College-aged people and young leaders in their twenties and early thirties have a bit of a bad rap.

If you listen to many Baby Boomer and Gen-X leaders talk about younger leaders, the complaints come quickly.

They

Don’t work hard enough.

Seem to want it all, now (like a month’s vacation for starters).

Have a hard time distinguishing between work and play.

Need constant affirmation.

Have no idea how to spell.

I’ve worked with a few young leaders that fit that description for sure, but far more who don’t.  So many of the leaders I’ve worked with over the last decade-plus are under 30, and I have to disagree with the assessment of the emerging generations.

Sure, there are slackers out there. But I know some 50-year-olds who should get it together at some point. And besides, you can train people to spell. Quickly.

The real challenge isn’t in working with young leaders. The real challenges come when you don’t put young leaders on your team and miss out on the immense contribution they make.

And when I say young, I mean young.

As in starting at 18 or 19, in college or right out of college.

If you don’t have young leaders on your team, both you and your organization lose.

Here’s are eight things young leaders get right, and eight things you miss out on if you stick to older leaders.

1. Enthusiasm and optimism abound

Remember how optimistic you were when you were young?

Optimism is something every workplace needs, and it can be harder to find in leaders over 40. As a Gen Xer myself, I have worked hard to reclaim and fuel my optimism (it is a skill), but most young leaders have a natural optimism that is frankly refreshing.

Parents told the next generation they could change the world. Not only do they believe it, they’re also doing it.

The kind of enthusiasm you have when you’re young really helps make up for the lack of wisdom you might not yet have. Young and motivated easily beats smart and lazy.

2. They get their generation

I try to stay current, for a guy my age, I think I do all right. But I’m not 22.

Younger leaders see things differently because they grew up in a culture older leaders didn’t. There’s a difference between what you think a generation is about and what that generation thinks they’re about.

Having the voice of young leaders around the table gives me a much better sense of what resonates and what doesn’t.

If you want to connect with the emerging generation, having the emerging generation around your table is irreplaceable.

3. They’ll challenge all assumptions

Because they are trying to figure out how the world works, they ask great questions and challenge assumptions—assumptions that so often you’re blind to because you’ve lived with them so long.

When you’re in your teens, twenties and even early thirties, you haven’t made peace with the status quo because you haven’t created the status quo (in contrast to older leaders, who by this point, did).

If you don’t like having your assumptions challenged, you’ll like irrelevance even less.

4. Quick studies

A 21-year-old can go from good to great in a few years.

And many are motivated to do it.

And don’t underestimate what a young leader can do. You can look at a bevy of 20-something founders/CEOs who are leading organizations or companies that have changed their industries, created new industries and in other ways changed the world.

So many older leaders look down on young leaders and think they don’t have much to offer.

Be careful who you ignore.

Thomas Edison was paid $40,000 for his first invention at age 22, Mozart was composing at age 5 and died at age 35, and Braille type for the blind was invented by 15-year-old Louis Braille.

5. They’re digital natives

My friends think I’m tech-savvy, even a bit a tech-obsessed.

But put me around an 18-year-old or 25-year-old and I feel like the person who can’t figure out why their microwave keeps blinking 12:00.

Having young leaders who are both digital natives and cultural natives on your team is a distinct advantage if you’re trying to impact the next generation.

At least it beats a lot of fifty-year-olds trying to figure out what the next generation needs.

6. They are your succession plan

If you are not stacking your team with leaders 10, 20 and in some cases 30 years younger than you, you are not positioning your organization for future relevance or success.

Succession is a crisis in the corporate world and in the church.

Ultimately, though, there’s no success without succession, unless as a founder or long-term leader you want what started with you to end with you.

7. It’s all about the mission

As you’ve heard more than a few times, Gen Z and Millennials don’t want their job to just be a job. They want meaning and purpose in their work.

For organizations in maintenance mode, that will challenge you to shake off your cobwebs.

For organizations that are driven by the bottom line, you’ll have to find a bigger mission that just a sharper P&L.

But if mission drives you (as it does me), then you’ll find an amazing alignment with young leaders. Chances are your young leaders will own your mission, vision and values deeply and push it forward. It can be a win-win.

They want to make a difference in the world, and they are passionate promoters of causes they believe in.

Many will choose mission over money, which doesn’t mean you should be cheap (smart employers pay a living wage), but it does tell you this matters more than it did to Boomers and many Gen X.

8. Culture has become non-negotiable

Let’s face it, most workplace cultures (including churches and non-profits) leave a ton to be desired. Way too many are toxic.

Because young leaders see themselves as free agents, they’ll demand a healthy culture, and if they don’t find it with you, they won’t hesitate to move on.

Toxic cultures never keep healthy people.

Getting rid of toxic culture (not just abuse and harassment, but boredom, bureaucracy and dysfunction) is something that should have happened years ago.

But as you add more and more young leaders to your team, you’ll be able to accelerate the improvement of your culture more quickly.

