Do leaders get better with age?

Do leaders get better with age? It’s not an easy question to answer, so let’s start with a different but very definitely related question: 

How important is it for a leader to look smart in the eyes of subordinates? 


Is your boss that person? Does he or she feel the need to look smart and never let their guard down? Could this person be you? For many in the business world, looking smart in the eyes of the world is very important. They feel it helps them get ahead, win arguments, win sales, and grow their business. But are they right?

What they don’t realize is that by labelling themselves as smart, they’re not only putting themselves in a box, they are potentially locking themselves in there for life. And as we’ll see, they often end up short-circuiting their company’s, and their own, growth trajectory in the process.

But let’s return to the original question — Do leaders get better with age? The knee-jerk response is that some do and some don’t. But the better question is, why? Why do some leaders become wiser as they age while others remain stagnant and rigid and closed off?

Stagnant leaders don’t know they are stagnant for the same reason bad people don’t know they’re bad. As I learned in screenwriting 101, true villains (in movies and in real life) see themselves as heroes of our own lives. When they struggle, they blame others for their plight. When they are punished, they never look inside for answers. Society is to blame, not them. Poor leaders see themselves as snakebitten heroes. Do you remember “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap of Sunbeam fame in the 1990s? He was brought in to cut expenses which meant cutting thousands of jobs everywhere he was hired. Chainsaw Al saw employees as liabilities, not assets. Not coincidentally, many of Sunbeam’s employees came to see themselves the exact same way, and the company folded in 2001.

Until they are brought face to face with reality — and some never are — poor leaders remain self-serving and vision-less. In contrast, wise leaders suffer through hard times like we all do, but instead of creating a stew of bitterness they learn from their mistakes and in the process stir up a deeper and richer understanding of life which they transfer into a vision for the future. They throw off the hard times and bounce back better and stronger than before. In short, they are resilient.

They have what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset. A “growth mindset” encourages a focus on personal effort rather than on intelligence or talent. You may not agree with Dweck’s theory, but her views are supported by decades of rigorous study and observation of how people, especially students, learn, perform and deal with setbacks.

Failure breeds more failure

Experiments with animals have shown that after repeated failures, most animals conclude that a situation is hopeless and often remain passive even when they can effect change—a state called learned helplessness. People operate the same way – but not all people.  The reason, Dweck discovered, lies in a person’s belief about why they failed. When a person attributes poor performance to a lack of effort, they remain unfazed and are able to weather the setback with a certain degree of resilience. But when they attribute their poor performance to lack of ability, however, they lose their motivation.

As Dweck puts it, a belief in fixed intelligence “makes people less willing to admit to errors or to confront and remedy their deficiencies.” Her research also shows that managers who have a fixed mind-set are less likely to seek or welcome feedback from their employees than are managers with a growth mind-set. This of course has far reaching consequences for leaders and managers who are seeking to motivate and inspire their subordinates. It has become a truism that managers who are transparent build employee trust, and inspiration is much more than giving an energizing stump speech once a year.

“35 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.” – Carol Dweck

Leadership consultant Joseph Folkman notes that everything a leader does, every day, impacts their employees. Take Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, for example. Both were highly successful entrepreneurs who also became business leaders. But both had to grow and change the way they led and managed in order to successfully transition from entrepreneurs to leaders of multi-billion dollar organizations.

During her research, Dweck observed that some students wanted to show off their ability while others want to increase their ability. It was clear that each group saw “ability” in a different way. The first group saw ability as a fixed quantity or attribute, while the other group saw it as a living, growing organism. Dweck put it this way: “If you want to demonstrate something over and over, it feels like something static that lives inside of you—whereas if you want to increase your ability, it feels dynamic and malleable.”

Dweck’s research proved that praising people for intelligence rather than for effort sapped their motivation rather than enhanced it. Wisdom comes from experience combined with the ability to learn from those experiences. If we are afraid to make mistakes we become less willing and able to learn and persist. And if we’re not persistent, if we don’t see life as a process of trial and error, we will not reach our full potential. We will succeed only in avoiding mistakes. But mistakes, and the way we handle them, let us grow. Avoid risks and we stunt our potential for growth. It won’t matter how much experience we have or how many hard times we’ve gone through we will be the same relentlessly narrow person we always were.

So do leaders get better with age? Yes, provided he or she is willing to give up a sense of innate superiority, understand they need to grow like everyone else, and come to accept that the greatest three word response in the English language is, “I don’t know.”

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