Hard Advice for Young Leaders

I have some hard advice for young leaders.

Before I share , I feel the need to be clear — in case you’re a new reader — to assure you I’m a supporter of young leaders. Ask anyone I work with, or look at decisions we’ve made as a church, or the personal investments of my time into young leaders and you can clearly see I believe in the next generation of leaders. I only build my case of support, because this may be a hard word to receive.

To illustrate this principle, let me begin with a story:

When out oldest son Jeremy was in high school he was on the wrestling team. It was intense training. I loved the discipline and confidence it gave him and I loved the wrestling matches.

When Jeremy would come home from a hard day of practice he wanted to bring what he learned in training into our family time. I had always enjoyed wrestling with my boys, but now he wanted to take our play time to a whole new level. We would start wrestling in the “assumed position” he had been taught, but then I would use my extra 70 pounds as an advantage and quickly pin him to the ground. He would often yell, “No, you’re doing it wrong! That’s not the rules!

To which I would always reply, “No buddy, you’re on my turf now, you play by my rules…and I say there are no rules.”

And in that illustration lies a principle younger leaders need to learn as they enter the field of leadership.

Here’s the principle:

If you’re gonna play with the big boys and girls — you’ve gotta bring your big boy and girl game.

Let’s face it. Many entering the field of leadership today have lived as a generation where they were given much of what they wanted but had few demands placed on them personally. They played multiple sports, for example — which they enjoyed — but it meant they didn’t have “chores” when they were home. Of course, there are exceptions, but this is often the case. By the way, this was also more the case for my generation than for my father’s generation.

I’m not being completely critical of this — it was mostly true for our boys also, but because of this, I often see young leaders enter the field of leadership these days with some unrealistic expectations. They sometimes expect to receive equal reward without paying their equal dues.

I should also point out I see some incredible young leaders. Hard-working. Conscientious. Dedicated. Loyal. So this is an “if the shoe fits” post.

What disturbs me most is when young leaders fail to live up to their full potential.

Here are 10 ways I see that occurring:

  • Making excuses for poor performance rather than attempting to improve
  • Pretending to have answers to problems they’ve never experienced
  • Refusing to learn from other people — especially older people — discounting anything which isn’t from your generation
  • Demanding more than they are willing to give — maybe especially in regards to respect
  • Expecting a reward they haven’t yet earned
  • Depending on step-by-step instructions instead of learning by trial and error
  • Refuting another generation for content when technique is the real difference
  • Being cynical towards anything opposite of the way they think it should be
  • Remaining fearful of taking risks or making a mistake
  • Treating loyalty as if it is a strange idea from the past

Wow! I told you — hard words. They only sting if they’re true.

And, granted, all of these were probably true to some extent of every generation. They seem very common today among younger leaders.

My advice:

Young leaders be patient, teachable, humble, grateful and mold-able as your enter positions of authority and as you are given responsibility. Don’t fail to learn all you can from those who went before you or to grow from your mistakes. Expect to work hard to achieve the things you want from life and realize things may not always be as you would want them to be. There are a few stories of people who stumbled into instant success, but those are rare.

The reward: 

Over time, as you are diligent, you will likely change some of the rules. I hope you do. Some of the rules of my generation need changing. I’m not afraid for you to teach this old dog new tricks. I want to learn from you. I want you to have responsibility and authority. I want you to be fully rewarded and recognized for your contribution to society. I also want you to realize, however, that most things of lasting value take time and discipline to achieve.

The “big boy and girl” world can be tough, but you can make a huge contribution if you are willing to pay the price.

By the way, I gave this same advice to my sons as they have entered adulthood and the workplace.

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50 thoughts on “Hard Advice for Young Leaders

  1. Ron, I am deeply touched by your article. You definitely managed to point out the things that all young leaders need to consider, otherwise they risk turning into horrible bosses. As the world evolved, we managed to bring leadership as the new way of approaching authority and make the manager more human. This is what young leaders need to understand, that their role is not to show older generations that they are better trained or smarter, but to learn from one another. This generation gap should not be approached as something negative, but as an opportunity to learn and improve.

