by J.R. Briggs
I was a few years into planting our church when I shared boldly and with strong conviction about an issue on my heart at an elder meeting. After I finished, I could tell that one elder wasn’t too happy; he asked to stick around after our meeting concluded.
“How old are you?” he asked, clearly with an agenda in mind.
“I’m 29.” I winced, bracing myself for what he might say next.
He squinted his eyes, wagged his finger, and said, “I’ve been doing ministry longer than you’re alive. So, listen to me for a minute…” I was taken aback and felt so belittled by the comment that I don’t remember what he said (but I can assure you how he shared lasted more than a minute).
On the drive home that night, I felt embarrassed and frustrated by the experience; I vowed never to ask the condescending question of a younger leader, “How old are you?” – and follow it up with a condescending lecture.
. . .
I have a driving passion to listen to, encourage, and invest in young and emerging leaders. And I especially want to ensure that no young leader feels as frustrated and lonely as I felt in numerous situations. As I’ve worked in leadership development over the years, I often ask emerging leaders what are the things that frustrate them in their leadership contexts, either in what they are experiencing or where they want to experience something, but aren’t allowed to do so.
If we want to frustrate young leaders, here are the ways I’ve learned to do it successfully:
 Delegate responsibilities, but refrain from empowering them to lead.
Many leaders erroneously believe that leadership development is the art of delegating tasks. But delegating is not the same thing as empowering. Delegation is about giving others tasks; empowering others is about giving people authority and permission.
Delegation says, “Get this done exactly the way I want it done.” But empowerment gives others authority and permission that says, “Here is the vision and the mission of what we’re about. You are capable and responsible. I believe in you. Take this and lead in such a way that best advances the vision and moves the mission forward.” This means others will most likely do it differently than you do. But remember: we are not trying to create clones, we are trying to develop and empower leaders.
Years ago I led the college and young adult ministry at a large church in Colorado. I remember sitting in a pastoral staff meeting when the executive pastor said to me, “We want to communicate to the young people in your ministry that they are the future of this church.” I told him that while he meant well, that mindset was a problem. He was confused.
“They are not the future of the church.” I said, “They are the present. And if we want to serve them well, then we need to start thinking this way. They’ll grow and develop more if we do.” When we over-emphasize the tasks needed to get done, we can easily under-emphasize whole-person equipping for formation. The ultimate, long-term goal is not to just get things done; it’s to empower and unleash people into their giftings.
 Assume that you know everything that young leaders need to know.
Certainly, there are some skills that need to be developed, perspectives that need to be gained, and character that needs to be formed in others in order for them to be healthy and effective leaders, regardless of their age. But many seasoned leaders take the mistake of assuming too much and trying to read younger leaders’ minds.
Some common faulty assumptions made are:
- I am going to teach this young leader everything they need to learn about leadership.
- Growth and formation are only one direction.
- Emerging leaders are too young and inexperienced to handle “real” ministry responsibilities.
- Each generation does leadership development the same way.
- Growth and development can only happen in official and formal settings.
- Telling is the same thing as training.
One of the greatest ways experienced leaders can keep from making faulty assumptions (and we know what happens when we assume) is to stop trying to read leaders’ minds and simply ask questions. Two of my favorite questions to keep us from stepping into the assumption trap is to ask: Where do you want to be more involved? And where do you want me to get out of your way? If emerging leaders are willing to give honest answers to these questions, it’s amazing what can be learned and discerned in these conversations.
 Offer complete freedom and autonomy without guidance and accountability.
Trust is essential for young leaders to grow and develop, but too much freedom without guidance can be demoralizing and disorienting. Simply sending leaders off to “figure it out on their own” is not a purposeful strategy for development.
I know one leader who described his leadership development process as “I throw them into the deep end of the pool and they’ll eventually figure out how to swim.” I asked him what happens to those who don’t figure out how to swim. “Well,” he said, “they don’t make it.” That doesn’t sound like a thoughtful strategy; that sounds like a good plan to help young leaders fail. Young leaders need freedom and autonomy, but they still need – and often long for – loving and constructive direction, structure, feedback, and guidance.
 Micromanage others.
While most emerging leaders I’ve spent time with have expressed that while they want direction, feedback, and structure, they certainly don’t want to be micromanaged either. (In fact, name any leader who actually likes to be micromanaged.) Leaders often micromanage others because of fear, lack of trust, or their own control issues. They often worry that the job won’t get done (at least not the way they want it).
Few things aggravate, demoralize, and crush morale more than when leaders control the environment so much that others can’t do anything without the leader’s permission or approval. Not only are they failing to develop leaders, they are actually diminishing the opportunity for leaders to grow in the future.
 Lead only in the style you’re used to leading in.
There are some time-tested truths and principles in leadership development. But there are also generational shifts that experienced leaders need to be aware of – and more importantly, make efforts to adapt to.
The old approach of leadership was to be the sage on the stage; the new approach is to be a guide on the side. The old approach believed we need a strong leader; don’t show us your failures, mistakes, and wounds. But the new approach says we need an authentic leader we can trust; show us your failures, mistakes, and wounds so we can learn from you.
Just as listening to music has shifted from 8-tracks to cassette tapes (all things younger leaders have little to no experience with!) to CDs to streaming services, we need to change the format of how we listen to the music of leadership development in changing times. Leaders must learn to adapt and change to meet emerging leaders where they are. This requires letting go of some control and being willing to be humble to listen to the way emerging leaders think, act, and feel.
 Expect perfection.
Few things cause anxiety to rise in the life of an emerging leader more than creating a culture and expectation that failure is unacceptable. Learning from failure is one of the greatest learning tools in the life of a leader, young or old. Failure is a terrible thing to waste. Bridgewater hedge fund manager and investor Ray Dalio articulated this well when he said, “Create a culture where it is acceptable to fail, but unacceptable not to learn from it.”
Certainly, we don’t want to over-protect young leaders from experiencing failure – that’s where the true learning comes when we reflect on failure appropriately – but we also don’t want to create an unsafe environment when they do fail. If failing in a learning environment is not safe, young leaders will be tempted to hide their mistakes, experience shame, and refuse to reflect and process valuable lessons to be learned through these experiences. As poet Archibald MacLeish wrote, “There is only one thing more painful than learning from experience, and that is not learning from experience.”
Much of what we are called to do in developing younger leaders is to live in the midst of the healthy tension: to give freedom, but not too much of it; to delegate tasks, without neglecting whole-person development by empowering and equipping; and not protecting them from failure, but cultivating an environment where they can learn valuable lessons when they fail. We need wisdom, humility, sensitivity, courage, and compassion to effectively engage in leadership development.
Let’s refrain from frustrating young, emerging leaders and instead empower them to lead. As Liz Wiseman said, the essential role of a leader is not to create followers; it’s to be a leader multiplier.
Want a practical way to encourage your Young Leaders? Check out the Emerging Leaders Cohort!