Tips for Leading Older, and Often Wiser, People

In my first management position, I was a 19 year-old college sophomore working full-time and leading a small staff of four people in the men’s clothing area of a major department store. I was placed in the position almost by default, because the previous manager left unexpectedly. I was already there and eager to lead. Everyone working for me was older than I was, including one man who was in his sixties.

Throughout my leadership career, I have continued to have positions where people older than me, with more experience than I have in many areas, report to me by position.

In our church plant, where I was the founder, most of our staff was younger than me. But, even there, I personally recruited a staff member almost 15 years older than me, which meant there were literally three generations of leadership in our church plant. It was gold for our organizational structure.

In the church where I was recently pastor, I didn’t just “inherit” people with more experience — I recruited them. On purpose. I do not believe we could have had the success in revitalization we had without their input. We needed younger voices on our team also, but these seasoned leaders helped navigate major change in ways I couldn’t have done on my own.

In my new role, everyone on our team has more direct experience with the organization than me. Everyone. And, many on the team are older than me. We certainly need younger faces (and more diversity), but I continue to value people with experience.

Leading people who are older and more experienced in an area than the leader can be one of the more challenging parts of leadership, but I highly recommend it.

I work with many pastors and church planters who, as they begin their ministry career will likely encounter the same experience with either volunteers or paid staff. I can tell you, from experience, your leadership will be better if you learn how to lead people older — and wiser — than you are today. Don’t be afraid to recruit them. (I expand on this idea in my book The Mythical Leader.)

Here are 7 tips for leading people older than you:

Recognize the obvious.

The obvious is you, as the leader, are younger than the person/people you are trying to lead. There’s no since pretending otherwise. When a person is 10, 20, or even 30 years older they likely have different needs and expectations from their leader and the organization. They may need different benefits, different work schedules, and even different leadership styles, depending on their age and stage of life. You should maximize your leadership by adapting your style to the person you are leading anyway, but this will be especially true when you lead someone who doesn’t always “need” your leadership.

Give credit for wisdom earned.

This is key. If you don’t recognize and value the fact age and experience has given them something you may not have you’ll never effectively lead someone older than you. Most likely there will naturally be things the other person has experienced that you haven’t. Don’t let that intimidate you. Allow it to work for you by gleaning from their wisdom. There will be times you’ll be the one more experienced and you’ll want people to value what you’ve learned too.

Stand your ground, but do it respectfully.

If you are in the position, then do your job. Some older generations were raised in a time where they expect you to lead. I certainly was, but as you should with any person you lead, be respectful. If someone is older, most likely he or she will be more sensitive to a younger leader being disrespectful and react negatively when you are not. They may not say anything, because this may be part of their culture too, but you won’t have their full respect if you aren’t actually leading.

Humbly be willing to learn from them.

You’ve already recognized they may know a few things you don’t, so be honest when you don’t know how to do something. There may be something hard, such as handling a difficult issue or a difficult person. If the older person has dealt with things like this before, let them share with you some things they’ve learned. It’s okay that you have some things to learn. We all do. (The older we become the more in tune we are with the fact no one knows everything.)

Ask good questions.

“Have you ever experienced something like this before in your leadership?”

“What would you do if you were in my shoes?”

“Am I missing anything in your opinion?”

Those are great questions.

Be clear on all your expectations.

More than likely a person from another generation is more accustomed to structure than you are. There were days past when expectations were more clearly defined and people knew what was expected. Organizational charts were more linear. Job titles meant more about what a person did on the team. Be aware of this. You don’t have to change your leadership to accommodate them necessarily, but you do need to recognize and understand when they may need a little more clarity on your expectations. They may wait until they know for sure you want them to move forward on a task or project.

Don’t play games – even if you are intimidated.

I have seen this many times. The leader is intimidated by the older team member, so he or she dances around an issue or fails to handle conflict. The leader might make excuses for not knowing something or pretend they have more experience than he or she actually has with an issue. They use passive aggression rather than address the real issue. People with life experience can usually see through that type behavior. The age and maturity will make them less intimidated by you. Be kind. Be respectful always, but be direct. Shoot straight with them. Stand firm when needed. The fact is that the older team member will probably have handled worse situations. They will welcome your secure leadership — if it’s handled appropriately.

Be patient with them.

