When I was a freshman in High School, I thought the seniors were so wise and cool, particularly those on the football team which I played on. Maybe it was nothing more than the facial hair that gave them the illusion of maturity. More likely though, I think it was their sense of confidence and skills that impressed me. Nonetheless, I couldn’t wait to become a senior where I would be empowered with their wisdom. A few years later, when I finally became one, I discovered there was no magical metamorphosis imbuing me with special knowledge, yet I noticed the freshmen were now looking at me oddly in the same way I had done when I was their age. The same was true in college and, as I was to discover, throughout my life. We’re all simply dancing as fast as we can and hoping we make the right decisions along the way.

For many years, we looked to our parents and the elders of our family to offer wise counsel in times of crisis. When something went wrong, they all seemed to know intuitively what to do. As we grow older though, the elders die off and we come to the sudden realization that we are now the elders, and we are the ones now charged with making the important life-altering decisions.

We see this same scenario played out in business and the other institutions we participate in. One moment we’re the rookie or “The Kid,” but before too long we discover we’re now the elder of the group with nobody to advise us anymore. We’re on our own. This epiphany dawned on me last year while I was attending a meeting of one of the nonprofit associations I’ve been involved with over the last ten years. Afterwards, a group of us were sitting around having a drink and I suddenly became cognizant I was now the elder at the table; that everyone had joined after me and all of my predecessors had moved along. It was a strange feeling, but I suddenly felt a strong sense of responsibility to offer the best advice I could to these junior members.

Becoming an elder either in business or some other organization carries a great deal of responsibility. Hopefully we were paying attention in our journey through life and learned something along the way, something of value to pass on to others. More than just knowledge, we are required to offer comfort in times of crisis, to mentor by example, communicate lessons learned from past experiences and the wisdom resulting from these experiences. Leadership is perhaps the biggest challenge for all of us as it requires a moral responsibility to do what is right for all those who look up to us.

You do not become an elder simply because you survive the passage of time; anybody can do that. Instead, you have to have a proven track record demonstrating you possess the knowledge and experience that inspires confidence by others. Without such credentials, it is highly unlikely you will be taken seriously by anyone regardless of your age.

As we become the elder of any institution, there is a temptation not to relinquish control. This is done for two reasons, we either relish control or we do not have faith in the abilities of others to assume responsibility and do a competent job. Sometimes such control is warranted when the younger generation fails to step up to the plate and assume their responsibilities. However, if youth is properly prepared and ready to assume their duties, the elders should bow gracefully out of the way and not impede progress. This means an inherent part of being an elder is to foster an environment for succession.

If we do anything for an extended period of time, becoming an elder is a road we must all inevitably travel; it is a right of passage. It can be rather lonely too as there is nobody left to advise us anymore. Hopefully we’ll do the right thing and offer good advice, but we will occasionally make mistakes along the way which causes us to think longer and more cautiously about our decisions. We constantly question our abilities and hope we are up to the challenge as we realize a lot of people depend on us. If you still do not understand the importance of being an elder, next time you ride on an airplane, tell me you don’t want to see a little gray hair in the cockpit.

Keep the Faith!

Note: All trademarks both marked and unmarked belong to their respective companies.

Tim Bryce is a writer and the Managing Director of M. Bryce & Associates (MBA) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at [email protected]

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Copyright © 2011 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.

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