Leadership, Legacy and Learning

I just finished leading the first week of a course by the same name as today’s blog. It is a pilot program designed to facilitate and accelerate the transfer of leadership from one generation to the next. Most large organizations and institutions are confronting an unprecedented turnover of executives and managers primarily due to the wave of Boomer retirements. This is not just a personnel problem—it is also a strategic concern because how well we prepare the next generation to take the reins of governance will have an impact on just about everything for the next 15 to 20 years. Our leaders will be younger and less experienced, as well as having less ‘corporate memory’ to draw on.

Of course, experience and maturity do not in and of themselves assure wise leadership. The retiring population can also walk away with a host of bad habits, resignation, cynicism and arrogance. So how can the younger generation distinguish the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’ and how do they keep the best and let go of the rest?

The approach we are developing is based on giving the younger generation the choice and responsibility for what they learn from those who are older or more senior. We are encouraging the next generation of leaders to ‘pull’ for what they need from us, rather than our generation ‘pushing’ whatever we think the young should know for the future.

One of the things we’re discovering is that the distinction between generations of leaders in many organizations is not necessarily about age. A ‘senior’ executive might be younger than a ‘junior’ executive; consequently, “passing the torch” has more to do with how we ‘see the world’ than it does with knowledge or even ‘know how’. Wisdom isn’t a function of what we’ve done in the past, so much as a compassionate understanding of how we’ve learned from what we have accomplished and how capable we are of using what we’ve learned to make the best decisions going forward.

The distinction of Eldering being about intergenerational collaboration is really clear in this kind of an organizational context. The fact is neither the senior executives nor the junior executives know what will be needed in the future. Most of us have succeeded by solving problems. In a world of accelerating change, this mindset is dangerous insofar as the solutions are obsolete before we implement them.

It is very evident that we must now “stand in each other’s shoes”. To do so, we must learn to listen not only to what each other has to say, but also to the context of our communication. We must develop powerful and trusting relationships that are grounded in vision and commitment and then learn how to ‘co-create’ the future together.

One thing is crystal clear from the course so far. Unless and until we are mutually more committed to the possibilities we share than we are to being right about our point of view, we’re all doomed to more of the same. The good news is that most of us agree that no one knows what the future will bring or what to do about most of our thornier problems. This makes it a bit easier to set our egos aside and begin to connect with each other and communicate in a more authentic and collaborative way.

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