It’s about time.

What are you seeing?

That’s what I see in the young leaders I work with. And how have you made young leaders an essential part of your organization?

Leave a comment!

8 Things That Are Right (Not Wrong) About Young Leaders

11 Comments

  1. Nate on August 17, 2020 at 3:30 pm

    One of the things that has caused me grief in ministry thus far is the fact that I, like many young people, am more focused on my core competencies than I am on being a “general practitioner”. That burned me at my last church.

    My last church wanted me to the “everything bagel” of ministers. They wanted me to be a preacher, teacher, youth leader, hospital visitor, song leader, vision caster, event planner, go-fer, janitor, snow remover, and anything else that needed done. For a while, it was that I *couldn’t* do all those things… and then it became, “I REFUSE to do all those things.” And my refusal wasn’t out of arrogance or pride, but out of the sake that I am not competent to do maintenance, and if I do maintenance, it’s going to be worse than it was before. Same with a lot of areas.

    I think a lot of younger leaders are identifying their core competencies better than previous generations and finding ministry roles that are tailored to those things. I recently left that job and found a job where I wasn’t the only one on staff, and where my core competencies could be better utilized.

    My leadership philosophy is: Be an OLD Leader:
    Own what you’re good at.
    Learn what you’re okay at.
    Delegate what you’re bad at.

    As such, I’ve learned I am more efficient, less stressed, and more effective when I spend more time at what I’m really good at. And the church isn’t bogged down with ministries that are pushing mediocre because they have the wrong guy leading the charge.

    Young leaders know their core competencies better than previous generations, and I have a strong belief that it’ll benefit the church.

  2. geometry dash on November 9, 2019 at 4:40 am

    I have read your article, it’s very informative and helpful for me. I admire the valuable information you provide in your articles. Thank you for posting it.

  3. carl on October 7, 2019 at 10:33 pm

    good post, thanks

  4. shia on October 7, 2019 at 10:32 pm

    good post, thanks

  5. Raghav Raj on September 19, 2019 at 1:57 am

    good post.

  6. Sue Chamberlain on September 3, 2019 at 9:54 pm

    One could write an equaly persuasive article about the wisdom, consistency, experience, knowledge, faithfulness, perseverence, and so on, of those of us who apparently should take a back seat because we don’t know how to build a web site! Sick of divisive talk about age. We are all on the same team and can all learn from one another.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 4, 2019 at 9:49 am

      Hey Sue,

      You are absolutely correct, and actually, I have written an article about just how much potential the older generation has to help build up the church! My second point in the article is “The Next Generation Wants and Needs the Older Generation”

      Here is the link!

  7. Tim on September 2, 2019 at 10:50 am

    From my vantage point as an older former leader, it seems to me that in the church and in broader culture there is more negative “stuff” and lack of opportunity aimed at the old than at the young. One hits 55+, and becomes yesterday’s kale smoothie – stale and undesirable.

  8. Robert Meeks on September 2, 2019 at 9:07 am

    I’d like to see you write an article on “Follow-up” Some pastors come up with new visions, new ideas, they appoint a leader but never follows up on a weekly basis. I see this in many areas.
    Our Ushers need training, not just once every 3 or months but weekly.
    NEW PROJECTS – If a pastor has new project – tries it once and no response, keep trying it, the congregation sometimes is slow on new things. It takes doing it constantly.

  9. Marty Mosher on September 2, 2019 at 8:27 am

    I agree that the generalizations about the generation are too broad. And of course everything in the article is spot on about young LEADERS -the cream of the crop. We have many of them in our church family. And as someone who came to this pastorate 2 years ago with a mandate to grow the church YOUNGER (and our older people are embracing that as it happens!) I am all about pouring into and developing young leaders. Yet it needs to be said that the generalizations that are unfair to the cream of the crop are true about many of the generation-and we do them no service to not find ways to point out that 1) Correcting poor work is not a threat to your ‘feeling safe’ -its help for you to get better 2) It is good for you to earn the right to be heard, receive more pay, and receive promotion by being faithful in little things first-like Jesus said about all of us. I find two kinds of folks in this generation-those who feel they superior to older leaders and therefore entitled, and those who feel blessed by older leaders and want to come alongside them and learn from them. I’ve learned much from those kind of young leaders as I thought I was mentoring them! What I see is that we can learn great relevant practices for doing church while they are learning great timeless principles from us.

    • Suzanne Yemen on September 2, 2019 at 10:04 am

      In the church we need young leaders in all areas! Unfortunately we have scared away many of these wonderful leaders by not giving them any voice or chance to get involved. Don’t make teens “helpers”. Give them the responsibility and let them fly with it! Sunday school, youth groups, missions, worship, session…the possibilities are endless. We need to really encourage their participation! They are vital to church survival! Are they going to do things like we did? I hope not! It’s time we learn from them! Thanks for this incite full article Carey!

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