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What Is The Best Age To Lead?

June 7, 2019

One of the most desired characteristics in new hires is leadership. It’s no surprise then that many executives define leadership as the capacity to translate vision into reality.

The means by which leaders translate ideas into outcomes are varied: emotional and social intelligence, comfort with ambiguity and conflict and the ability to focus on key items that could develop or damage a desired outcome.

So, when tasked with identifying leadership in candidates, are there any clues that managers, team leads and executives can look for?

Where Are Leaders Found?

Recent research suggests that the answer may be more obvious than we think. In fact, while several mental faculties decline as we age, other cognitive abilities can stay stable or even improve.

In 2009, Denise Park, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Dallas, and Patricia Reuter-Lorenz at the University of Michigan set out to show that the brain has more flexibility than previously thought.

They posited that as the brain’s cognition runs into challenges it will find new ways to work around them. This flexibility was called the Scaffolding Theory of Aging and Cognition (STAC).

In other words an older person may use more regions of the brain to accomplish a task than a younger individual, but both people could do the job equally well.

Judgement Like Wine

As companies wrestle with how best to identify and work with experienced professionals, the cognitive benefits associated with experience are particularly interesting:

As adults accumulate more experience, the cognitive function associated with solving interpersonal or abstract problems often improves.

Further, the ability to value and perceive the future equally to the present generally improves with age.

Finally, the ability to regulate emotions and cope with difficult situations and negative feelings also gets better with age.

What does this mean for employers? According to Quartz at Work’s article on the research of Darlene Howard, a psychologist emerita at Georgetown University, it means that for most people, the ideal time to tackle leadership roles is in their 50’s.

What about for boomers and experienced professionals? Although physical limitations increase as retirement draws near, seasoned individuals increasingly have the mental faculties required to lead others through abstract, complex and emotionally fatiguing problems.

Emerging science has proven that there is room to excel in the workforce for the 50+ crowd despite what the world might of those approaching retirement.

For the skeptics, a look at the CEOs of the top 10 companies in the world (Walmart, Apple, Amazon, General Motors, Exxon Mobil,CVS Health, Mckesson, UnitedHealth Group and Berkshire Hathaway) shows that nine of these companies had CEOs over 50 with seven CEOs in this list being between 50 and 60.

Whether it’s a short-term hire, a project lead or an executive, science seems to be showing that wisdom works.

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