There is a certain stereotype that an older leader is a wiser leader. However, age and wisdom are often not connected. If you want proof, try asking your parents for advice.
Leadership is a personal business. Personal values, personal style, personal ethos.
Ageing affects leadership qualities in different ways, depending on the individual’s personal value landscape. Some may find they become more effective and connected as leaders, some may become less.
Does getting older mean getting wiser?
Wisdom can be defined as using knowledge and experience to make good decisions and judgements. It also includes creativity, tolerance and being able to deal with the uncertainties of life.
The importance of each of these factors is a weighted depending on industry. Experience may be key in the fields of science and politics, but overshadowed by creativity and appetite for uncertainty in the fields of technology and arts. The definition of wisdom is therefore subject to opinion.
The definition of age also goes beyond chronological age and into emotional maturity and life experience. Given exposure to the right circumstances and opportunities, it is frequent for someone to have accumulated more expertise and be ‘wise beyond their years’ than an older counterpart.
In short, leaders who pursue a vision, motivate others and consider their legacy are the most effective irrespective of chronological age.
Age and leadership behaviour
Academia frequently cites three different types of leadership behaviour: transactional, transformational and laissez-faire.
- Transactional: motivating others by helping them achieve
- Transformational: inspirational motivation; working towards a vision
- Laissez-faire: avoidance of making decisions despite leadership role
Whilst personality is arguably a greater determining factor than age on what approach to leadership an individual takes, the leader may find that age plays a role in what is expected of them in their position and act accordingly.
A younger leader may feel that motivating others to achieve specific goals is more in-line with their expectations and adopt a transactional style. An older leader may find that their perceived experience lends the gravitas to work towards transformational leadership.
Age Bias in Leadership: Change vs Stability
The majority of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are 50-59. Compare this to successful entrepreneurs, which tend to be significantly younger. Elon Musk was only 28 when he co-founded his first company, a web software business. Sarah Blakely began working on Spanx aged 27.
A similar pattern in age difference can be found when looking at politicians holding office vs revolutionaries. Trump took office aged 71, Obama at 47, Teresa May at 54, Boris Johnson at 55. Compare this to some of the world’s best known revolutionaries and their age when they came to rule: Fidel Castro (33), Emiliano Zapata (31), Che Guevara (34).
A recent case of studies found that younger leaders were more likely to be endorsed for change, whilst older leaders rated higher for stability, Underlying this is our evolutionary psychology or ‘hard wiring’ for turning to younger leaders in times of exploration and older leaders in times of exploitation of the status quo.
The bottom line
Chronological age is not in itself an indicator of effective leadership or otherwise. However, it does tend to affect leadership style (transactional vs visionary) and how others expect and endorse you to lead.