experienced person with subject matter expertise in one area, try to drive an initiative or an agenda in another area, only to fail miserably because they didn’t know what they didn’t know? Let’s look at this issue another way; how many times have you seen an older and more experienced person fail to solve a problem that a younger and less experienced person solved with seemingly little effort? While experience is a valuable commodity, in-and-of-itself, and to the exclusion of other traits and characteristics, the sole reliance on experience can be a barrier to professional growth and maturity.

That said, I have never been a believer in the adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”  In fact quite to the contrary…I believe anyone (yes I mean anyone) can change given one prerequisite; the desire to do so. However I feel just as strongly that change cannot be forced upon someone who does not recognize the need for change, or even worse, recognizes the need but has no desire for change.

Whether young or old, experienced or inexperienced, the best way to approach personal and professional development is to always stay in the learning zone. When you think you have all the answers is precisely the point in time when you are headed straight for the proverbial brick wall. Always seek out people who know more than you do and actively learn from them. Find someone you trust who can dispassionately identify development opportunities and help you chart a path to progress.

Rather than being threatened by, or dismissive of someone of a different generation, why not learn from them instead. We all have much to offer and much to learn, Recognition of this will simply make your life more enjoyable and more productive as well.  Most things in life happen as a result of choices we make…It is clearly within your grasp to make the choice to gain an understanding of what it is that you don’t know, and determine what you want to do with that information. It’s your choice; choose wisely.

Thoughts?

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    Mark Oakes

    January 26, 2011 at 5:53 pm

    Mike,

    Excellent, thought-provoking post. As usual, well done.

    The words ‘knowledge and ‘experience’ have multiple meanings/definitions depending on context (irrespective of age). As such, another leadership facet factors in… Wisdom. Wisdom is the coupling point where the lines between knowledge and experience blur and seasoned insight abounds. Wisdom is certainly not age dependent.

    As a christian, I must also draw a clear line between worldly wisdom and Godly wisdom. The best definition I’ve ever heard for wisdom is “Seeing and acting from God’s point of view”

    Mark

      Mike Myatt

      January 26, 2011 at 6:00 pm

      Hi Mark:

      Thanks for sharing your wisdom and for helping offer some insight on how a Christian can maintain perspective. Well said, Sir…

    Dan Collins

    January 26, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    Mike,

    As a father I’m sure you have experienced the pure bliss of learning from a child. As we age we become more convinced of the wisdom of our experience and tend to look at things through a more jaundiced eye when oftentimes the bright light of an unfiltered view can teach us so much. What is the line from “What a wonderful world ” by Louis Armstrong? “They learn much more than I’ll ever know..” I am blessed to learn from young vibrant coworkers in a creative industry every day and I have a daughter who works for Apple who has taught me more about life than all the volumes of Shakespeare and Socrates ever could. Yep experience and wisdom from people who have been there and done that is valuable -but perhaps Matisse said it best when he stated “I would like to recapture that freshness of vision which is characteristic of extreme youth when all the world is new to it.”

    Bottom Line – To keep us old guys learning – when we think we know, we don’t, when we think we are good – we’re not.

      Mike Myatt

      January 26, 2011 at 6:18 pm

      Outstanding thoughts here Dan…

      To continue along the same lines, I have always believed the concept of mastery to be a fools gambit only adopted by the ignorant or arrogant. Ask any successful person what they’ve learned recently and the recitation that follows is likely to be a long one. As you so accurately concluded, my children (now both grown and married) are a constant source of enlightened fresh perspectives for me – I learn from them constantly. Thanks for sharing Dan.

    Art Petty

    January 26, 2011 at 6:21 pm

    Mike, thanks as always for stirring the pot and stirring our minds!

    I’ve worked recently with some mixed-age range teams that have figured out the power of blending their diverse experiences and views on the world in pursuit of good solutions. What a remarkably rich environment to watch those of experience gain insights through younger eyes and those earlier in their career-cycle gain the benefits of experience-born wisdom.

    On a personal note, I hang out in classrooms as a management instructor during many evenings (we all have to hang out somewhere), and I always come home gaining as much as I gave. Kind of keeps me honest, fresh and sharp!

