Does Age Matter in Leadership?


Traditionally speaking, the answer would have been a resounding “Yes”! Especially in a culture like India where “respect for elders” is a core value. When we look at leadership in the current context, we surely have to give this a second thought.

In India, age seems to play a significant role in determining many things. ‘Senior’ is a term that is widely used in the workspace. We are conditioned to accept the age factor as an important tool when it comes to assigning responsibilities and roles. And leadership is no exception. Be it in school where students from Grade 12 become the school heads or in colleges where final year students lead, this rule seems to be applied everywhere. Are young enthusiastic leaders being ignored in the name of not having ‘experience’? Does this make sense?

History is filled with stories of leaders who have succeeded and failed at different ages. Youth definitely seems to have the advantage of high energy levels and idealistic dreams, whereas age has the advantage of wisdom and experience, but neither precludes the commitment that it takes to be an effective leader. 

I’ve seen over the years that many older employees find it difficult to accept leaders when they are significantly younger than them. This creates unease between young leaders and older employees. However, this seems to be certainly changing in this era. Personally, I don’t care if you’re from Gen X, Gen Y, or a Boomer, but I do care about your ability to add value to the workplace. In this article, I will share my thoughts on ageism.

Getting the job done.

Who is better at getting the job done? A Frank Walter and Susan Scheibe (2012) study identified that in task-oriented behavior, younger and older leaders are equally effective. Age doesn’t seem to impact a leader’s willingness to step up, issue directives, and provide rewards for performance. I have found capable young leaders who are task oriented and are as good as the experienced ones.

Experience Matters.

It does takes time to learn and excel at a job. This doesn’t necessarily mean competency, but older professionals, due to their experience may have better ability to make sound decisions. On the flip side, a younger person may not carry that baggage of experience and take more risks in his/her decision making. I can say this from my own experience. I used to trust people a lot more in my younger days as a leader and potentially achieved bigger goals. Obviously not everyone you trust will live up to it and over the years I have been taken for a ride several times. I do feel like I err on the side of caution a lot more as I get older.

Thinking out of the box.

In today’s VUCA world, where change and uncertainty are the way of live, creativity is being touted as a key skill for future leaders. Younger leaders have a better shot at being creative as they deal with fewer experiential biases. Younger leaders’ minds are filled with fresh ideas, while traditions and bad experiences come in the way for older generations. This makes the task of updating themselves to the times a herculean one for them. Here, youngsters seem to be at an advantage as they have no qualms about changing ideas as they have not yet formed habits.

Making “Adult” decisions.

Maturity was often associated with experience and age. “He lacks maturity” was loosely used for most youngsters in the past. In this “Google Generation”, this has to be given a whole new look. There is so much information out there on the internet, I see many of our youngsters know so much more than older rigid counterparts. I truly believe maturity has transcended age now and see some of my younger colleagues are far more mature than their older counterparts.

Leveraging Technology.

One more area where the younger leaders can overtake the older generations is in terms of technology and innovation. However, this is true for each generation that comes after another as technology advances every day. It seems like just yesterday when I scored over my dad when it comes to operating a TV, Cassette player or video camera. I am already dependent on my children to help me operate the modern gadgets, where I often feel like a digital laggard.

Leadership Styles.

Transformational leaders get the best out of their followers by inspiring them to do more and better work in service of a larger vision of some kind, a transactional leader motivates followers by helping them to achieve their own career goals and a passive-avoidant leader refuses to make important decisions and are uninvolved in the leadership process despite their leadership role. A University of Bremen Study found that younger leaders were more likely to use the transformational or transactional styles of leadership, both of which can be effective at motivating employees. Older leaders were more likely to use the ineffective passive-avoidant style. This does not mean that all older leaders will use a passive style, however, this does show us that a young leader certainly has advantages.

Feeling Confident.

Confidence often comes with experience and age. It is very true that the more challenges that you face in your life, the stronger you become. You overcome your fears, grow in stature and cut the cords that pull you down over a period of time. I can surely speak from experience that my confidence levels grew with age and with the experiences I had, both good and bad. So, leaders with experience may score more over their younger counterparts when it comes to feeling confident. However, one should also be cognizant of the personality type. Certain personality types exude that confidence from a very young age. Life, though I must admit, has a way of knocking the best of us down at times. You only become stronger when you face adversity.

So, what matters, if not age?

For a leader, ambition, drive, creativity, intelligence, EQ, determination, being pragmatic and humble are what matters. These cannot be measured by physical attributes and age. More often than not, it is motivation that plays a larger role in leadership effectiveness than age.

The most effective and most successful leaders are those who exhibit the above traits and have the most desire to lead and succeed, regardless of their age. If a leader is passionate, he/she will inspire others to become passionate. So, the ones exhibiting these qualities of a superior leader are those who can inspire others to achieve more. It doesn’t matter if you are 18 or 80!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *