Every few days, my tech-savvy father sends me a simple reminder via text — an image, a saying, a blessing or a piece of wisdom to remind me about what’s important in life. The other day, he sent me this powerful quote from Bryant McGill: “You have to accept that you’ll never be good enough for some people. Whether that is going to be your problem or theirs is up to you.”
This message was especially well timed, as I had recently been doubted and disrespected. I was told that my dreams were too big and that I was naive to think I could be part of pulling off the proposed vision with my level of (in)experience. As much as I proactively fine-tune how I present myself, being doubted because of my age was not a first-time occurrence. I’m convinced it won’t be the last.
Like most people my age and with my experience level, I have a long way to go in terms of being an excellent leader. I’m aware that I’m learning and that respect as a young leader is difficult to earn. Nonetheless, it can be disheartening to be repeatedly shot down by people who judge solely based on age. Troubled, I phoned my mentor John Maxwell, to whom I am sincerely grateful for sharing his profound wisdom with me.
John Maxwell is an internationally recognized leadership expert, speaker, coach and author. He is the founder of EQUIP and the John Maxwell Company, working with over seven million leaders across the globe. John coaches Fortune 500 companies, international government leaders and distinguished organizations such as the United States Military Academy at West Point, the National Football League and the United Nations. He is also a New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Businessweek best-selling author who has sold over 25 million books.
John suggested that I reach out to him when I have a leadership challenge, so I took him up on the offer. I asked, “What should I do to prove myself when people doubt me because of my age?” Here’s the advice he shared with me.
Ask Yourself If You Want People to Love You or See You as a Leader
If I’m completely honest, it would be nice to be loved and followed. If I had to pick, I’d reserve being loved for family and friends and focus work efforts on leadership. John reminded me that leadership can be challenging at times. In order to achieve greatness, you must understand that you cannot please everyone. While you should collaborate with others as a leader, it’s important to stick with your gut when making decisions, even when your decisions don’t appeal to everyone.
You Must Earn Respect on Difficult Ground
There is no surprise here, but as a young leader, respect is difficult to earn. You have to prove yourself day in and day out. The best way to earn respect is by accepting failure for what it is and constantly putting yourself in uncomfortable situations. If others see you overcome challenges both professionally and personally, they will be more likely to respect you and follow your lead in the future.
People Buy Into You Before They Buy Into Your Vision
The most effective way to get people to follow you and garner buy-in is by building relationships. What many people don’t know is that to you don’t need experience to gain followers. People will buy into YOU.
This is why venture capitalists spend so much time carefully evaluating the management team, not just the business opportunity. Congregations follow their religious leaders. The organization I serve, The Global Good Fund, invests in leadership as the most effective means of creating global good.
Love ‘Em But Leave ‘Em
One piece of John’s advice that especially resonated with me was, “Don’t waste energy on the people who aren’t going on the journey with you.” Wasting your time with people who aren’t passionate about your vision will take up too much of your energy.
For some people, it doesn’t matter what the vision is. They expect to see an experienced leader (usually someone who looks like they do) at the helm. The unfortunate reality of this situation is that nothing I say or do will convince these people otherwise. It’s in my best interests and my organization’s best interests to keep moving, or as John advises, “leave ‘em.”
John explained the “young leader’s curse.” Many young leaders have a lot of energy, passion and vision. What they often lack is credibility. But that’s OK. If you keep doing the right thing day in and day out, the credibility will come.
I hope you found these lessons to be valuable in your personal leadership journey. Because of his age, John Maxwell found that many people doubted him, and look how he turned out! As a young leader myself, I have learned that the best way to grow is to stick with your convictions, take calculated risks and embrace failure for continued learning opportunities. I coach my team to focus on what they do know rather than what they don’t and build from there. People will always express doubt; that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I’m starting to think it’s an honor.