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How can a young leader be a great leader?

More than ever before, we are seeing young people taking on significant leadership roles. Your employer might have put you on the fast track to leadership. Or if you’re following in the footsteps of someone like Mark Zuckerberg, you may have founded a start-up and successfully grown it. Either way, you will have likely found yourself leading a large number of people, many of whom will be older and more experienced.

I was still in my twenties when I found myself leading a large team. This was no ordinary team. The team was a division of a leading consulting company. Everyone had a double degree or more. More than half the team was older than me. I was not yet a Partner but had three Partners in my team, all in their fifties, one of whom was the previous leader of the Division. I had never had any material people management responsibilities but was now conducting performance reviews on people who had conducted hundreds of them. Some of these people had spent six times longer in the profession than I had!

So what do you do if you are a young start-up founder/CEO/MD leading a workforce of older staff? How do you speak on an even level with people who have more experience? How do you deal with older staff members who may not take you seriously?

It’s not easy. The reality is that age and experience can be valuable and can’t easily be substituted.

Robert Kegan from Harvard has studied how adult mental development can move through three stages, from the ‘socialised mind’ to the ‘self-authoring mind’ and to the ‘self-transforming mind’, as we mature.

How can a young leader be a great leader?

According to Kegan, “on the basis of thirty years of longitudinal research, mental complexity tends to increase with age”. The following graph depicts this clearly.

How can a young leader be a great leader?

But notice something important about this graph. While the upward sloping cluster indicates mental complexity increasing with age, there is considerable variation within any age. The solid black dots illustrate different levels of mental complexity for six different individuals all close to 30 years of age. The lowest of these six displays very little mental complexity. The highest has the maturity and wisdom of the average sixty-year old! (At the other end of the scale, there are also sixty-year olds no wiser than the average thirty year old.)

What’s the difference between these two people and how does it help a young leader? The key is to be operating with a self-authoring mind, not a socialised mind.

In a socialised mind (estimated by Kegan as 58% of the population), “I am my relationships, I follow the rules”. In a self-authoring mind (only 35% of the population), “I have an identity, I make choices”. Moving from one to another requires a recognition of where you are at today and a desire to mature. Putting it simply, you have to want to grow up.

So, how do you (as a young leader) speak on an even level with people who have more experience? A good place to start is by listening. These people may be not be any more effective than you, but they have experienced many times things you may be experiencing for the first time. By listening, you not only learn, but also communicate that you appreciate that they have this experience and you understand its value.

However, this does not mean that you should back down from leading, from sharing your own views. It is entirely appropriate for you to articulate your vision. Indeed, it’s important for you to challenge yourself to establish a leadership style based on your value compass and sense of purpose, not just executing someone else’s agenda. However, with so much experience around you, it would be smart to democratise leadership responsibilities and show that there is not one leader, but several.

And how do you deal with older staff members who may not taking you seriously? It depends somewhat on why they aren’t taking you seriously. If it’s because they are struggling with reporting to someone younger, then it’s important to be sensitive but it’s not your issue and you shouldn’t let it affect you. If it’s because some of your behaviour makes it hard to take you seriously, it’s time you took a look at that.

Here are a few of the mistakes you might make and some alternatives:

Situation Wrong ways (‘immature’) Right way (‘mature’)
Decision-making Unilateral, authoritarian decision-making (“I’ve made my mind up. Here’s my decision”)


Conflict-avoidance (“I’m hearing some different views. Let’s leave this for another meeting” or “Okay Bob, let’s go with your suggestion”)

Consultative, integrative but decisive (“Thanks for everyone’s input. Let’s go with Option A. Now let’s look at who can lead what as we move to implementation”)
Conflict Aggressive confrontation (the ‘young bull versus old bull scenario’)

Behind-the-back sniping

Candid one-to-one conversation, calling out the issue but seeking collaborative resolution. (“I’ve sensed tension between us in meetings recently. I wanted to understand if you felt this too and if so, what the cause might be.”)
Achievement Egotism. (“Since I’ve taken over, we’ve achieved our best results”)


Exaggerated humility (“I’ve been fortunate to come in at a good time. This has been everyone else’s doing and nothing to do with me”)

Shared credit for success (“This has truly been a team effort. I’d particularly like to call out Bob and Sally for specifically leading the redesign process, as well as Ken for…”)
Under-performance (of senior team member) Condescending – conducting the review as though they are a new graduate. (“In this company, performance is about quality and customer service.”)


Avoiding the issue (“I think you’ve had a good year. Let’s talk about next year.”)

Addressing the issue, seeking to understand their perspective, providing support, but ensuring they take accountability
Under-performance (of business) Blaming others


Exaggerated ‘mea culpa’ (“I’ve let you down”)

Taking personal responsibility then moving to constructive action (“Ultimately, this rests with me. Fortunately, we are blessed with great leaders in this team and we’ve developed a turnaround plan together”)
Social behaviour Acting like a teenager


Acting as though you come from your grandparents’ generation!

Being yourself but being aware that you now cast a long shadow. Being aware of the consequences of your actions

In a sense, leading when you are young is the same as leading at any age. Great leaders are always maturing, always looking to learn, to improve and to broaden their perspectives.

And once you’ve mastered all this? Well, Kegan says that only 1% of adults have a self-transforming mind. As business and society become more complex, more and more CEOs will need this attribute.

This could be your next challenge!

About the author

Anthony Mitchell is an organisational leadership expert, a regular contributor to Dynamic Business, and Chairman of strategic leadership advisory firm, Bendelta. He’s also Chairman of the Aurora Education Foundation, which provides accelerated education opportunities for high potential Indigenous students and Chairman of Amnesty International Australia from 2011-16. His recent contributions to Dynamic Business include Leadership succession: how to step into the shoes of a founder and build on their legacy and Strategic delegation: a ‘must’ for business leaders striving for a competitive advantage.

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Anthony Mitchell

Anthony Mitchell

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