This is changing rapidly, but sometimes an older team member may not be as culturally, technologically, or trend savvy as you are. (And, again, that’s changing rapidly.) They may need a different form of communication or you may need to explain something in a different context, but they will make up for it by adding to the team in other ways. Be prepared to allow extra training for them if needed — even in some things which appear basic for you.

There were many times in business where I would have never made it without someone helping me who had more experience than I had. That’s still true today. I continue to surround myself with mentors in life and church.

Granted, if the person is cranky, rigid, or troublesome don’t add them to your team. But, that’s true of all ages.

Here’s the deal. When you shy away from someone for your team because they are older or more experienced than you then you ignore some of the most loyal, hard-working, dedicated team members. And, the humility in knowing you are leading people wiser than you will make you a better leader.

Do you lead people older than you? What would you add to this discussion?

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Ron Edmondson

Author Ron Edmondson

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Join the discussion 57 Comments

  • […] Tips for Leading Older, and Often Wiser, People by Ron Edmondson  […]

  • kirkneverdied says:

    I know this was a big struggle for me when I first started in ministry. I started at my church at 26. I was in charge of teams of people who were decades older than me. Some of the people were some of my actual youth leaders growing up.

    This seems like one of the major leadership hurdles for young leaders.

    • ronedmondson says:

      Yea, and I think it's tougher when you know them already. At our church plant, we hired. Business Administrator who had been my friend, prayer partner and helped launch the church. He was 14 years older and even more years wiser. 
      Twitter: Ronedmondson

      • kirkneverdied says:

        Absolutely. The church I'm at is a church plant of a church plant from the church I grew up at. The lead pastor was my youth pastor when I was in high school. Our worship pastor was one of my students when I was an intern 10 years ago.

        Working with people you know really well has some huge advantages, and a lot of big disadvantages.

  • jimpemberton says:

    This reminds me of my time in the Marines. Young commissioned officers would have seasoned senior staff NCOs under their command. They could make it a great command by relying on their experience and the respect they commanded from the troops. On the other hand, they could make it a difficult command by adopting a "me versus them" mentality and trying to impose policies that made little sense in light of the unit's purpose and mission.

  • Your advice has helped me a lot,thank you

  • […] 7 Ways To Lead People Older Than You  This is written by Ron Edmondson, whom I have highlighted many times before. Ron hits on a common situation in leadership and provides us with seven practical approaches to engaging this audience. If you are not facing this right now, you will some day soon. […]

  • jill says:

    I am a young leader. The first step for me was sharing my vision and listening to their ideas. Asking for their input where they had more experience than me and gaining respect by demonstrating hardwork and dedication.
    Twitter: jrkloster

  • The church I pastor is older, so much so that when a handful of folks around my parents age joined, many of our members were excited because the church was "getting younger." I have just found that patience and love wins them over in the end. Do things, 6 years later, move as fast as I would like? no, but it is much better than at the start now that they know we are committed to them

    One a side note, something funny happened recently. One of our ladies made the comment, "But we've always done that," recently when I canceled a program. The funny part was – I was the one who started it!

  • Jay-jay Agustin says:

    this helps a lot:) im currently 16yrs old and now im handling 30-40 people under my organization in my business MLM, all of them are older than me. Your blog was true, continue posting like this and many people will grow as a leader, – frm Jay-jay Agustin (Philippines)

  • Jackie says:

    I am an English instructor. Almost all of my students are at least 10 years older than me. I have found that if I show that I may be more experienced in English than them, but they have more experiences in other things, they are more open minded to the idea of me being their leader.

  • Awesome post Ron. I am blogging about this concept and i will quote you because you covered some nice ground here.

  • Shawn says:

    Great post, Ron! I am currently mentoring someone about 20 years older than me. I've learned another important lesson: Listen. Older people have so much wisdom and maturity to offer if we will only listen!

  • […] wrote a post recently about how to lead people older than you. (Read that post HERE.) Recently I was meeting with Ben Reed and another gentleman who kept referring to how young Ben […]

  • […] You can figure out how to “lead up”…build a consensus for leadership, confront where needed, win influence and the right to lead…even sometimes learning to lead people who don’t want to be led…(read THIS POST) […]

  • Ryan S says:

    Great post! I became the senior pastor of my church at 25, and I’m learning more and more how to do this still!

