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John Baldoni
Leadership author

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

Finding a place for wisdom

Q: When he died this week, Robert Byrd, who was a frail 92, had represented West Virginia in the Senate for more than 50 years. Is it generally a good idea for top leaders in any sector to serve that long, or that late in life? Given the common instinct to hang on, should limits be imposed?

Age is not simply a state of mind. Ask anyone over 60 and he or she will tell you that physical decline is very real. Decline, however, does not mean decrepitude. "The secret of genius," wrote Aldous Huxley, "is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm." We all know people in their later years who seem to have a brighter and more optimistic outlook on life, not to mention more energy, than folks decades younger.

Therefore, there should not be an age limit to leadership but there should be limits to service. Remember Winston Churchill was a magnificent war leader in his 70s but he was a less than effective prime minister in his 80s. Age and infirmity had caught up with him. This is not simply true of politicians. Too many family-owned businesses suffer when the patriarch fails to yield control to the next generation.

Setting those limits is a very tricky proposition. The measure of leadership effectiveness should be an ability to do the job, and do it so that the organization continues to benefit from the leader's ability to perform.

A measure of leadership is legacy. Knowing when it is time to go is part of the leadership proposition. A leader who hangs on too long ruins his or her legacy. Elected officials can be ousted out by voters; judges can be impeached; and CEOs can be fired. None are pleasant endings for once successful leaders but such leaders have no one to blame but themselves if they let their desire for power supersede their ability to serve.

Legacy is essential to leadership but so too are two other attributes, both which come with experience: one is courage, the other is wisdom. It takes guts to grow old. Your body does not work as well as it once did. You may not be as beautiful or as handsome as you were in your youth. You may also suffer ailments that hinder mobility or enjoyment, but those elder citizens who do persevere demonstrate the courage it takes to face the declining years. Such resilience can be a lesson to one in a leadership position. Leaders will always be challenged, and sometimes knocked flat. There is no shame in being knocked down; it is what you do next that matters.

Wisdom is the other benefit that comes with age, at least to those who pay attention. The great benefit of wisdom may be in perspective, an ability to perceive the long view, chiefly because you have been around a long time. Such a perspective can be essential to a leader who is faced with crises du jour. It is often hard to break free of the here and now to reflect on the longer term. That is where wisdom enters. Those with it make time for it.

Age can be a hindrance to leadership but that does not mean old leaders should disappear. "I could not, at any age, be content to take my place in a corner by the fireside and simply look on," said Eleanor Roosevelt.

There is a tradition in Japanese companies of promoting their most senior executives to an advisory board, one that does not have operational authority but is available to provide counsel. While such boards can be impediments to change, having a super-annuated network of time-tested leaders can be a wonderful resource for not only senior executives but emerging leaders too. Such elders can have the opportunity to remain relevant, the greatest fear of many in power, and in the process mentor current and future leaders.

So while age may be an impediment to executive ability, the courage and wisdom that accompany age can be of value to those in charge today.

By John Baldoni

 |  June 28, 2010; 3:08 PM ET
Category:  Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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