5 Ways to Become An Even Better Leader as You Grow Older (And 5 Mistakes to Avoid Like the Plague)

I celebrate a birthday in a few weeks, and I’m reminded once again that the calendar doesn’t turn back.

In a culture that celebrates youth, it’s easy to believe the only key to impact is to be young.

But is it?

While being 18 might position you to invent the next Facebook, being an older leader might position you for the best moments of your life and leadership.

But, in the same way we can misspend our youth, it’s just as easy to blow your decades past age 40 as it is to leverage them effectively.

Here’s how and why.

 

So What Does Age Predict?

Your best years as a leader should be somewhere between 45 and 75. Maybe even longer. Dallas Willard, who died in 2013 at age 75, contributed as much in his last two decades as in his first five decades. When Dr. Willard passed away, I was saddened because he was a voice I wanted to hear from for years to come. It’s not that God isn’t sovereign, it’s just that there are voices we miss.

Nobody worries that Tim Keller or John Piper are over 60 or that Andy Stanley is over 50. In fact, their stage of life might be the very reason they add so much value to so many people. The years offer wisdom that youth simply can’t have. And consider this: all three of these leaders are having a huge impact on people under 35.

As these leaders (and many others) show us, growing older does not necessarily mean growing irrelevant.

In fact, you have the unique opportunity to reflect on years of learning and living and contribute in a way you simply couldn’t when you were in your 20s or 30s.

Strangely, most leaders are a little insecure about growing older, as though being under 40 is the key to effectiveness as a leader.

Why is that?

It’s a great question.

Maybe a look at 5 mistakes older leaders make and 5 best practices can shed some light on that.

 

5 Mistakes Way Too Many Older Leaders Make

So let’s start with the mistakes older leaders who are still leading organizations can too easily make, and then switch to the opportunities before all of us as we add years to our experience.

Here are 5 mistakes way too many older leaders make:

 

1. Dress and act like you’re 25

I’ve seen way too many 45 (and even 55) year old leaders try to dress and style themselves like hipster worship leaders two decades younger than they are. Nobody wants cougar leaders.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you should be so out of style you can’t relate to the culture at all. But nobody actually thinks you’re 25 (really), so why not dress with a little flair but also with a bit of dignity? I pay attention to how I dress, but I also try to act my age. (Jesus said something about clothes too…didn’t he? We should keep that in mind in our style-obsessed culture.)

And come to think of it, nobody really talks about how CS Lewis dressed. They just want to learn from his rather exceptional wisdom. That’s the value older leaders bring.

 

2. Hit cruise control

I used to hate this as a leader in my 20s and 30s. I met far too many leaders who knew their ‘number’ (the years of service plus years till retirement) and were riding out a paycheck until they could cash in on a pension plan.

If you’ve stopped leading, stop collecting a paycheck. It’s as simple as that. (Okay, or start leading again.)

 

3. Think you’ve arrived

It’s tempting to think you’ve paid your dues, worked long hours and have some accumulated wisdom that everyone should be grateful to benefit from, but this attitude is also your death sentence.

Nobody likes to be around a leader who thinks they’ve arrived, and your value to the organization plummets when you adopt this attitude.

You’ve earned nothing, and the fact that you’re in leadership is because God is gracious and has allowed you the privilege of that position. At least this is what I constantly remind myself.

 

4. Refuse to learn from younger leaders

Yes, it’s easy to spot mistakes in younger leaders a mile away. But usually that’s because you’ve made them yourself and a couple decades allows you to connect the dots quickly.

But if you’re not learning from younger leaders, you’re missing out. Not only do they bring energy and passion to the table, but they bring perspective into a culture older leaders struggle to understand. They’re also reading authors and listening to music you’ve never heard of and see things you’re struggling to perceive.

 

5. Cling stubbornly to the changes you introduced

If you’ve been a leader for a decade or more, you’ve probably engineered some huge changes. And once done, you’ll hang on to those changes forever.

That’s a fatal flaw.

Remember you didn’t like the organization your parents/predecessor created? Neither does the generation 20 years younger than you like the organization you created as much as you do.

Holding to the changes you introduced years ago is a quick path to obscurity for an older leader.

 

5 Ways to Become an Even Better Leader as You Grow Older

And now for the good stuff. Here are 5 ways to become an even better leader as you grow older:

1. Figure out where you add the most value and play to it

By now you should have figured out your sweet spot. If you’re not sure where you bring the most value to your team, ask them.

