September 21, 2017

Do older leaders do less leading?

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There is remarkably little research on how age affects leaders. Therefore, a recent study provides a most interesting look at how and why leadership behaviours might change with age. In brief, the researchers questioned 106 German university professors and found that their ‘legacy beliefs’, which changed with age, were found to negatively impact their level of motivational leadership behaviours. Legacy beliefs were defined as ‘…individuals’ convictions about whether they and their actions will be remembered, have an enduring influence, and leave something behind after death.’

Researchers Zacher, Rosing and Frese are quick to point out that their study of the 106 professors and their research assistants has numerous limitations. Nevertheless, they found that as professors age, they rate themselves as less optimistic about their legacy. The data from their assistants shows that the professors were seen to exhibit fewer transformational and transactional leadership behaviours the older they get. (However, there was no evidence that passive avoidance, a negative leadership dimension, increased.)

Of course, explaining these effects is speculative and theoretical. But the authors write:

We suggest that younger leaders derive the meaning and purpose for their active engagement in the leadership role from other sources than legacy beliefs, such as future career opportunities. However, as leaders grow older, these motivators become less important. Older leaders with low legacy beliefs lack an important motivator for showing active engagement in the leadership role. In contrast, older leaders with high legacy beliefs are able to maintain an active leadership engagement because they believe that their actions have a purpose as they will have an enduring impact in the future.

If future studies confirm that leadership behaviours are likely to change with age, it seems to me that the implications are substantial. Should we, for example, reconsider how we assess, motivate, develop and make promotions? And what about the possible legal implications of treating older people differently from younger leaders? Might it become common for senior leaders to move into other roles so that the organisation can still capitalise on their experience and talent, but in a different way? Would their contributions be more valuable in mentoring, consulting, monitoring and problem-solving roles and less valuable in startup or turnaround settings? Perhaps in such modified roles they could pass on their skills and knowledge, forming the core of the so-called ‘learning organisation’. And in doing so, perhaps they would also bolster their own legacy beliefs to the benefit of themselves, their followers and the organisation.

With the increasing age at which people retire, the problem will only become more acute for our organisations and their leadership functions.

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