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October 15, 2014Leadership

Learning to Lead Differently as You Age

As we get older and the world changes around us, we must learn to lead differently and adapt our vision.
Learning to Lead Differently as You Age
Image: Julius Dillier / Flickr

As we watch the news, we often see leaders retire. It happens in the sports world, the political realm, the educational system, and even in the religious community.

The pope retired. Pastors retire from their church ministry. Leaders of Christian organizations retire.

We all have an expiration date.

If your vision has expired, you need to step out of your leadership role.

The expiration date, though, is not always determined by our health. Instead, it’s often determined by our vision. If your vision has expired, you need to step out of your leadership role.

But it’s not just an age thing. I know people who still have the vision in their 80s and are still doing some really amazing things.

Leading With Vision Or Fear?

Here’s what often happens to leaders: A fear factor sets in. It’s like they’ve got to finish, even is they don't finish well. You know the mentality: “I don’t want to rock the boat, because this is my retirement. I just sort of need to make it through.”

I’m in my late 40s now, but a few years ago I was sitting down with Troy Gramling who was interviewing me and asked, “What are you doing to invest in the next generation?”

I responded, “I am the next generation. What do you mean? I’m just 43 years old.” We are about the same age, so he (correctly) replied, “No, we’re not anymore.”

As leaders we age-- and we have to invest in those in the next generation. It changes as we age so that when you’re getting into your 60s and 70s, you need to be spending most of you time investing in people that are younger than you-- passing it on.

Reaching Out Or Hanging On?

When I was in my 20s and 30s, I led differently than I do now that I’m in my 40s. When you’re in your 60s and 70s and particularly your 80s, your role has to shift.

The fact is, this is hard for some to hear. However, we sometimes have to be the ones who say to older leaders, “You know, nobody’s putting you on a shelf, but you’ve got to lead differently. You can’t lead the way you led when you were 35. Because people aren’t going to follow you the way they followed you when they were 35. They’re going to follow differently.”

I shared this with a group of bishops and exhorted them that, because of their polity, they have to be the ones to speak truth into the lives of their pastors. They need to know that many, though certainly not all, older pastors have not transitioned how they leader. Some pastors in their late 60s and 70s are just hanging on for dear life.

I should add that there’s also a different side to this issue. The church culture often wants to push older leaders aside based purely on age. This can have a devastating impact on a pastor, who may not be able to find another church at the age of 60. It shouldn’t be that way. That’s not biblical.

However, we have to recognize that we have to lead differently as we age.

Expectations And Effectiveness

So the issue becomes: Can I lead differently? Can I raise up the next generation of Joshuas around me? Can I be an empowering leader? Or, am I going to tie myself off to the mast yelling out, “I am the guy!”?

I’m not trying to say that effective leadership in your 70s is about exhibiting the greatest amount of energy in the room. It also isn’t about being the loudest voice on an issue. I think you can speak softly. Just as Paul said to Timothy, I would appeal to older men as fathers and younger men as brothers. Older men should act as fathers and raise up the next generation.

A successful leader does not have to become more aggressive in his or her older years.

A successful leader does not have to become more aggressive in his or her older years. They just have to continue to hone their leadership as they did in the early years.

A well-known paradigm is worth mentioning here:

  • When you’re in your 20s, you’re learning.
  • In your 30s you’re trying it out.
  • In your 40s you’re getting your groove.
  • When you’re in your 50s you’re leading well.
  • When you’re in your 60s you’re looking to pass it on to others.
  • When you’re in your 70s you’re raising up a legacy.

If you are in your 70s but aren’t raising up a legacy, and you’re still trying to lead like you’re in your 30s, you’re doing a disservice to the younger generation and to yourself. And, I told the bishops, we have to graciously and lovingly say, “You need a new plan.”

The successful leaders at that stage will be the ones who continue to learn how to lead, and will adjust their style to have the greatest effect. Some will refuse to change because of fear or stubbornness, and that is unfortunate.

The challenge is—and I see it in my bishop-less denomination—in many cases, there is no one to speak truth to some. However, this is where you (or I) as a godly friend can and should say, "Lead your age."

What have you learned about leadership transition that comes with age? How can a leader overcome the challenges that come with age in a culture that is constantly seeking the newest idea, approach or technique? What can we learn from Scripture in regards to leading into the later years?

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