  2. I like the way you couched what it means to be a "big boy and girl". Often when you see or hear this, it has to do with being more underhanded than someone else in order to defeat them and win in order to accomplish what you want to accomplish. This is illustrated in the movie "Clear And Present Danger" where Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford) is berated by CIA Director of Operations Bob Ritter (Henry Czerny) for being a "Boy Scout", meaning that he was too moral to play the political game effectively. Jack Ryan was expected to grow up and be a "big boy" or be steamrolled.

    However, Christians are not called to that sort of leadership. We are called to lead through service (Matt 20:24-28; 1 Pet 5:2-4). Some may see this as being hindered in our ability to be leaders, but it is a demonstration that we are under authority. Our success will glorify God and he will glorify us in the last day. But we are also called to understand the politics of power that the secular world practices because we are also instructed, as the disciples who Jesus sent out were instructed, to be "wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matt 10:16ff).

    It's also often a difficult thing to model because our flesh struggles against it. My daughter did a segment on confidence on her vlog recently where one of her points was to encourage people to own what they do, good or bad. Strong leaders often end up modeling the Jethro Gibbs (from the TV show, NCIS) sentiment of "never say you're sorry": owning the good but self-justifying the bad.

    So I appreciate the way you characterized being a "big boy and girl".

  3. I like the idea that the world changers typically are in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s when they make their most recognizable contributions to society. Helps me with patience in my 30’s.

  4. Hi Ron. Thank you, I have taken this to heart and I have seen this unfold, not just in the area of ministry but also in the workplace. Bless you for the ''straight and narrow'' word. Geraldine

  5. Ron –
    This reply is coming in super late. You just retweeted this article, so this is the first I'm seeing it.
    I love it. It's a tough thing to remember for us young guys. We learn one area or skill and we think we've got the field covered, but we're nowhere near ready to strap up and play with the varsity crew.

    Something I and my fellow up-and-comers have been corrected on frequently is playing without an opponent. We form arguments and methodologies without giving thought to opposing views, then think we're geniuses for coming with a fool-proof, air-tight system. Without thinking about it, we avoid interaction with anyone who might disagree with us, and make blanket judgements on them, which ruins us for mission and keeps us from learning from them.

    This all comes from wanting so bad to be right that we can't imagine being wrong. And a lot of the time (at least for my colleagues and I) this comes from an idolatry of the men around us. We want to be accepted as one of the big boys, so we strive (and often pretend) to have all the answers so we might be counted as equals. Ironically, this shows our lack of maturity.

    You hit the nail on the head. I am guilty of all of the above. Add 'playing without an opponent' to the list, and you've got me on all accounts. haha.
    Thank God for His grace.
    Thank you for your leadership.

    Sorry for the long reply.

  6. I don’t know of many leadership issues as important as this one. Thanks for bringing it to light.

    Just to add…

    Every leader is formed by going through 3 stages – calling, preparation, and sending. Jesus was called before time, was prepared for 30 years and was sent at his baptism. All of the original apostles were called, prepared for 3 years in organic church life with Christ as the Head, then sent at Pentacost. Paul was called on the road to Damascus, prepared for 3 years in the desert and then sent to the Gentiles.

    We mostly skip the preparation stage in favor of getting head knowledge. Most of my friends with Masters of Divinity degrees that acquire organizational ministry positions are the equivalent of infants in Christ. Your thoughts?

    • I certainly think there's truth here. I'm all for young leaders. I love them around me. I just think when they enter a level of influence they must be prepared to hold their own.
      Twitter: Ronedmondson

  7. As a young leader, I would love to add the following add-ons as suggestion to other younger leaders

    •Learn not to put a price tag on his/her heart and soul
    •Understand the truth that it is far more honorable to fail than to cheat
    •Learn that all men are not just, all men are not true
    •Learn to laugh when he/she is sad

  8. Hi Ron,

    Thanks for the advice – given humbly and honestly. Makes a bitter pill easier to swallow! I'm a 28 year old youth pastor, and I know that arrogance, entitlement and excuses are all too frequently lurking in my heart. When I become aware of some these Young Leader Syndrome symptoms creeping in, I try to remind myself of a book title I once saw…

    "Put on your big girl panties and get over it!"

