When it comes to being a successful business leader, is age just a number? Or does experience count for more? We look at some of the challenges facing entrepreneurs, young and old today.
Being a young leader is nothing new. Throughout history there are plenty of examples. King Tutankhamen took to the throne when he was just nine years old. And William Pitt the Younger became Britain’s youngest ever Prime Minister at the tender age of 24.
Pitt’s youth was met with the same scepticism as it would likely be today. Yet he went on to dominate British politics.
One person who understands the challenges of being a young leader is Jacob Hill. He first became involved in business at 16, and soon realised that being a young boss, and managing his friends who had become staff was difficult.
He founded The Lazy Camper when he was 19, offering a complete outdoor camping kit to festival goers. A string of accolades followed. But when he ran into financial difficulty, Jacob found himself on the wrong path trying to repay his debts by selling drugs at a music festival. He has since served a prison sentence.
“The lads in there weren’t what you expect prisoners to be like, with low self esteem issues, who’d made mistakes and wanted to get back into life. Finding a job was the hardest point of all of this,” says Jacob.
Now with the help of a supportive mentor he’s building an agency to help ex-offenders get jobs. In spite of his experience, Jacob’s entrepreneurial spirit and, indeed maturity, shines through.
History also has many examples of leaders whose success came much later in life. Cory Aquino was in her 50s when she went from shy housewife to the first female president of the Philippines. And Harlan Sanders, Colonel Sanders of KFC, was 66 when he started sharing his style of cooking and created his fried chicken empire.
Despite their age, neither had experience of running a country or building a franchise. What they did have was the tenacity, determination and pioneering spirit to take on the challenge.
Are we too hung up on age?
Ava Waits is a young inspirational speaker, business mentor and trainer. She has seen too many business owners judged by their age – including herself.
For example, while a 12 year old girl is celebrated for selling her creative makes on etsy and invited to TED talks, questions are raised about the experience and abilities of business leaders in their early 20s.
“These people are fresh out of school where they have access to new things that have come into play,” she says. “New studies, new experiments, new ways of living. And sometimes that can be a little bit scary for other people, to see someone doing something in such a new way… that sometimes it holds a mirror to that person and reflects back on their own places where they’ve struggled.”
She believes we should celebrate more 12-year-old entrepreneurs, trust those in their 20s and honour people in their middle or latter years who step out to do something different.
Interestingly, Age UK has cited a rise in the number of ‘olderpreneurs’ who are setting up business in their 60s and beyond.
“What really matters is that you can give your audience, your customers, and clients an experience they’re really seeking. I’ve coached people from 18 years old up to about 70,” says Ava.
Natural leaders defy age
Being a leader goes way beyond someone’s date of birth. It’s about a person’s character, passion, talent and ability to motivate others.
John Quincy Adams once said: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
Tellingly, he didn’t mention age. Because if someone has natural leadership qualities, it doesn’t matter.