How Young Leaders Can Lead Older Leaders

Leading someone older than you can be challenging.

As the Boomer generation ages and hands the baton of leadership to the X’ers and Millennials, more and more young leaders find themselves leading those older than themselves.

This is an important question: Why do some young leaders do it well and some do it poorly?

I remember the first time this really hit me. On my first day as Executive Pastor in San Diego, I suddenly realized I would be leading staff who were older and more experienced than I was. That was intimidating, to say the least. Thoughts went through my mind like, “What do I have to offer them?” And, “Why would they listen to me?

When young staff leads older volunteers with more life experience, they often encounter the same feeling. Over the years I’ve learned that’s a pretty natural response. In fact, it’s actually healthy.

In contrast, if a younger leader assumes, and behaves like they know more than the older leaders they serve, that’s a pretty arrogant disposition. That never goes well.

Even though intimidation, insecurity or lack of confidence can be part of a normal response to leading people with more life experience than you, it’s important for you not to get stuck there. Don’t let your leadership become paralyzed because you are young. You have much to offer.

7 Insights to help young leaders lead older leaders:

1) Remember, you were chosen.

You were picked from all the others. There’s a reason for that. Someone, or several people, saw gifts, talents, and ability in you. Whether you were hired onto a staff team or you were asked to be a leader in a volunteer role, they chose you!

Don’t talk yourself out of deserving this opportunity to lead people. If you focus on their good and the good of the church, you are off to a good start.

You were chosen. Don’t talk yourself out of deserving an opportunity to lead people.

2) Embrace the truth that they want you to win.

It’s extremely rare that someone wants you to fail, particularly those who are older than you. Yes, sometimes a few can be difficult, but every once in a while you can be difficult too. Right?

They want you to win. Think about how hard they have worked for a long time; they want all that effort to matter.

If you also want them to “win” spiritually, in their family life, at work and in life in general, this group will eagerly follow you! And they may become your most loyal and strongest advocates.

3) Lean into the truth of Scripture.

12 Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. I Timothy 4:12

Nearly every leader started young! This is a normal rite of passage. Reflect on the five words in verse twelve where you are challenged to set the example. They are – speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity.

I promise that you will have much to offer if you lead from that platform spiritually. From this foundation, serve those who are older as an encourager for their spiritual growth. Ask about their walk with God, how they are growing spiritually, and what they hear God saying. That will begin a conversation where you can invest spiritually.

4) Focus on the uniqueness you have to offer.

What are your unique gifts, talents and abilities?

Maybe you have a strategic mind, or you are great with people, or you are creative, or you have great communication skills. The list of possibilities is long. Lean into your strengths.

Get better at what you do. Develop your leadership ability. When you are improving, that always gets noticed. If you improve as a leader, that is appreciated and gains respect.

In contrast, if you assume your authority, or lead as if you are entitled to have them follow, I promise that never works well.

5) Learn from their life experience.

Just like you want to add value to someone older than you, they want to add value to you.

Carve out some time with several of the people you lead who are older than you. Get a cup of coffee and listen to their story. Ask questions. You’ll learn much. Take time to reflect on what you are learning and how that might help you lead better.

6) Figure out what they can do, that you can’t.

When I was a young leader, personal computers were just getting traction. There were guys in the church who understood the new language, and I didn’t. They were thrilled to help by engaging the skills they had that I didn’t.

I met so many teachers who understood kids and students better than I did. We had business leaders on the board who helped with a long list of things from salary and benefits to complicated land purchase deals. You get the idea.

Don’t be afraid to ask, they want to help.

7) Develop a partnership based on the vision.

A relational approach is always important. However, if you are, for example, 26 and relatively recently married with no kids, and they are 50 with graduating seniors in High School, your common ground may be thin at first.

If that’s the case, focus on the vision of the church, which helps to bridge the generation gap. It’s common ground that you can count on. It gives you more time to establish a relationship that is meaningful and enjoyable.