    Just thought I'd share a girl-version of playing with the big boys 😉

  9. Thank you for this Ron. Really. I’ve always gained something from reading your stuff. This has been bookmarked. I think I’ll defer to your advise and just let it soak in:)
    Twitter: jgangwish

  10. Bruh! That is a hard word, but very good and very necessary. Paying dues never goes out of style and it's very biblical…it's called humility in my book. And the man that humbles himself will be exalted in due season. I wish more of us younger guys would adopt this spirit. We can make changes, but not after a season of intense experience in a places led by more seasoned leaders.

    BTW, I would beat my dad wrestling even though I gave up more than 90lbs to him. Skill beats out strength almost every time 😉

  11. Great post Ron! Being a dad of two sons who currently wrestle at the college level…your story hit home. I remember when my pastor, Wendell Smith of The City Church told me years ago…"Jared, stay teachable and humble and God will use you in a might way" that was 11 years ago and his wise advice has helped me greatly…now as lead pastor…helps even more. See ya at the sticks!

  12. Ron

    Here are two more qualifications from Titus for “elder/overseer” that many –
    who desire to be known as “elder/overseer”- *seem to ignore.* Just and Holy.

    Titus 1:6-8 KJV
    6 If any be *blameless,* the husband of one wife,
    having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly.
    7 For a bishop must be *blameless,* as the steward of God; not selfwilled,
    not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre;
    8 But a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, *just,* *holy,* temperate;

    Just
    Strongs #1342 – dikaios {dik'-ah-yos} – innocent – righteous.
    Thayers – righteous, observing divine laws – keeping the commands of God –
    innocent, faultless, guiltless – used of him whose way of thinking, feeling, and
    acting is wholly conformed to the will of God…

    Holy
    Strongs #3741 – hosios {hos'-ee-os}
    Thayers – undefiled by sin, free from wickedness,
    religiously observing every moral obligation, pure holy, pious.

    Now that’s three tough qualifications for “elder/overseers” – Yes?
    1 – Blameless – Without falt, Above reproach…
    2 – Just – Keeping the commands of God, Faultless, Guiltless…
    3 – Holy – Undefiled by sin, Free from wickedness…

    Makes an interesting study – checking out ALL these tough qualifications for
    “Pastor/Leaders,”“elder/overseers,” then checking out those who say they are
    Pastro/Leaders,” “elder/overseers,” compared to the qualifications. 🙂

    In my experience with “Pastor/Leaders” and having been in “Leadership” shown me…

    No matter how loving… eventually…
    No matter how humble… eventually…
    No matter how much a servant… eventually…

    The “Pastor/elder/leader” will “Exercise Authority” (A no, no. Mark 10:42 KJV)
    and “lord it over God’s heritage.” (A no, no.1 Pet 5:3 KJV.)
    And that’s always the beginning of “Spiritual Abuse.”

    “Pastor/Leader” = exercise authority = lord it over = spiritual abuse = always… 🙁

    I’m Blest… I’ve returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of my soul… Jesus…

  13. Ron

    Coming from a “Spiritually Abusive” background I learned to be a Berean and check out leaders.
    “…to know them which labour among you, and are over you…” 1 Thes 5:12.
    “Abusive Leaders” talk about “Obey your leaders.” But, *ignor* the qualifications for elder/overeer.

    Does anyone have to obey “Abusive Leaders” or “Leaders” who – do NOT qualify?
    NOT anymore – Thank You Jesus…

    Seems the first qualification for “elder/overseer” is really tough – **must be Blameless**

    1 – A bishop (overseer) then *must be* **blameless**… 1 Tim 3:2 KJV
    2 – For a bishop (overseer) *must be* **blameless**… Titus 1:7 KJV

    And *must be* is the same Greek word as: …You *must be* born again. John 3:7.

