INsight/ Leading Change Together

Photo by Kiwon Kim

Photo by Kiwon Kim

Manila, 19 January 2017 — Are youth the future leaders, or leaders already? Do we get less creative and innovative and more conservative as we age? Who can best lead the changes to bridge the economic and socio-cultural divides in our world today? 

That’s a mouthful.

Working with young leaders

When you work with young leaders, as I did this past weekend during the wrap-up of the 3rd Asia-Pacific Youth Exchange (APYE) in Manila, the positive energy of “we can make a difference” is palpable in the room. 

As I walked around their fair of projects to tackle each of the Sustainable Development Goals, it was evident to me that the work of these young leaders went far beyond positive thinking, and into developing smart project ideas that connected complex problems with innovative solutions and willing partners to make the change happen.

The APYE started just a year ago, and has rapidly taken on the appearance of a regional movement for connection and change, guided by its founder Hyoungmin Kim, the director of the Urban Youth Academy in Seoul (see his story in the Asian Leaders series here). 

Last week, two APYEs were held simultaneously, in Manila and Bangkok, and more APYEs are scheduled later this year in Kathmandu, Shenzhen and Incheon-Songdo. The APYE formula has evolved into a ten-day program for young leaders, including a five-day immersion into a local community for first-hand experience of developmental challenges and to formulate projects to make a difference.

Creating local impact

One of the two local immersion communities visited by APYE participants last week was Barangay Pita in Pangasinan province in the Philippines. I learned that this off-grid community had already benefited from installation of solar energy after the previous APYE immersion, barely six months ago. Participants told me that solar panels had been provided by a leading energy company which has partnered with APYE. Additional community projects are now being considered for ecotourism, water, sanitation and other developmental activities.

After learning all of this, I got a bit puzzled when, later in the day, I heard a senior official address the crowd of 150 enthusiastic young leaders from Korea, Nepal and the Philippines as 'future leaders.’ Weren’t these APYE participants taking a lead already? To me it seemed that they were already demonstrating leadership now. Why would we want to limit ourselves to only see them as leaders at some time in the future?

Later on, I came to realize that we are prone to stereotyping the attributes and abilities of both the young and older generations. Researchers report that it is a common practice around the world. 

Who is who?

Younger people are widely regarded to be more creative and innovative compared to older and more senior professionals and executives. World-changing revolutions, innovative companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook, and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity were produced by young minds, we are often reminded. Yet young leaders are often given little space and recognition.

Older people, on the other hand, are regarded by many to have lost that youthful capacity for creativity and innovation, even if they are the holders of more experience and power. And they are often thought to mistake their powers of authority for leadership, and thereby withhold recognition from younger leaders.

Thankfully, researchers are on hand to help us to distinguish myths from reality.

In their 2016 article A Lifespan Perspective on Creativity and Innovation at Work, researchers Eric Rietzschel, Hannes Zacher and Wolfgang Stroebe at the universities of Groningen and Brisbane have shown that, contrary to what many people still believe, creativity and innovation do not decline with age, and that there is plenty of evidence that they can actually increase with age, and that both younger and older people can excel at it.  

So, if the necessary creativity and innovation to lead change can come from both younger and older people, should we not put in more effort to let them recognize this potential and find new ways to work together for change?

In reality, such intergenerational partnering—yes, I also don’t get excited by the term, and I could not find a better one yet—has proved to be quite a challenge in businesses and governments alike. 

Leadership and age

Last year the president of AIESEC, the world’s largest youth organization, told me that their main problem was not young people. It was, as I was told, to get many more senior people to open their doors and partner with young leaders to achieve better results together.

Another request to work together among generations came from a pair of even younger leaders. Melati and Isabel Wijsen started their Bye Bye Plastic Bags campaign in Bali when they were 12 and 10 years old. Now, at age 15 and 13, their TED talk in London has attracted more than a million viewers and their initiative has spread to several countries and cities around the world. 

“Young leaders don’t have to wait until they are older before they can take action,” said Melati in their Asian Leaders story, adding that when young leaders get support from political leaders “we can make change happen together.”

On the side of older leaders, I often encounter a sense of hesitation for being less equipped to work with younger leaders, perhaps in consideration of their different skills, language and mindset. A similar hesitation might exist among some young leaders to engage with older leaders. 

When I asked Christopher Morris, head of the Asian Development Bank’s Youth for Asia program and a supporter of APYE, about his experience with youth and leadership, he responded with a smile. "Youth is an attitude, not an age,” he said, echoing Pablo Picasso's assertion that youth has no age.  

Working together as an imperative

The important question in my mind is now how we choose to see the world around us and deal with the young and older leaders in it. Are we ready to engage each other with an open mind, make space for each other, and explore new ways to partner together? 

If we don't, then it will surely be much harder to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in our societies by 2030. And the risk of corporate failures will shoot up as executives continue to search for answers to bridge the generational gaps in their workforce.

Not long ago, I listened to a senior friend and colleague who argued that some of the business giants of today may fall by the wayside and disappear from the scene unless their executives learn how to engage with younger leaders, not in the future, but now.

This is why I rated the intergenerational leadership challenge as one of the top 3 threats for business executives today. And therefore as an opportunity for all of us to work together on leading positive change, with creativity, innovation, and a young spirit.

Youth is an attitude, not an age.
— Christopher Morris