One of the most challenging parts of my role in church leadership has been leading people older than me. I’ve been pretty bossy since I was a kid, but I’ve been in leadership officially since my early 20s. In almost every position, I had a great deal of authority, and was the youngest of the group. Here are 5 things I’ve learned about leading people older than you.
1. Build the relationships FIRST. It’s not usually a good idea to try to move people faster than they’re ready to go. When you take leadership over an existing group, often times, your enthusiasm and zeal can have you changing, rearranging and undoing everything you don’t like within the first few weeks. When you’re leading people older than you, that can be disastrous. You’re likely to be met with resistance, rebellion, and outright refusal, all resulting in quite a bit of resentment, as they will probably view you as “some know-it-all kid” who is arrogant and condescending. Take the time to build a relationship first. Maintain the status quo until you get to know them and let them get to know you. Show true concern about the things that matter to them. Find out how they feel about the ministry area, what keeps them there, what they value, what they feel attached to, and what they wish would change. Assess the changes you’d like to make, and develop a strategic plan and timeline to implement them. Make sure your plan includes clear and frequent communication with your team, so that there are no surprises and no hard feelings.
2. Give respect and command respect. That’s a pretty simple, though oft-overlooked, principle. Some call it the golden rule. Matthew 7:12 says that we should do unto others as we would want them to do unto us, for this is the essence of all that is taught in the law and by the prophets. Show them respect – including respect for their age and experience – and be sure you don’t handle them as your peers, especially if the age gap is significant. Show yourself respectable, and command their mutual respect for you. Do not ever allow your team to disregard your authority because of your age, especially not in front of others, as this will make it easier for others to disrespect you.
3. Be confident and firm, but don’t be inflexible or afraid to admit when you’re wrong (that might take practice). When you make a sound decision, stick to it and carry it out with confidence. Nobody respects a wishy washy leader who isn’t confident in what he’s doing, and jellyback leaders are easy to walk over. If you walk as though you’re unsure of where you’re going, no one will follow. When you make a wrong turn, acknowledge it and correct it. If you act like a silly, immature, indecisive kid who can’t admit it when he’s wrong, no one will take you seriously when you try to lead.
4. Respect their wisdom and seek their input and help; look for opportunities to learn from the older people on your team. As often as possible, ask them for their input and advice – even if it’s unrelated to ministry. Perhaps you have a personal issue they can help with. Everyone wants to feel needed and valued. A good way to build camaraderie is to let your older subordinate know you don’t have all the answers and could use her help.
5. Be patient and accommodating. Acknowledge the age difference and everything that it means: they have more life experience, see things differently, have different fears, expectations, perspective, ideas. Respect those differences and honor your older team members for their perspective, not in spite of it. Keep in mind that the landscape of their lives might be different – family obligations, work commitments, hobbies, children, etc. Keep in mind that some older people are not as technologically or culturally savvy as you may be; they may not keep up with the latest lingo or trends. Some of them might get a kick out of learning the newest lingo, text shorthand or dance moves – if so, teach them! But if corresponding by e-mail doesn’t work for them, or if they give you blank stares when you refer to a line from the latest R&B song, try to meet them where they are.
Bonus: Don’t avoid dealing with an issue because you’re intimidated by their age. Don’t get into a power struggle either. Maintain control of the work setting, and handle personal problems one-on-one apart from the team setting.
Hopefully, that helped you out a little. If you’re in a situation where you’re leading people much older than you, and having a hard time, I can assure you, it won’t get better over night. But if you stay prayerful and humble, and use those five suggestions, I can pretty much guarantee you things will get better. If you need advice for a specific situation, be sure to leave a comment, or you can e-mail me, FB me, Tweet me, or send an anonymous message via Formspring. As always, if you have any questions, feel free to get in touch with me.