    *Must Be* is Strongs #1163, die. – It is necessary (as binding).
    Thayer’s – necessity established by the counsel and decree of God.
    Seems to be a small word – but very important. Yes?

    **Hmmm? **Blameless**… How important is this word?

    Strongs #423 – anepileptos – inculpable, blameless, unrebukeable.
    Thayer’s – that cannot be reprehended, (cannot be, rebukable, reprovable,
    …. cannot find fault) not open to censure, irreproachable.
    Dictionary – Without fault; innocent; guiltless; not meriting censure.
    Synonyms – faultless, guiltless, innocent, irreproachable, spotless, unblemished.

    1 Tim 3:2 ASV – The bishop therefore must be without reproach…
    1 Tim 3:2 NIV – Now the overseer must be above reproach…
    1 Tim 3:2 NLT – For an elder must be a man whose life cannot be spoken against.

    In my experience – NOT many, if any, “elder/overseers,” when they examine themselves,
    seriously considering this one **qualification,** (*Must Be* **Blameless,**)
    can see themselves as **Blameless,** without fault, above reproach,
    and thus qualify to be an “elder/overseer.”

    The Bible talks about “elder/overseers.” ( If a man desire the office of a bishop,)
    And **qualifications** for “elder/overseers.” (*Must Be* **Blameless,**)
    You really can NOT have one without the other – Can you?

    This is only one of many tough qualifications. Yes? 😉
    And there are tough **qualifications** for the children also.

    Today, if someone thinks God is calling them to be a Pastor/Leader…
    I just suggest they study the qualifications for “elder/overseer.”

    And – If they don’t meet the qualifications – they should run – as fast as they can.

    Certainly a simple way to turn the hearts of some who want to be known as “Leaders”…
    towards being – “Servants of Christ.” And letting Jesus be the “Leader.” Mat 23:10 NASB.

    And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold:
    them also I must bring, and they shall “hear My voice; “
    and there shall be “ONE” fold, and “ONE” shepherd.
    John 10:16

    One Fold – One Shepherd – One Voice

    {{{{{{ Jesus }}}}}}

  14. I think both sides lack respect and a desire to learn from one another. I see many young leaders who think they have all the answers because they took a class in Theology, yet they are defensive when people challenge those beliefs. I see many experienced leaders who do not listen when younger leaders respectfully offer new ideas. Some veteran leaders label it as naïve or assume the person hasn’t learned how things work. Christ calls us to have child-like faith. Often our years of service cause us to develop calluses. A young leader with no experience can challenge us to see things through limitless eyes again.

  15. Great stuff Ron! Young leaders operate, learn, and feel more respected in peer environments. My number one piece of advice for young leaders (of which I am one) would be to treat their elders with extra respect because their elders grew up in a much different culture. Remember Elihu in the book of Job. He was slow to speak and slow to anger and did not offer his insights until the elders where at a loss. When he does speak, the first thing out of his mouth is an expression of respect for those with “more years” than him. Elders, above all, encourage young leaders to share their ideas. Most young leaders recognize their lack of experience and are intimidated inside. Many of the bullet points above point out defensive traits in young leaders. These most likely stem from inner insecurities and doubts rather than blatant disrespect.

  16. Ron…I'm retweeting this one for sure. Thanks for calling young leaders to step up into all that God has called them to.

    One thing many have noted in the tribe of churches I work with is that boomers were willing to put it all on the line at a much younger age. Many of those who are now in their 50s & 60s planted churches straight out of college. They just went out and did it, not waiting for others to give them a boost up. Today, there seems to be few illustrations (if any) of 20-22 year olds launching into the deep on their own. Especially when it comes to church planting.

    I can come up with a number of reasons for this generational shift, but I'm wondering what you are seeing, especially in light of your passionate plea for young leaders to pay their dues and bring their best game.

