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Age and Leadership: The Wisdom of Elders and Elephants

Why we prefer older leaders for stability and younger leaders for change

Consider this. Whereas most political leaders around the world achieve their position in office when they are well in their forties, many of the world’s best known revolutionary leaders were considerably younger when they came to prominence.

Here are the last four presidents of the United States and the age at which they took office:

Bush sr. 64, Clinton: 46; Bush jr. 54; Obama: 47.

Here are some of the world’s best known revolutionary leaders and the age at which they started to rule: Fidel Castro (33), Napoleon (30), Emiliano Zapata (31).

A similar age gap is found for leaders in business. Whereas the majority of CEOs of the 500 Fortune companies are between 50 and 59 years old, entrepreneurial leaders tend to be considerably younger, with more than half of them being younger than 35.

What is going on here? Are there age biases in leadership emergence and if so why do they exist? Psychologists will tell you that age is an important aspect of person perception. Age is one of the first things we infer when we look at a face and we have a keen interest in guessing people’s age when we first meet them.

So far leadership scientists have not been terribly interested in questions regarding age and leadership. This is an oversight for various reasons. First, humans tend to live longer so there will be more people of old age around than ever before in our history. Second there seems to be a general trend towards endorsing younger leaders in business and politics. So what does age tell us about implicit leadership abilities?

We recently started a research program looking at age and leadership from an evolutionary psychology perspective. We are particularly interested in what implicit judgments people make about younger versus older leaders. We predicted that age would matter in leadership judgments.

First we thought that age can be seen as a cue for wisdom so whenever groups encounter problems that require some knowledge about norms, values and old ways of doing things (traditions) we would expect them to endorse an older leader.

This idea is partly informed by the animal literature. In elephants the oldest individual in the herd, the matriarch, leads the herd across the desert to a waterhole that no one knows about except her. So it is in the interest of the herd to follow the oldest member if they want to survive. But of course elephants do not have Google Maps and neither did we humans before a decade ago. Other research shows that as people get older they become better at thinking about social conflicts, and so does their crystallized intelligence – combining knowledge from various sources.

So age might be a cue for wisdom.

But then when would we want to pick a younger leader? One obvious situation would be when old knowledge no longer applies, because we are confronted with new challenges and we have to rely on new information. Currently many societies undergo rapid changes, for instance, in technology, new resources, migrations, etcetera. That means that we want leaders who know the new ways of doing things. Indeed younger individuals come up with more creative solutions, and have more fluid intelligence than older people -- this is the kind of intelligence that wins you a Nobel Prize.

In a recent set of studies -- which just came out in the Leadership Quarterly* -- we looked at leadership preferences for older versus younger looking leaders via using a face morph technology (see Figure). For each pair of faces (young vs. old) we gave a scenario, either involving economic stability or technological change. Our participants then had to choose between each of the two faces as their leader. As we predicted, people preferred the younger looking leader for change and the older looking leader for stability.

In a final study we added a twist. The scenario had to do with environmental change and innovation. We reasoned that younger looking leaders might get an edge when it would be important for societies to move the economy from non-renewable to renewable resources -- something that many societies today are struggling with. This is indeed what we found.

When we are looking for green leaders our prototype shifts towards the younger generation. This is good news, of course, for the current crop of leadership talent in society.

It looks as if when businesses and societies are keen to come up with new ways of organizing themselves, they shift their preference to younger leaders. Yet although they may have the stamina, and ideas to innovate business and society, they may be lacking in the one thing that many organizations still need. It is this crazy little thing called wisdom.

We should perhaps not dismiss too easily the wisdom of elders even in the age of Google Maps.

Mark van Vugt is co-author of "Naturally Selected: the Evolutionary Science of Leadership"

Follow Mark on twitter: @ProfMarkvugt

* Spisak, Grabo, Arvey, Van Vugt. The age of exploration and exploitation: Younger-looking leaders endorsed for change and older-looking leaders endorsed for stability, The Leadership Quarterly (2014),

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