If you lead people who are much older than you, wielding your authority won’t get you very far. It’s smarter to ask for input from more experienced employees.
The U.S. military has learned to gain buy-in from longtime personnel, according to Jerry David, an Air Force chief master sergeant. Over his 41-year military career, he has seen an evolution in how officers manage personnel.
During the Vietnam era, David noticed that junior officers would bask in their authority. They bossed around older, more seasoned subordinates. And they liked to show off how much they knew rather than admit what they didn’t know—and solicit input from others.
“That’s how a lot of them got killed in Vietnam, by not listening to the older and much more experienced troops,” David says.
Starting in the 1980s, David witnessed a transformation in the way the military trained its young leaders. The emphasis gradually shifted to listening and relationship-building. Junior officers now learn that no one expects them to know everything. They are encouraged to gather insight from their enlistees before making big decisions.
As David once told a young lieutenant who was his superior, “Sir, you can do anything you want. Just ask me first.”
Current military practice is to partner young lieutenants with older, more experienced sergeants. Even though the lieutenant outranks the sergeant, they must collaborate as teammates and learn from each other to achieve mutual goals.
The lesson: Strong leaders derive authority from earning the respect of their team, not by exercising power over others in an imperious manner.
— Adapted from Managing the Older Worker, Peter Cappelli and Bill Novelli, Harvard Business Review Press.
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