Are young leaders up to the job?

The Boston Celtics' new coach, Brad Stevens, is 36. He faces the same challenge as other young leaders: If he spends time trying to prove his worth, he could undermine his authority.

On July 3, 2013, the Boston Celtics announced that their new head coach would be Brad Stevens, who had become a household name (in basketball-loving households) when he successfully coached the Butler Bulldogs to two NCAA Final Four appearances. Stevens is 36 years old, making him the youngest coach in Boston in almost four decades. He has much to commend him to the Celtics obviously, but the main topic of discussion on ESPN was if someone so young is up to the job.

At some point, all young (and emerging) leaders, no matter how accomplished they may be, feel the pressure and panic of that question acutely. Young faculty members feel it as they step into their first classroom with older, more experienced students. Young directors feel it the first time they meet with their boards and receive questions that require executive wisdom and action. New supervisors feel it when they have that first “crucial conversation” with a direct report. Young pastors feel it the first time there is conflict on a committee and all eyes turn to them to sort it out. “Are you up to the job?”

When these moments and others like them come, most leaders feel particularly vulnerable, as if their leadership itself is on trial, and the danger in these situations is for a young or new leader to overreact, overcorrect or over-assert himself or herself.

The temptation is to try to prove something: “See, I am the smartest person in the room.” “I am in control.” “I am your boss.” “I know what I’m doing.” “I am experienced enough to have this job.”

Bishop Kenneth Carder has observed that there is a “relentless temptation [in leadership]… to doubt our identity and to attempt to prove our worth,” and in almost every situation in which young leaders have tried to shore up their identity as “leaders,” paradoxically, they have undermined their future authority with those with whom they serve.

So, if trying to assert identity as a leader is the wrong strategy, how is a young leader to respond in such situations?

He or she can first practice what theologian L. Gregory Jones calls interpretive charity. Young leaders can appear confident in their role by extending grace to the other, by first presuming goodwill in the other’s actions and words. After all, most questions are not asked to trap, and not every situation is fraught with suspicion, doubt or opposition to their leadership.

Second, young or new leaders should make it a practice when they are feeling particularly vulnerable to ask questions. A friend likes to say that “too many people use too many periods when speaking.” By asking questions, not only does the new leader learn valuable information about the organization, it also almost guarantees buy-in from those who are following if they have provided the key information that the leader is using to make decisions.

Frankly, I am not sure whether either of these strategies will help Coach Stevens secure trust at the Celtics (win-loss ratios are too important there). But for young Christian institutional leaders, practicing interpretive charity and asking questions can make a difference in how they perceived and how their leadership is received.