Several years ago, I watched a film that I would one day live. No, I did not attend Hogwarts. I avoided “mean girls” who reminded me of Lindsay Lohan, and I did not fall in love with a rich girl whose father tried to shoot me.
The film, entitled In Good Company, starred Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid, and Scarlett Johansson. In Good Company tells the story of a middle-aged advertising executive (Quaid) whose world is turned upside down when his company is bought out. He is replaced and subordinated under a new department head (Grace) who is half his age. Grace ultimately falls in love with Quaid’s daughter (Johansson), complicating their already rocky relationship.
The workplace tension centers around Grace’s inexperience, and Quaid’s awkward role as his “wingman.” The film follows a fairly formulaic path. It failed to win any major awards and did not come close to breaking $100 million at the box office. However, ten years later, I am still thinking about it because our generation is living this film.
Many of us have stepped into roles (whether as volunteers or employees) where we are supervising and leading people who are older than us (sometimes much older than us). The first time we become the “boss” is unnerving enough. Things get really awkward when we oversee people who could be our parents or grandparents.
How do you make friends and succeed when working with and leading those who are older than you? Through a lot of failure and frustration (like Topher Grace’s character), I have learned many lessons. Three of those lessons could prove invaluable to you.
First, humility disarms. Millennials have a reputation for being overconfident, entitled, and cocky. Whether that reputation and those stereotypes are fair and accurate, our generation often gets a cold shoulder and a frosty reception because of the attitude older people expect from us. However, when we humble ourselves and approach others (regardless of age) with a posture that considers others better than ourselves, walls begin to come down.
In Philippians 2:3-4, Paul writes, “Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interest of others.” (HCSB)
When we embrace an others-first mindset, we communicate that we are leaders worth following. We earn trust by communicating that we are focused on serving instead of being served.
Second, teachability opens the door to mutual respect. A mentor of mine once taught me, “Scott, you can learn something from everyone.” A spirit of curiosity and a posture of learning advances the respect we communicate to others. While we may have ideas and a passion to change and fix what needs to shift for the future, we must communicate an open posture that seeks to learn from anyone and everyone around us.
During my final semester of seminary, I was required to form a personal “review board” within my ministry context to evaluate and provide feedback on my leadership. One of the members of that team pulled me aside for a private conversation. He graciously identified a weakness in my relational skills and leadership of adults who were older than me–I lacked teachability. He challenged me to pursue meetings with 5 older men in our church over the next 6 weeks. He encouraged me to buy them lunch or coffee and seek their wisdom. Of these 5 men, one was in his 60s, and the rest were in their 70s.
While none of these men became a formal mentor, the experience was a powerful one. I still remember at least one item from each conversation and those meetings were the beginning of increased respect and trust within the eyes of the older population in my church. While I did not agree with these men in every area we discussed, I took a nugget of wisdom away from each conversation that helped me grow faster than if I had not sought their wisdom and experience.
Cultivating a teachable spirit in your twenties and thirties enables you to glean from the experience of others. Your wisdom can surpass your experience because you’re mining the experience of others. Leaning into others with a teachable spirit communicates you believe their perspective and experience has worth and value, which leads us to our third value.
Third, it is essential to honor those who have gone before you. In his talk during the Catalyst Conference in October 2010, Craig Groeschel challenged the next generation of church leaders to honor those who had gone before them. He said, “Because the younger generation is entitled to so much, they do not honor well.”
Honoring those who are older than you is difficult because we often confuse honor and respect. According to Craig, “Respect is earned, honor is given.” In the Ten Commandments, we are commanded to honor our parents. Many of our parents have done things that cost them respect in our eyes, but they are still our parents. Your boss or pastor may not seem like the most respectable person, but they hold a place in your life that deserves honor.
Honoring can be as simple as being unselfish. When I preach to an audience that is dominated by an older population, I dress differently than if I was speaking on a college campus. I want to honor their tradition of wearing your “Sunday best.” I do not wear a three-piece suit, but something as easy as throwing a dress jacket over a black polo and classy jeans has earned me more credit than I expected. In leadership meetings, I have been able to spotlight and compliment older leaders in my church who are living out the kind of values I am working to introduce. Sure, there are younger leaders who embody those values too, but praising a peer is expected. Honoring and praising my elders is sadly unexpected, yet very powerful.
Whether you manage adults that are old enough to be your parents or pastor a church whose population were all married before you were born, you need to learn to navigate these potentially awkward relationships. Do not follow in the path of Carter Duryea (Topher Grace’s character from In Good Company). “Faking it until you make it” robs you of the gift that is intergenerational friendships and mentoring. Embracing humility, teachability, and honor can go a long way in furthering your influence and leadership. These three qualities set the stage for the mutual trust and respect that creates a strong, unified community in your business, organization or church.
When Scott Savage laughs, people turn their heads in the next zip code. Scott is a writer and a pastor living in Prescott, Arizona. He is married to a lawyer and is the father of three. He blogs at scottsavagelive.com.