    Unfortunately, there are many that still don’t get it. I hear in particular the laments of the experienced manager with respect to leading younger workers. My mind screams…”It’s mostly you that needs to change!” and “Wake-Up!” while my mouth and pen offer thoughts reflected in my Leadership Caffeine post, “It’s Time to Get Serious About Learning from Your Twenty-Somethings.” http://bit.ly/ihjTFJ

    Mike, thanks for inspiring, educating and providing the chance to share! -Art

      Mike Myatt

      January 26, 2011 at 6:27 pm

      Hi Art:

      Thanks for sharing your experiences. Nothing sharpens a mature mind like access to fresh thinking. As you so accurately described a teacher who is not learning from their students is likely only providing static information. I have no doubt that your students and clients gain fresh perspective from you. Thanks again Art.

    Dan Rockwell

    January 26, 2011 at 6:54 pm

    Mike,

    Thanks for sharing your insights on a deceptively important topic.

    One word that comes to mind is arrogance. Experienced leaders that don’t know that they don’t know behave arrogantly toward younger and/or less experienced leaders.

    It’s easy to feel superior if we determine we know more than others, even if our knowledge is imaginary.

    The organization I lead regularly mixes the generations. The passions of youth go far to energize the experienced. Once again the danger of the mix is a “down the nose” approach from those that think they know.

    Somewhere long ago I was reading Edward De Bono when I came across this gem. “Those that think they know – don’t.”

    I suspect both young and older leaders can apply that idea.

    I love coming here to enjoy your insights,

    Best,

    Dan

      Mike Myatt

      January 26, 2011 at 7:01 pm

      Hi Dan:

      Thanks for sharing Dan and I agree with the sentiments you expressed. Generations who don’t avail themselves to one another’s strengths simply miss out on brilliant insights. Whether 20 something or 70 something we all have something to share. Thanks for the great reminder Dan.

    Wally Bock

    January 26, 2011 at 8:00 pm

    You’ve done it again, Mike, you’ve gone and made me think about an issue. Here are three observations in no particular order.

    If you judge a leader or anyone else on any basis other than how they act and perform, we all lose. If doesn’t matter if you make age or gender or race or anything else your prejudice of choice, we all lose.

    In general, the advantage of young leaders is that they’re not encumbered by the past. In general, the advantage of more experienced leaders is that they have the past as a reference. Both are helpful if used well and dangerous if not.

    In general, again, for most of my lifetime, the leaders my age (65) have erred on the side of underestimating and under-trusting younger (especially much younger) people. It’s worth remembering that the military allows people to make judgments that affect the lives of others and the security of the nation at an age when most companies won’t trust them to buy their own office supplies.

      Mike Myatt

      January 26, 2011 at 8:07 pm

      That was my hope…when Wally Bock thinks, good things happen. As usual, I cannot find fault with any of your opinions. It took me more than a few years as a civilian to be trusted with the same decisioning authority I had in the military…food for thought. Thanks for sharing Wally.

    Dave Brand

    January 27, 2011 at 12:21 am

    Mike,

    One of the aspects of your writing I admire the most is your ability to be candid when it comes to covering a topic. As I read this post I found myself nodding my head agreeing with the points you make throughout your post. I also asked myself: Is he describing me in some of the examples? For you see I am a chemist by training who 5 years ago moved into Leadership Development. It was a gradual transition, but I am now in this role full time.

    What resonated strongly with me were your comments on staying in the ‘learning zone’ and the importance of desiring the change as an enabler of making the change become possible. I would like to believe that both of these factors have come into play when it comes to the successes I have had in my role today.

    As usual your post ends on a strong note: “We all have much to offer and much learn.” It will do me good to keep that in mind on a daily basis.

      Mike Myatt

      January 27, 2011 at 12:28 am

      Hi Dave:

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I’m glad you found the information of benefit. Have a great evening Sir.

    Seth Buechley

    January 27, 2011 at 4:21 am

    Mike, great topic. As a young leader, I’ve come to realize that there are no shortcuts to experience. With experience comes context to relate to others and draw from past lessons including all those painful mistakes. Leadership traits and the passion for progress take life when combined with experience.

      Mike Myatt

      January 28, 2011 at 4:57 pm

      Thanks for the great insights Seth. I appreciate you stopping by Sir.

    Mike Myatt

    January 28, 2011 at 4:59 pm

    Hi Susan:

    I agree with you in terms of the value of the comment stream in this community (of which your thoughts are no exception). One of the things I value most is having my thinking refined by those who participate in this forum. Thanks again for stopping by Susan.

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