Is there such a thing as too young to lead?

11 January 2018 -


Young workers can bring fresh ideas and perspectives into a stagnating workplace, and can revitalise fledgling industries. But, at what point do these young workers become viable business leaders?

Guest blogger Scott Margerrison

Despite fluctuations in the economy, the basic principles of career progression have remained reassuringly unchanged.

Most of us start our working lives in the most junior position a company offers. We’re given the promise that dedication, hard work and determination will eventually result in promotions or pay rises. After years of giving it our all, we eventually work our way up to management and finally find ourselves in a leadership position. 

Conventional wisdom would suggest that the longer an employee has worked in their field, the more suitable they are to fulfil a leadership role.

However, research by Zenger Folkman has posed an interesting challenge to this notion. The company analysed 360-degree feedback data for more than 51,000 leaders and found that there is a steady decline in leadership effectiveness for workers of 35 years old and onwards.

Under 35s are purportedly at the apex of leadership. But, is there such a thing as too young to lead?

The call for youth leadership

When faced with the question of young leaders, the consensus seems to be that younger employees are simply not ready for leadership roles.

Leadership development training for adolescents is notably scarce, with most development programmes targeting adults or those already in managerial positions. But, while investment in youth leadership remains lacking, the call for young leaders continues to gain momentum.

Sarah Sladek, a talent economy influencer, says, “it’s time for businesses to embrace young leadership”.

She suggests that older people in leadership roles are the very reason why companies are struggling to grow in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Employers need to “invest in the next generation of talent,” she says, “[to] reverse the decline, resolve the conflicts and ultimately prevent our economy from failing.”

As several of our most well-known serial entrepreneurs – including Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson – have demonstrated, being young is no barrier to being an extremely astute leader. Bezos was 30 when he started Amazon, while Branson was only 20 when he created Virgin Mail Order, the first of many Virgin-branded products.

Thirty years on, a new generation of young workers must face the question of whether to lead or to follow.

Overcoming the millennial stereotype

Despite the call for young leaders reaching a crescendo across sectors, millennials – or people born between the 1980s and the early 2000s – continue to face discrimination in the workplace.

According to one survey, employers are reluctant to hire people under 30, while a study on age discrimination in the workplace suggests the youngest workers are at least as likely to be discriminated against as the oldest workers.

Although they’re forced to fight unwarranted discrimination (and labels such as lazy, unpredictable, unprofessional and entitled), determined young workers continue to tell promising stories of leadership success.

Jessica McKellar from Dropbox, Cecilia Stallsmith from Slack, and Kylan Nieh from LinkedIn were 29, 27, and 24 years of age respectively when they gained senior leadership positions at their respective companies.

Nurturing young leaders

Of course, young people can only achieve their fullest potential to lead when their leadership skills are nurtured through training programmes and mentoring. And, as Dave Anderson of Anderson Leadership Solutions emphasises, promising employees must be trained in leading people before they are promoted to a leadership position.

Potential young leaders must be trained to:

  • Become fully aware of their strongest skills and attributes and how to leverage them
  • Identify crucial skills gaps and weaknesses that need to be bridged and improved
  • Connect with both junior and senior staff, and become a conduit between them
  • Become confident in their decisions and learn from mistakes
  • Embrace the fresh perspectives that stem directly from their relative lack of experience
  • With dedicated resources and future-focused training, employers can unlock the leadership potential of any member of their workforce.

Access to the right training, at the right time, for the right person can mean no worker is ever too young – or too old – to lead.

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