7 Ways to Lead People Older than You

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 and 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.

Today, even though I have aged considerably since then, I continue to be in a position where people older than me, with more experience than I have in many areas, report to me by position. Since I work with many pastors and church planters who are starting out in their ministry and will likely encounter the same experience with either volunteers or paid staff, I am hoping this will be helpful information.

Here are 7 tips for leading people older than you:

Recognize the difference – 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. (For more about that idea read THIS POST.)

Give credit for wisdom – 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 that wisdom.

Stand your ground, but do it respectfully – If you are in the position, then do your job. They were probably raised in a generation where they expect you to lead, 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.

Learn from them – Be honest when you don’t know how to do something, such as leadership or handling difficult issue or people. If the older person knows how, let them show you. It’s okay that you have some things to learn. We all do. The older a person becomes the more in tune he or she becomes with the fact that no one knows everything.

Don’t play games 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. People with life experience can usually see through that type behavior.

Shoot straight with them – The fact is that the older team member will probably have handled worse situations. The age and maturity will make them less intimidated by you. Be honest with them (but respectful) and you will receive honest reactions.

Be patient with them – Sometimes the older team member may not be as culturally, technologically, or trend savvy, but he or she will make up for it by adding to the team in other ways. They may need a different form of communication or you may need to explain something in a different context.

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. Today there are several people older than me who serve on our church staff. I value their input and the maturity they bring to our team. One in particular has been a friend for many years. He consistently reminds me of the experience he brings to our organization.

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

I also wrote 8 Ways to Lead People Younger Than You.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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51 thoughts on “7 Ways to Lead People Older than You

  1. Someone essentially lend a hand to make seriously articles I’d state. That is the first time I frequented your website page and to this point? I surprised with the analysis you made to make this particular submit incredible. Great activity!

  2. 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

  3. 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!

  4. 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)

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

  7. 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.

    • 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

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

    • 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

  10. 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.

    • 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

  11. 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.

  12. 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

  13. 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.

  14. 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!

  15. 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!

  16. 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!

    • 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

  17. 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

  18. 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

  19. 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.