I was curious to hear the other day, and in fact, I heard it twice from two different people, was that one of the challenges that they had when leading their team was that they were the youngest in the group.
I found this fascinating because it was obviously a mindset issue that both women had. And these are women that I consider to be really top notch. They are both exceptional educators, exceptional teachers, and they’d stepped up into a middle-leadership role. They are really well respected in their field. They are well read, well practiced. And here they were doubting their leadership ability because they are the youngest in their team, even with the mantle of ‘leader’ of that team.
Both times I heard these comments, I resisted the urge to say, “Oh gosh, how ridiculous. I was 30 when I was a principal, 40 when I was leading a really large school in complex circumstances. Gosh, if I can do it, so can you.”
But as I said, I resisted that urge.
Instead I asked the question, “What is it that you think your team needs that you can’t give them because you’re young?”
What transpired, after a bit of conversation, was not that they couldn’t serve their team, but that they felt like they needed to have all the answers. And that somehow, because they were only young, they didn’t have all of the answers. I then had this same conversation with an older, more experienced leader, who had been working as a principal for many years. And I said to her, “Kate, do you have all the answers now that you’ve been doing this for 30 years?” And she said, “Oh gosh, no. The more I know, the less I actually know and the more I realise I have to learn. But I’ve put aside that belief that I have to be the font of all knowledge. And now I trust what I have, and recognise that the answer is sometimes found elsewhere.”
So again, I asked the younger leader, “Do you think you’ll ever have all the answers? Do you think you’ll ever have what it is that your team needs? What do you think it is that you’re going to need or have or be in 10 or 15 years that you don’t have now?” And again, it was pretty obvious that this issue was more about mindset, and less about ability. This was more about wanting to get it right, be perfect, not about showing up and being honest and vulnerable.
I talk a lot in my workshops about the voices in your head, the ‘inner critic’. The mean girl who is constantly tripping you up and pointing out your flaws, tricking you into thinking that you can’t do what it is that you want to do. That kind of judging, nasty, critical mean girl is constantly finding fault. This is the same mean girl who says “You’re not as good as you need to be because you’re not old enough”. This is the same mean girl that shows up as an Impostor Syndrome. “You couldn’t possibly be good enough at this job because you’re not old enough.” We really need to find ways to re-frame what it is that makes us good enough. In the case of the person I was talking to, she applied for the position she wanted on merit. In the selection process, she was the most meritorious, meaning she was the most suitable, experienced and knowledgeable candidate. If this is not worthy, then what is? If this is not good enough, then what is?
So my advice is to catch those mean girl voices. Catch it when your self critic is tripping you up and questioning you and poking fun at you. Listening to those voices, catching what it is that they’re saying to you and re-framing it. So now, “I’m not the oldest person in this room, but I have something to offer.” And now, “I don’t have all the answers. But I might be able to find them”. And now, “I don’t have all the answers. But maybe you do. And maybe if we work together as a team, we can share the knowledge that we have, and share our experience and make it better for everybody.”
Many years ago, I worked with a much older lady, who had previously been the leader of a team I was in. But she’d stood down because she was getting ready for retirement. I do remember her saying quite clearly to me, “The new broom sweeps clean, but the old broom knows where to find the dirt.” At the time, as a young leader, I took this, or at least my self critic took this as a huge insult. I took this to mean that the old broom did a better job. But now, with 20 years of hindsight, I think what she meant was, there are benefits to being the new brain, and there are benefits to being the old brain. It’s not an either/or situation. It’s an and. Say goodbye to your inner critic. While she might be there to keep you safe, and maybe to stop you making mistakes, she can also be there stifling your ability to do and to move forward. She can lead to procrastination and self doubt. All of which are the enemy of progress and change. And all of which hamper us being the best that we can be.