Coping as a young leader

Business Baby Pointing

I’m sure many of you have experienced it; the feeling that you are being scrutinized and perhaps looked down upon based on your age. I’ve been leading outstanding individual contributors and have managed supervisors for most of my professional career and, more often than not, my subordinates and peers have been older than me.

I love working with experienced individuals. Experience teaches invaluable lessons about your function, your industry, and helps employees mature as people. I also like working with “newbies.” The potential that new employees bring to the table, coupled with their willingness to be molded and their initial optimism is a powerful combination. Working for older people is, by and large, normal. Most bosses are older than their employees. When you are a fast burner, however, you might encounter resistance where a more “experienced” person wouldn’t.

I’ve been fairly lucky, since separating from active duty military service, to supervise some excellent technicians, work with educated and considerate peers, and work for mature, understanding bosses. This has not always been the case.

“Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example…” -1 Timothy 4:12 (KJV)

When I encountered (what I considered) age-based discrimination, I was not shy about saying something about it. This was often received with surprise and disbelief and was often a mistake. The negative reaction by my peers and supervisors might be at least partially explained by the fact that “the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said federal law prohibiting age discrimination applies only to people age 40 and older” in a statement captured in this article. It is rare for anyone to consider a younger person to be considered in an age-related discriminatory situation.

Though not necessarily easy to capture in statistics, my personal experience has been that when a well-spoken, politically astute, educated younger manager appears on the scene in a workplace, there is a certain level of unease in the “older” and “more experienced” crowd. In more hierarchical organizations, my experience has been that the effect can be amplified.

That begs the question: What is a young, ambitious leader to do? I advocate an approach that emphasizes humility and competence. Getting upset or calling attention to unfairness can lead to the perception of a lack of self-confidence in the person making complaints….whereas…working hard, meeting goals, and treating everyone around you with respect, while holding yourself to high standards of personal and professional conduct allows you to be an example, as Paul points out in 1st Timothy; to earn the acceptance and respect that all people desire (see Maslow’s hierarchy).

photo by: the UMF

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