How to Lead People Who are Older Than You

Young Leaders Must Be Intentional about Influence

At a recent leadership workshop I was facilitating, a young leader approached me at the break with a big question: “I just got promoted to a new position at work,” she said, “and I’m younger than most of the people I’m supposed to lead. What’s your advice for leading people who are older than me?”

This is a great question, and one that I hear often. What follows is some of what I shared with the young leader, and others who have asked the same question.

First, let’s acknowledge that leadership is not the same thing as directing people. If a young leader thinks they must specifically direct or micromanage the work of the older members of their team, they’ll be in trouble.

Although there are many aspects of leadership, one simple way for a young leader to think about their new role is to remember that leadership is about intentional influence. And influence comes from a number of sources that they can draw on.

One simple way for a young leader to think about their new role is to remember that leadership is about intentional influence.

Here are four sources of leadership that do not simply rely on the power that comes from being at the top of the hierarchy:

  1. Knowledge: Do you have specific or special knowledge that can make you a thought leader for your group?
  2. Experience: Do you have experience that can make you a practice leader for your group?
  3. Demonstration or Teaching: Can you teach people how to do what your group needs to do?
  4. Inspiration or Connecting to Purpose and Values: Can you find out what inspires your team and then connect the lines between what inspires them and what your organization exists to do?

When I was in my mid-twenties, I was called upon to lead a mediation training program for the organization where I worked. In the role, I was often teaching and mentoring people who were at least twice my age. Although I sometimes felt too young for the position, what I soon realized was that people valued what I had to say because I had more experience than them and had done more reading and learning on the subject. I was able to lead by drawing on my deeper knowledge, my extensive experience, and through being able to demonstrate and teach the skills of mediation.

Lead with Humility

In addition to thinking about the various sources of leadership, young leaders should consider their attitudes when it comes to leadership. A strong leader will lead with a degree of humility, recognizing that all staff have life experience and expertise that can and should be welcomed.

When a leader takes time to better themselves, it provides space and motivation for others to do the same.

Additionally, older workers bring important perspective and wisdom to a team when given the space to do so. Young leaders who lead with humility are less likely to alienate the older members of their team and can benefit from their lived experience.

Develop People

And finally, young leaders must seek to develop their leadership capacity – to learn and grow. When a leader takes time to better themselves, it provides space and motivation for others to do the same. In addition to self-development, leaders should also provide support for their team members to learn and grow.

When leaders support and encourage their staff to better themselves, it communicates that they care about the people they lead. This investment pays off by cultivating team members who are interested in increasing their ability to contribute. And, as our research indicates, people who feel cared for by their leaders also trust them more.

When a young leader approaches their role with humility and a commitment to developing their people, they build trust and increase their capacity to lead. As they come to understand and rely on the four sources of leadership in this article, they will find natural ways to lead. This combination creates a natural approach to leadership that others willingly follow, young or old.

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Eric Stutzman

Chief Executive Officer

Eric is co-author of ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. This book is available on our website.

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