    One thing I would add is to communicate. I think older people have a bit of fear that a younger leader is going to “blow up the system” or make drastic changes and they won’t get a say in anything. So, in an attempt to earn their trust and maintain unity, one thing I try to do is remain transparent as much as possible as a leader, communicating often.

    How?
    ~my blog communicates somewhat openly, though many older people don’t get online still.
    ~at the end of services, we try to announce as much important info as possible.
    ~for very important announcements, I’ll write letters and mail them out.
    ~we hold quarterly business/informational meetings where I outline all upcoming ministry plans, our ministry heads talk about their areas, and we’ll field any questions that are asked.
    ~I try to visit with as many of our older people as possible, listening to them and understanding their needs. This is a great personal communication that many of them enjoy.

    • ronedmondson says:

      This is great stuff. I have a similar post tomorrow, because this subject keeps presenting itself. I hope you'll read it and add your thoughts there too… Thanks
      Twitter: Ronedmondson

  • Jardo Daco, says:

    Awesome Post!! This issue is what I am facing right now.I am dealing now members in our church who is much older than me and its really a real struggles!but your ideas inspires me.Great stuff,thank you.

    • ronedmondson says:

      Thanks Jardo. I will be praying for your situation. I have another post this week along these lines. Stay tuned.
      Twitter: Ronedmondson

  • Dr. Pawan Kumar says:

    In India the circumstances are quite different. But your way of dealing with the issue can work. We shall give it a try in our Sangati. In Our Eshu Bhakti Mandali we have 12 person older than our Acharaya Ji.
    Please put some light from oriental point of view and Hindus style of worshping God Almighty.

    • ronedmondson says:

      Thanks for your comment. I'm really not as familiar with Hindus culture. I write from a Christian perspective. Hopefully some will be transferable. God bless
      Twitter: Ronedmondson

  • Silly old people says:

    I started pastoring my current church when I was 22. The average age of the church was around 80, including most everyone in leadership positions. While this is a nice article, it is completely backwards to my situation. I am treated on a day to day basis as the "church grandson." One old lady told another old lady that the front steps needed to be swept off. Her response? "Get pastor to do it. He's just like our grandkids; they don't know what to do and you just have to tell them." In my defense, I have been practicing deliberate ignorance to encourage others to change lightbulbs, sweep steps, etc.

    I will tell people the how to solve a particular problem, and am treated as an idiot. When it works, they think it was their idea.

    They do not ask me bible questions, because I'm supposedly not old enough to have read the bible through and have found those answers, even though I read the bible through every year on my own for devotions.

    I have been poked in the face for suggesting moving the "church bible,"

    My wife has been commanded to purchase paint, then paint the handicap sign in front of the church.

    Old people ruin churches on a day to day basis. The sooner they leave, the quicker the church can grow. There is a great response whenever I lead modern music, but it is quickly snuffed by the hymn-sters.

    But, as the baptist pastor across the street told me, "In the end, we win. We live longer than them!"

    Amen.

    • ronedmondson says:

      I'm sorry you are in this situation. Life is short. I hope it doesn't last long. I will say though that this post probably doesn't apply to you. It's on leading people older and, I know you already know this, but you are the pastor of this church and not the leader. The people haven't given you this responsibility. God bless you in this
      Twitter: Ronedmondson

  • revtrev says:

    Ron.

    Great post. When I started as a senior pastor I was 25. My church had 9 retired pastors and missionary couples. Everyone in leadership was a leader of another group, business, or international organization.

    I learned the best way to lead them was to be patient until they thought it was their idea. They got the credit and we could move with the full backing of most people.

    It's honour others that works for me.

  • A great post Ron – thank you for sharing.
    My Experience
    In my career, I've always had at least one person reporting to me with more life experience. Many of the suggestions you make here, I learned the hard way and found very helpful. By grace, I've been pretty successful to date, with one distinct exception.

    The Exception
    I once had a direct report that was at least 30 years my senior. I respected his knowledge and experience, but unfortunately, he did not respect mine. I can honestly say that I tried everything I could think of to support this person and get help them align with our objectives, but I failed to do so. While I still hold myself accountable for that failed professional relationship, I am not sure what more I could have done.

