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Young Leaders: Seeing Your Value, Surviving Challenges and Showing Up

I’ve been thinking a lot about the climate that young leaders in business today are navigating as they try to find their place in the world. They are certainly facing some of the more unique challenges of our time, all while trying to make their own mark in their respective fields. 

I see more and more young leaders in particular trying so hard to ‘find themselves’ and figure out their leadership style, all while navigating circumstances that often don’t come with a textbook, a manual, even mentorship from more seasoned leaders. 

Young leaders need to know that they are valued, that they have a seat at the table, and that they don’t have to face challenges alone.  

The Benefits of Having Young People in Leadership Roles

Having young people in leadership isn’t a nice-to-have – it’s an absolute necessity for any business – big or small – corporate or startup. They can make a positive impact if given the chance. 

Here are just a few of my thoughts on the value that a youthful leadership team can bring:

Young leaders are confident

The younger you are, the less likely you are to understand what you’re not capable of, and I believe this to be a positive quality. There is something about being young that gives you a certain confidence – an exuberance of youth. You feel like nothing can touch you; that you can take on something that’s much bigger than you are. More experienced leaders should never perceive this as arrogance. It is a great attribute and it mustn’t be crushed.

Young leaders are resilient

When you give young people opportunities to grow and be stretched, that’s not to say they won’t make mistakes, but you’ll often be pleasantly surprised by their resilience, adaptability, commitment and can-do attitude. Giving them space to cut their teeth and discover how they are wired can only serve them, mistakes and all.

Young leaders are comfortable with risk

The older you get – and such is human nature – you tend to become a bit more risk averse. You like to think that you’re seasoned enough in your role to understand your own abilities and limitations a bit better. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but when you’re young, you are far more likely to take risks and succeed. 

Challenges Young Leaders in Business are Facing

1. The pressure to be ‘authentic’

There is considerable pressure on people to be “authentic”, and to portray a sense of “authentic leadership”. To be very honest, I think this can be unhelpful. The problem comes in when the idea of authenticity is used as a means for someone to push an agenda, prove a point, or ”tell it like it is” without them putting in the hard, often unseen work of nurturing a unique, genuine leadership style. 

So the challenge that I see for young leaders is that through all this talk about transparency and authenticity, no one is talking about professionalism. A professional puts in the work, they structure their lives around good habits, they are strategic about having honest conversations, they don’t complain, and they show up, even when they get frustrated and want to voice that frustration. 

This idea of authentic leadership and being vulnerable has its place. However, even author and professor Brené Brown, who has done extensive work around the role of vulnerability in the workplace, stresses that there is a limit to how transparent a leader should be with their team. Employees don’t want their leaders to be vulnerable to the point that team members start to feel insecure and question where the business is headed. Expressing fears and worries, valid as they are, does nothing for the people below you. It doesn’t engender or embolden people to follow you.

This drive for perceived authenticity is pressuring younger people to flow with that sort of narrative, and it’s not helping them grow in their primary functions as leaders.

Your primary job as a leader is to:

  1. Show up
  2. Motivate your people (whether you feel motivated or not)
  3. Make them feel secure (whether you feel secure or not)
  4. Grow them and lead them

That’s it. Don’t worry about being vulnerable and authentic to the extent that you lose focus of what is going to maintain your organisation’s stability. Focus on those four things, otherwise no one is going to follow you and your business will likely crumble.

Is there still a place for authenticity in the business leadership context?

Yes, I think there is certainly a place for authenticity to come through, and for me it looks more like honesty. For instance, if I’m unhappy about a work situation or the performance of one of my team members, I’m not going to hide it. In those situations, authenticity is me being straightforward enough to say, “Guys, you didn’t handle that well”, or “you didn’t perform in this task”. Bad outcomes are a poor reflection on a leader as well as their team. A leader will set expectations and manage the expectations of their team so that balls don’t get dropped. They will always ask, “how can we do better next time?” That, for me, is an element of healthy, authentic leadership.

2. The pursuit of purpose 

Another challenge facing young leaders in business is this idea of purpose, which is critically important. I wouldn’t be able to show up everyday without constantly reminding myself that what I’m doing has a greater purpose than just dealing with problem after problem. 

As a leader you’ve got to make that sense of purpose your North Star, because 60% of your days will suck. On those days, you need something driving you. People often think that because they’re operating within their purpose, that 100% of their days will be good days. This is never the case, however, a handful of good days will make up for a whole lot of bad ones. That’s always going to be the tension you’ll have to manage. 

My encouragement to young leaders is to dig deeper and challenge their own perceptions of success. Don’t just grasp for the gold nuggets – get in the trenches. Writers like Simon Sinek, Seth Godin, and Brené Brown have done the groundwork to come up with their ideas. Go deeper, and watch your leadership skills flourish.

3. Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome takes many shapes and forms, but ultimately it comes down to insecurity.  Young people are bombarded with thoughts like, “Am I good enough?”, “Am I doing enough?”, “Am I the best leader I can be?” 

There’s nothing wrong with insecurity – the greatest leaders in the world face and have faced insecurity. As a young leader you will face insecurity and challenges too. It’s not a question of if, but when. Whether you fail or succeed, face them anyway. Do the best you can in accordance with the experience that you have. If you want to be successful in anything in life, 90% of that lies in showing up.

Final thoughts

Life can be a grind. Being a leader in business is rough. Let no one fool you to think that it’s always going to be rosy. Social media is a deceptive highlight reel. Very few leaders talk about the hard stuff. The majority of the time, being a leader is an uphill battle. But those uphill battles build strength and resilience. 

Just because it’s hard, it doesn’t mean that what you’re doing isn’t worth it. You will look back one day and see just how the hard times shaped you into the person and leader you are today. The obstacles you face become the path that you follow. If you can grasp this while you’re young, life and leadership will be a lot easier.

“The impediment to action advances the action.

What stands in the way becomes the way.” – Marcus Aurelius

About the Author

Matt Lambert, Managing Director

Matt has a passion for innovation and doing things differently, which comes from his broad experience in front line and management roles within Business Intelligence, Sales, New Business Development and Commercial Finance held within blue chip companies. Matt has worked across five continents and 19 countries to launch new products, establish sales operations and lead strategic projects.

His passion for education comes from a desire to address fundamental structural issues within Africa. Matt has extensive experience within International Hotel School heading up its Durban Campus before taking over the online business, and then moving to Operations Director, before taking over and growing Summit since the beginning of 2018.