Spend most of your time on what you do best and leave the rest to others.

For me it’s in 5 areas: communication, content creation, leadership, coaching leaders and the ability to rally a group of people around a common cause. Anytime I get too far off those principal areas, my value to Connexus goes downhill fast.

 

2. Surround yourself with younger leaders

Yes…surrounding yourself with younger leaders is actually a way to become a better leader as you grow older. It’s not just what you bring to them, it’s what they bring to you.

A leader who only surrounds himself with peers his own age is soon irrelevant to the next generation.

 

3. Take the spotlight off you

One of the best things a leader can do is to push others into the spotlight. This should start early, but it’s essential once you’ve hit your forties.

If you’re the only person who can do it, you will always be the only person who can do it. And that sets your organization up to fail. You have no succession plan.

The most successful leaders are the leaders who make other people successful. Surely your leadership should reflect that, especially in your best years.

 

4. Stay current

If you think it’s cool to say “I don’t do social media”, “call me, don’t text me” or “seriously, who cares what you ate for lunch?”, the funeral director is standing by.

I’ve still got a some time left in my forties, but I’m amazed at how many of my friends my age dismiss social media and the technological changes around us as irrelevant fads. Really?

Look, how you spend your personal time is up to you, but for the sake of the organization you lead, at least understand what the trends are and try to get current with them. For sure, embrace the value and load your team with people who understand this stuff, and don’t disparage them.

(PS. Your kids might even text you when they go to college.)

 

5. Stay Curious

I think curiosity is one of the hallmarks of leaders who stay fresh and add value.

This is true whether you are 45 or 95. My favourite senior adults are those who still love life, who ask questions, who are still learning and growing. They add value everywhere they go.

Keep reading. Keep asking questions. Keep seeking out new experiences. Live life with your eyes open wide.

People will love to be around you.

That’s what I see.

What mistakes do you see older leaders making?

What great practices do you see in older leaders?

Leave a comment!

10 Comments

  1. Tandy Adams on March 30, 2014 at 7:29 am

    I will admit dressing like I’m 25 is tough for me. I am 43, a female, and very petite. I like skinny jeans and being current on fashion trends. What keeps me in check is my two teenagers. I have a 13 year old son and a 16 year old daughter, both of which do not hesitate to tell me if I shouldn’t wear something. And I listen them. Something I would add is always make sure you have friends who will speak truth into your life, not just be “yes” men. We all need people who will call us out, and tell us the truth even if it’s hard to hear.

  2. Aaron Scantlen on March 22, 2014 at 11:23 pm

    Your point about people holding on to the changes they made decades ago is a killer. When they do this, they hold the next generation of leaders back from reaching that generation. I think the positive side of this is flexibility. Making disciples is the mission, but how we reach people is not dogma, it’s tradition. We should use relevant means of connecting with people to introduce them to Jesus.

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  5. Marilyn Luinstra on March 12, 2014 at 8:35 pm

    Older leaders are the best. I especially admire wiser, older leaders who know what questions to ask, and listen to the answer.

  6. Brent Dumler on March 12, 2014 at 5:32 pm

    Surrounding myself with younger leaders….love this! I’m 43 this month and am launching a satellite church campus in the fall. So far, we have about 4 key leaders in place and all of them are MUCH younger than me. This excites me. But I realize that I’ll constantly need to remember to openly listen to ‘changes’ they suggest and let those ideas digest a bit before I react. I’m looking forward to the challenge. Great post and reminder of the value in building multi-generational staffs and teams.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 13, 2014 at 5:43 pm

      Happy birthday Brent…Love the leadership replacement strategy. And Marilyn, I agree. So many of my mentors fit that category.

  7. Lawrence W. Wilson on March 12, 2014 at 10:35 am

    All good, Carey, but mistake #1 is a special challenge for those of us “off a certain age.” Remaining current without resorting to the skinny jeans is no small challenge. Business dress, I get that. Business casual, I get that. Hiptster cool, I at least can identify it. But “in touch and relevant but not trying to act too young” is harder to identify. Hope I’m hitting it, but you never know.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 13, 2014 at 5:43 pm

      I agree…you never know. But my wife, kids a few close friends give me perspective on that for which I’m grateful.

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