    • Good question. I'm not sure. I would say there was a day when everything wasn't as accessible. If you wanted to achieve you had to risk it all and walk by faith. Now it seems there are some prominent examples of striking it big in a short amount of time. I wonder if some wait for that type opportunity to come along.
      Twitter: Ronedmondson

    • Tim, as someone not much older than that, three things come quickly to mind. 1. People aren't growing up as quickly (I have to admit it). 2. Most people tell them not to or that they aren't ready. In fact I was just asking Ron about this because I took a test from a church planting site. 75% of the test measured previous experience. So even though I scored very high in gifts / calling and entrepreneurial experience, I failed. 3. I believe young people today are far more discouraged in life (societal pressures?, lack of deep relationships?, shallow church involvement?). I'd love to hear your thoughts too.

      • Good thoughts. I definitely see the discouragements. There is so much comparison going on, less contentment and more social pressure.
        Twitter: Ronedmondson

      • Great call. I think those are all really true. I especially appreciate your calling out the "experience" issue on the church planters test. Great illustration. Here's more I'd add to the generational shift we've seen over the past few decades:
        1. Delayed maturity markers. People stay in school longer, get married later, and generally prolong their adolescence through their mid-20s.
        2. Longer training. Many don't feel "ready" to launch out after a four-year degree. They go after more education or some kind of hands-on experiential training.
        3. Greater indebtedness. It's tough to think about church planting when you're lugging around tens of thousands in debt from college loans and consumer spending.
        4. More "staff roles". Though this may be down-shifting now because of the economic climate, over the past decades "youth ministry" and "associate" roles became paid positions, so young leaders started there rather than launching out on their own…and many just stayed in those roles permanently.
        5. Mindset shift. As the years have moved on, the "established generation" in the church has forgotten what it would look like to promote 20-year-olds into lead positions. They can no longer imagine being led by someone so young. They've forgotten their own story.

        Do these things ring true to you as well? What can we do to help move past these barriers…or do we just succumb to them being part of the current landscape and get used to it?

        • Tim, your points are excellent! Thanks for sharing. I agree with all of them. #4 hits close to home and was a temptation I know I had to avoid personally. Re: #2 Why do you think a four-year degree no longer seems like enough for many people?

          • Regarding the four-year degree being insufficient for some, I probably don't have the whole picture…but I think it ties back into #1. So much of what we've seen over the past decades is a "delay" in 20-somethings making major commitments. Adding more schooling to one's life experience before taking the plunge is just becoming normative. There's probably a "snowball effect" at play here — the more people who go on for further education, the higher the expectation becomes that "all" should do it, then those who don't begin to feel left out and under-prepared. Maybe an over-generalization…but it does feel like a trend: "I can't fully step out until I have more education."

  17. Great advice, Ron. You probably hit on this, but we are prone to criticize everything without suggesting an alternative. We are good observers and highly opinionated. The challenge is channeling that into action.
    Twitter: dsantistevan

  18. This is excellent, Ron. It's a message that is definitely needed in a generation of young leaders emerging all over.

    The biggest issue I encounter is seeing the mutual respect spanning the generations. Either the young guys think they know too much or the older guys are frustrated at too many "new" ways of doing things.

    What I see as a problem is the preceeding generation too focused on seeing the young guys "pay dues". It's like they want young leaders to "start where I started and go through what I had to go through".

    I see the value in building character but it a lot of ways I see it as counter-productive. I know when I have children, I want my ceiling to be their floor. I want them to learn everything I know out the gate and surpass me farther than I could have ever dreamed. I don't feel that's possible if I'm too concerned with them "paying dues".

    • Good feedback and I agree with you. I think it's on the “expectation” side where I struggle the most. If I expect it to be handed to me, then I'm less likely to work for it. Point well taken that there is a responsibility on the side of the older leader, but there is no excuse for not delivering when it's not given.Using, for example, your fathering example. I tried to do that for my boys, but I didn't receive that from my father. I can't choose to use that as an excuse or do something about it now and break the cycle with my parenting.
      Twitter: Ronedmondson

  19. Spot on. I'm going to bookmark, favorite, tweet, and re-post this. It needed to be said.

    One thing I see often is "Depending on step-by-step instructions" … I am looking for initiative and independence!