    My Lesson
    So, if I have one thing to add, it would be this: No matter how hard you try, there may be an individual who does not want to support a younger leader. Likely there are more issues at the heart of their resistance, such as envy or pride. However, don't beat yourself up over it. You may need to find opportunities for these individuals to serve elsewhere. Whatever you do, don't let these individuals consume your energy to a point that it impacts others who are willing to support you.

    Great post Ron – thank you for sharing!
    Twitter: BLichtenwalner

  • […] Ron Edmondson – 7 ways to lead people older than you – Ron shares some wisdom on how to lead people who have some years on you, which if you’re like 95% of youth ministers will be just about everyone in the church besides the youth. […]

  • Bob Allen says:

    Very timely for me, too, Ron. While I don't supervise folks older, as a trainer I do work with people who do. We're actually dealing with a situation (not out of hand, yet) where a new, older field person is accountable to a much younger team leader who has 6 years more experience but in a totally different culture. I think this post will be helpful to the team leader. I hope you don't mind, but I plan to print this to a PDF file to distribute to our field leadership.

  • ronedmondson says:

    Thanks old man.
    Twitter: Ronedmondson

  • Rog Hill says:

    Good post young man! Actually, it is very good.

  • Ron this is solid advice and some I wish I would have had years ago. I got into church leadership at 23 and my first management position at work at 25. I've almost always led people older than me and I've had to learn a lot of these lessons the hard way.

    Great post!

  • Tom Jamieson says:

    Great thoughts Ron! I deal with this a lot in the church I pastor. I am 36 and the average age of our church membership is significantly older. Our worship leader is 20 years my senior and our Education Minister is a retired Ed man in his 80s who volunteers his time in our educational ministry. He has been my rock since becoming the church's pastor and I definitely value his leadership and insight. There have been many fires and obstacles I have avoided already because of him. Thanks for sharing this post!

    • ronedmondson says:

      Thanks Tom! You have some challenges with this dynamic to remain "the leader", but it sounds as if you are handling it well.
      Twitter: Ronedmondson

  • Laurinda says:

    I think this advice plays also in leading up in your organization! Shooting straight is really big in leading older or up.

  • @Daredub says:

    Great topic, great post. I like "learn form them". I think asking good questions is a key to understanding. Theology does not change from generation to generation, but methodology may. I think older leaders really respect younger leaders who are willing to take risks, and try new ways to reach people. Yet they have often been where a young leader is, and have unchanging wisdom to share. A lot of young leaders assume they know it all (or believe in a newer method) and disregard the wisdom of experience. When we came come to a place of agreement over the same heart for the gospel, then we can learn together from each generation, what and how to pass on God's wisdom. Leaders do need to lead, and older leaders love someone who shoots straight, doesn't play games, stand there ground, etc. Great encouragement Ron!

    • ronedmondson says:

      That's a great word! Thank you.
      Twitter: Ronedmondson

    • I like that Derek – theology does not change… but methodology may. This is something I've struggled with when discussing contemporary worship styles. To me, much of what Ron wrote here reflects the methodology of Jesus: He respected the elders and often quoted scripture. However, he communicated in the modern language and methodology. Great points – thank you for sharing Derek.
      Twitter: BLichtenwalner

  • Daniel says:

    Great thoughts, Ron. Yesterday I had a discussion about this with a young leader we are about to put in a position here at GP. I told him that was something that I struggled with since I was his age, too (19). I was taught to "respect my elders" so I had a hard time asking them to do stuff.
    Twitter: danieldossband

  • chaplainlc says:

    Excellent post. Every Praise & Worship leader in a church transitioning from traditional to contemporary worship should read and re-read this and apply these principles in the way they treat the "old" members. They should find the transition much smoother and certainly more God-honoring! Thanks for this wonderful insight!
    L. C. Campbell, Jr. Last Blog: Out of Balance? Expect the Bumps! http://www.chaplainlc.com

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ron Edmondson, Paul Wilson Jr, El LaGrew, Siddharth Patel, Chris Decker and others. Chris Decker said: RT @RonEdmondson: 7 Ways to Lead People Older than You http://bit.ly/b4GYxM […]

  • I'm 28 so most of the people I lead are older. I think that just being honest is key. People appreciate that. When I was in the car sales industry older people used to come and ask me questions about the vehicles, to be honest I could sell a car, but I didn't know much about them. I would say, I don't know, but I bet you know more than I do about the car. This really eased the tension.

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