Is Age Bias in Leadership Real?

in Perspectives

During a recent business networking reception in Chicago, I met Charles, an old friend of mine who until few weeks back was a senior executive of an IT company focused on hospitality solutions in the Midwest. Over a glass of wine, he shared that his company CEO was making changes in the executive management team to grow the organization – that he is ousting the older generation and trying to bring in younger employees to lead the organization. My friend had been with the company for more than 20 years and wanted to spend rest of his professional life helping the company grow and innovate. I could see the pain in his eyes that showed the bitterness and sense of being deprived of the opportunity.

 I started thinking, ‘what is going on in the business world?’ Are we seeing the emergence of age bias in leadership – and if so why do they exist? Most psychologists will tell you that age is an important aspect of how one perceives another person. Age is one of the first things we infer when we look at a face, and we have a keen interest in guessing people’s age when we first meet them.

In my experience, I have not heard of any management or leadership guru who has been terribly interested in questions regarding age and leadership. In my opinion, the leadership age topic is a recent idea. It seems like of some consultant desired to create a new consulting offering for organizations to help them create succession planning – replacing older generation leaders with newer generation leaders. CEOs adopt this new consulting offering and spend millions of dollars to change their leadership.

However, in an age where humans are living longer than ever thanks to innovations in medical science, many older leaders are fitter than ever before. In sports, politics and business, we are seeing people extending their professional careers. Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Tom Brady are all great examples of fit and successful athletes playing longer than their average opponent. Warren Buffett and Roger Penske, well past the age of 70, are leading Fortune 500 companies.

I started thinking about how I would employ the opportunity to make changes in my organization to accelerate its growth. Would I overhaul my current management team to a newer, younger one with the assumption that younger people bring in energy and a different thought process? My definitive answer is NO. I truly believe that every successful company should have a mix of stability, energy and innovative ideas.

I have seen people making implicit judgments about older versus younger leadership. When a group of people is struggling to solve a problem or navigate through a tough situation, they always look at the more experienced leader to help them. This was true when I started my job and it is true today. I still remember the story that my mother used to tell me about how the oldest elephant in herd guides everyone to a waterhole in a jungle, which no one knows except him. In my first job, I went to the most senior looking leader for help solving my programming problems.

In addition, younger leaders are preferred over the older leaders whenever there are rapid changes in technology or business that requires new way of working that the organization does not have the ability to adapt. The younger leadership may have newer ides and fluid intelligence. These leaders come with greater innovation and newer methods for implementing change and increasing agility. As my son puts in simple terms, the next generation is always smarter than the previous because they always have access to next generation tools, processes and technology to solve problems. To that, I always respond by saying that it’s the previous generation that builds the tools to empower the next generation.

I predict that smart CEOs will start looking at mix of younger leaders for change and older leaders for stability. Good CEOs don’t fall into the trap of replacing the older leaders with new ones just because of age.

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