Lead in such a way that you partner together for the good of the church, and make it a point to enjoy the relationship.

10 thoughts on “How Young Leaders Can Lead Older Leaders”

  1. need a link to a blog, ‘How older volunteers can follow young leaders’ to realize our position, encourage, not ‘my way is better’, vision, patience, etc

    Great blog as usual.

  2. As a 12Stone volunteer, every time I serve on a team lead by one of our younger leaders, they make me feel valuable, encouraged, and push me to new levels in my gifting. They ask for my input as someone who has been doing this for a long time, and I feel like together, we are making whatever project we’re working on even better! Some of these stellar leaders include Alex Morrison, Jeremy Summers, Todd Nicholson, Andy Brightbill and Lawton Jones…….all great leaders!

  3. I agree that a follow up is needed from the opposite perspective. I think it is so important for us whether young or older to be able to “seek first to understand, then be understood.” One additional perspective related to the first point, “You Were Chosen.” I think there is another situation, probably more prevalent in smaller churches and organizations. The scenario goes like this; the pastor is the only full time staff member of the church and they need leadership but the congregation is small; the pastor asks for volunteers to step up and lead. Those who do step up have desire, sometimes great zeal and willingness to serve but also have little leadership ability or experience. They get thrown into the fire and empowered by the pastor with responsibility and authority because they are the only ones who volunteered. I think this is a breading ground for many of the problems and destructive attitudes young leaders face; some of which are noted in your article. Leaders often feel there is so much to do, that they don’t have time to spend on training. I think it is the opposite; you don’t have time not to spend on training and development. In Designed to Lead by Eric Geiger and Kevin Peck they talk about Leadership Culture and developing disciples who can make other disciples who make other disciples…multiplication. For that culture to exist, older leaders and younger leaders must work together and build into each other; exactly what you have described.

  4. As one of these young leaders, your first comment to remember you were chosen is very important. One of the best things I could have heard when I started my first class of seminary was “You belong here, God put you here.” That is very easy to forget when you are a volunteer with a calling to ministry sitting in a room full of senior pastors! But it is no less true. We cannot walk in the fear that we are not chosen, or in the lie of being “just” a volunteer. There is a lot of power in that “just” and not in the best way. It is easy to talk your way out of leading as a young leader, and to shy away from other leaders because you are “just” a volunteer. At every turn I try and remind every leader I meet that they are valued, and that they belong, they are not “just” anything. Young leaders can be a beautiful gift full of energy but we cannot let them feel that they have no value, because they will talk themselves right out of leading, just like I tried to. By working to eliminate “just” from their vocabulary we can help them understand something that took me three years of doubt to learn. God places you just where He wants you, and no matter where that leads you, You belong! Thanks for your great wisdom Dr. Dan.!

    1. Wow… Scott, you may be a young leader, but you carry the wisdom of many more years! I’m so proud of you and how you are developing. Keep it up. You’ll be a force to be reckoned with for God! 12Stone is blessed by your ministry.

  5. “How Do Older Leaders Follow Young Leaders” by Dr. Dan Reiland (CHURCHLEADERS 9/1/17) brought me here. Thank you for both articles; I plan to share and discuss with our music dept. I’m a young leader positioned to lead older leaders and let’s just say… “whew!”. My recently reformed “know it all” self learned pretty quickly coming in rigidly fixed in what I thnk I know is NOT the way to go; at the same time I can see that the older saints have real difficulty accepting leadership from someone young enough to be a grand. You offer encouragement and practical steps to bridge the gap. I knew I needed to do something to build better rapport but didn’t know what or how. Asking for and making room for their input, just having conversation about their experiences .. showing appropriate respect and deference .. honoring them while staying obedient to God and true to my assignment is the take away for me. I’m happy to say my motivation has never been money and my heart’s desire is to pour into others that the body is edified and God is glorified. I do sense that they see this and are supportive. Now I’ve got some tools to correct some of my missteps. Thank you!

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