The 100 year-old leader

In the “The 100-year Life – Living and Working in an Age of Longevity”, Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott examine the implications of the increasing likelihood that many more of us will live to 100 years old. Against that background of increasing life expectancy, they overlay the collapse of the traditional three stages of life, namely education; work; and retirement. It was while reading this book that I connected some of the recent conversations I’ve been having with CEOs with the prospect of them never actually ‘retiring’.

So I asked myself – what might a leader be doing at 100 years old?

On a personal level I went through this particular epiphany a few years ago when I resigned my long-term position as a senior leader in public service and set out on new career route as a leadership consultant, and, more recently, as the owner of my own business – at a time when most people my age were looking towards retirement.

The idea of still working at the age of 100 – if I’m spared (as my granny used to say) – doesn’t fill me with dread; whereas the idea of living for another 40 years without any gainful employment fills me with absolute horror.

Having said that I find it fascinating to have observed so many leaders during my career who spent so much their time protecting their end-point ‘legacy’: so much so, that their leadership behaviour was unduly influenced by the fear of their legacy being undermined.

Manfred F.R Kets de Vries wrote about this in a compelling essay entitled ‘The Retirement Syndrome’, where he described the difficulties many CEOs have in ‘letting go’ and their attempts to cling on to power and authority in the latter stages of their careers in order to protect their legacy.

De Vries captures the essence of this in what he called the ‘The Edifice Complex’, where legacy can be compared to a concrete structure that will live on long after the CEO has departed. I’ve observed this in action so many times throughout my career where leaders confuse structures with cultures – and see their hard won edifice quickly crumble to dust under its own weight the moment they are not there to prop it up.

Contrast that with the leader who instead of looking backwards or being locked into the present is looking towards their next horizon and excited about how they can use their talents and passions in a new environment.I’ve explored this idea a previous essay and there can be no doubt that legacy can only live on those whom we have influenced or enthused.

If obsession with legacy is one thing to overcome then for many others it’s the tyranny of the pension pot. I cannot begin to number the many leaders I’ve encountered who have clung onto positions they should have moved on from many years before, simply because of the need to fill the pension pot. Such a motivation to continue working simply undermines their effectiveness and destroys the person’s enthusiasm from the inside out.

The challenge for so many people in such circumstances is that they see the retirement age as the precipitous edge of a flat world, rather than a multitude of options where they could make use of their experience and wisdom.

The final challenge facing those leaders who are locked into their current senior leadership positions not by financial reasons but by the status and power it affords them. Such individuals enjoy (perhaps unwittingly) the deference and reference that their role provides – even those who proclaim that status isn’t important to them.

I reckon the key to overcoming this mindset comes from recognising that we should not ever define ourselves as a ‘retired *******’ (fill in the blanks with whatever you are). My most memorable learning point in this regard came a few years ago when I wrote about a great friend as a “retired headteacher”. She quickly cut me down to size when she then listed the range of roles and responsibilities she now occupied and quite correctly informed me that she was so much more that simply a ‘retired headteacher’, i.e. she didn’t define herself by what she had done – but by what she did now!

I believe that it is this capacity to leave the past behind that characterises great leaders, and particularly those leaders who will make a significant contribution in their final decades.

In contrast to their younger peers, most senior citizen leaders are not looking to move up the career ladder. They want to use their skills and wisdom to make a difference in ways that might not have been possible in their long-term leadership position.

So, in conclusion what might be the key lesson for younger leaders from thinking about themselves as a 100 year-old leader?

Well I believe the impact of thinking yourself into the shoes of yourself as the 100 year-old leader could have a dramatic influence upon how you might actually conduct yourself as a leader in the here and now. For as opposed to seeing this – the present – as the end point we place it in a much longer and fluid context where our relationships, wisdom and judgement have much greater significance than the ephemeral power and status that comes during some stages of our careers.

Armed with such knowledge leaders can be freed from many of the traditional and unwholesome features of leadership behaviour – and, in so doing – reverse into the future in a very different manner that has a liberating impact upon the individual, the people and organisations they lead.

“You don’t stop laughing when you grow old, you grow old when you stop laughing.”

George Bernard Shaw