At 34, Sanna Marin has recently become the world’s youngest serving state leader. Her appointment and age received intense interest in the international media. For comparison, the median age of Australian Prime Ministers on appointments is close to 54. The interest in the Finnish Prime Minister’s age tells us a lot about how we have come to understand leadership.
The conventional approach to leadership is characterised as a linear journey from inexperienced to experienced. We overlook the long history of young leaders. For example, Mary Shelley started writing the novel Frankenstein at 18 and the first edition was published when she was 20. Australian physicist Lawrence Bragg was awarded the Nobel prize at age 25.
There are many other examples of the contribution young leaders have made in the military, politics, literature, and science who have not followed the linear progression from inexperienced to experienced.
The teacher-student model is deeply embedded in our understanding and practice of leadership in the workplace. The teacher patiently imparts lessons which the student gratefully absorbs. Age equals experience and capability. The cultural and behavioural effect of this approach to development is rarely explored.
At a time when workplace innovation and creativity are seen to be central to developing diversity of thought and experience, how much are we hearing from and valuing the voice of the emerging generation of leaders? Is the ingrained teacher-student model positioning this generation as the receivers of wisdom rather than those who bring an original perspective to the workplace?
This is not a new conversation, but it is one that needs closer attention.
In 1958, Mrs Fanny Austin, in a doorstop interview, a former student of Sydney Girl’s High School, gave her views on youth in the workplace.
“I think they’re fine! And, why shouldn’t they be? After all, they’re the heirs of the ages, and if we’ve made mistakes, they’re patent for them to correct, aren’t they?”
Mrs Austin goes on to argue that it is natural for youth to be “restive of authority”.
“They want to try their wings the same as the birds of the air, and who knows what heights they will aspire to.”
The sense is that Mrs Austin would see it as perfectly natural for Sanna Marin to be Finland’s Prime Minister and that she would encourage the Prime Minister to learn-by-doing. Unfortunately, our workplaces are designed to minimise the voice of younger people.
Holly Dorsett, Madeleine Ogden, and Darcy McLeod are the younger members of Synergy’s Creative People practice. They can see the limits of the teacher-student relationship in the workplace; in particular, they can see that the teacher-student model is one that that is stagnant – it does not progress or mature. Today’s internships programs and graduate schemes reinforce this relationship and embed the practice in the workplace.
“I have been in the workplace since I was 14 in casual and permanent roles. I have experience that is valuable I think my age leads senior people to think that I don’t have much to contribute.” says Madeleine. “They think I am too young, to inexperienced or even too naïve to fully understand the complexities of what they are working on. But I often do have a point of view, and I have experiences in my life which have had an enormous impact on how I see the world. I want to contribute, and I can only learn more by contributing.”
Synergy’s Creative People practice is challenging usual practice of leadership development and opportunity by engaging its youngest team members in every part of the business. At Synergy, Holly, Madeleine and Darcy believe the experience is different from other places they have worked. They have benefited from being given opportunities to be a part of business conversations where they can explore their ideas, which are contested but not ignored or discounted.
“Synergy has provided me an opportunity to not only learn in a professional working environment but also thrive and demonstrate my skillset regardless of my experience. My view is valued, and I am included in the business. I feel I am a valued part of the team”, says Holly. “My voice is seen as a different perspective but never a lesser perspective”.
True inclusion allows all the team to contribute a voice at the table. It’s about valuing diversity of experience and unique perspectives. Synergy is providing its newest team members to work alongside their leaders as a part of daily practice rather than through a program. It empowers young employees and sets the foundation for a successful future for both the individual and organisation.
“The workplace has a lot of practices that run counter to the idea that youth can have a voice at the table,” says Darcy. “But, to navigate the business, clients and work we do, we need to learn from the experience of others. We do this in a way that allows us to learn and contribute simultaneously.”
In order to challenge the teacher-student model, Synergy’s Creative People practice operates under a flat hierarchy where each employee’s voice is welcomed. The objective is to be authentic to the idea that there are leaders at all levels.
Rather than excluding the less experienced team members from the conversation, collaboration across age groups is embraced and the value of the voices of younger employees is recognised. Through guidance from more experienced employees, younger staff can add value from a position of confidence, inclusivity, and support.
The idea of children being seen, and not heard, is a practice which is overtly enforced in conventional workplaces, where young leaders are put into a box, where they must work hard and not question decision making or ask the most important question.
Synergy through ambition and initiative continue to create opportunities for young leaders to flourish.
About the Authors
Holly Dorsett, Madeleine Ogden, and Darcy Mcleod aged 18, 24, and 19 respectively, have unique perspectives on the integration of youth into the workforce and workplace. They are an integral part of Synergy’s creativeXpeople process, a journey of exploration through practice, and have been working for Government clients to provide unique perspectives and deliver valuable cultural and behavioral change.