When it comes to leadership age doesn’t matter – competency does. History is full of examples of leaders who have succeeded and failed at every age. The intangibles of passion, character, commitment, discernment, and talent are of infinitely greater importance than someone’s date of birth. I don’t care about your generational category (Gen X, Gen Y, or Boomer), but I do care about your ability to contribute. In today’s post, I’ll give you a different take on the topic of ageism.

Whether your advantage is youth or experience isn’t really the issue – competency is. Regardless of your age, venturing beyond your area(s) of competency can be a very dangerous thing to do. It has been my experience that there are generally two types of people: those that don’t know what they don’t know, and those that do know what they don’t know. All other things being equal, the difference between the two groups boils down to experience and discernment. Those people who don’t know what they don’t know typically tend to be either younger professionals beginning their careers who have a lack of experience, or older professionals who have not gained wisdom and maturity as they have progressed along their career path.

The Early Stage Professional:
On the positive side of the equation young, inexperienced, and energetic professionals sometimes accomplish great things because they don’t have the experience to know what they are not supposed to be able to accomplish. As a result of their professional naivete, they sometimes appear to achieve the impossible. However more often than not, young professionals operating outside of experiential and/or educational boundaries are met with failure and frustration by having what appears to be great ideas eventually unwound by unforeseen factors that only were unforeseen to them due to their inexperience or lack of discernment.

The failures and setbacks of the early-stage professional can be healthy learning experiences that lead to professional maturation so long as learning actually takes place, and mistakes of naivete don’t become patterns for future disruption. It is essential that young professionals gain an understanding of where their skill sets and competencies begin and end. Once the boundaries of knowledge are understood, then definitive steps can be taken to create a plan for personal and professional growth. The decision can be made to ignore weaknesses by design by playing to your strengths, or you can choose to improve weak areas by closing the gap between where you are and where you want or need to be.

The Tenured Professional:
Regrettably, it takes more than time on the job to reach true professional maturity. I have personally witnessed people 20+ years into their careers that have reached executive level positions and they still don’t know what they don’t know. It is all too common for these types of people to operate in a vacuum by believing that their experience alone is a cure-all for any issue or problem.

How many times have we all observed an experienced person with subject matter expertise in one area, try to drive an initiative or an agenda in another area, only to fail miserably because they didn’t know what they didn’t know? Let’s look at this issue another way; how many times have you seen an older and more experienced person fail to solve a problem that a younger and less experienced person solved with seemingly little effort? While experience is a valuable commodity, in-and-of-itself, and to the exclusion of other traits and characteristics, the sole reliance on experience can be a barrier to professional growth and maturity.

That said, I have never been a believer in the adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”  In fact quite to the contrary…I believe anyone (yes I mean anyone) can change given one prerequisite; the desire to do so. However, I feel just as strongly that change cannot be forced upon someone who does not recognize the need for change, or even worse, recognizes the need but has no desire for change.

Whether young or old, experienced or inexperienced, the best way to approach personal and professional development is to always stay in the learning zone. When you think you have all the answers is precisely the point in time when you are headed straight for the proverbial brick wall. Always seek out people who know more than you do and actively learn from them. Find someone you trust who can dispassionately identify development opportunities and help you chart a path to progress.

Rather than being threatened by, or dismissive of someone of a different generation, why not learn from them instead. We all have much to offer and much to learn, Recognition of this will simply make your life more enjoyable and more productive as well.  Most things in life happen as a result of the choices we make…It is clearly within your grasp to make the choice to gain an understanding of what it is that you don’t know, and determine what you want to do with that information. It’s your choice; choose wisely.