IIDM: How Leaders Benefit From The Wisdom Of Youth - Michelle Gibbings

In this article for the International Institute of Directors and Managers, Michelle discusses why leaders need to be open to new ways of thinking and she suggests new insights and ideas can come also from young people. 

As organisations grapple with more complex issues and an ever-increasing pace of change, leaders need to be open to new ways of thinking and deciding. One of the best ways to do this is to expose themselves to a broad range of perspectives across the ages. While there is no doubt wisdom comes with age, there are also new insights and ideas from young people.

See the world differently

Leaders need people around them who challenge how they think and can disrupt their default thinking patterns. Young people see the world differently because they grow up in a different context and with different life experiences. Consequently, their expectations and assumptions about what is and what could be are not influenced by the same factors. As we get older, we get more set in our ways. The brain’s pattern of decision making becomes more rigid, and it relies on the information gathered from the past to determine what to do right now.

As your brain takes in new information, it tries to make sense of what it is seeing and hearing; essentially, so it can work out what to do. To ease the cognitive load this processing takes, it compresses information and sorts it into patterns. It looks for familiar things and then says – ‘I know what to do’. This process is effectively your brain taking a mental shortcut. It’s designed to help you work out what to do as quickly as possible. It’s also your brain’s way of making big things and complex issues easier to manage and ultimately remember.

The problem is the brain’s shortcutting process isn’t always reliable. For example, your brain may expect to see something in a certain way, and so it will seek out information to validate that view. It may use past experiences or no longer relevant assumptions to determine a present course of action. If you want to see things differently, you need to spend time with people who see things differently.

Deliberately unconventional

Deliberately seeking out differences of opinion is critical if you want to secure more effective decision making. Young people are often not as burdened by convention and are more willing to ask the so-called (but often not) ‘dump question’. They will raise issues that others may not see because they view the world through a different lens. As the noted economist John Maynard Keynes once said: “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones”.

It’s impossible to escape those old ideas if you constantly surround yourself with what’s known, familiar and comfortable.

Embrace their adaptive mindset

The downfall of many great companies is often traced to the hubris and arrogance of their leaders. Having a fixed mindset, the leaders close themselves off from feedback and feel they have nothing more to learn. In short, they stop learning. Young people are usually far more adaptable than adults because they are more accustomed to playing and not worrying about the consequences. Children learn through playing. It is a form of experimentation, and when something doesn’t work out, they will more quickly dust themselves off and try again. They are eager to try new things and to test the boundaries. So, young people are a great source of data if you want to keep up to date with the latest trends, shifts in consumer behaviour and technology platforms.

Nurturing relationships with people younger than you keeps you invigorated. There is the added benefit when relationship benefits flow both ways and when both parties are open to what arises when they listen and are curious about learning and opportunities.

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