William Pitt the Younger details the life of “a penniless twenty-three-year-old with no previous experience in office” who was elected to England’s House of Commons in 1782. Within 18 months, he was prime minister. It’s a story that captured my interest since seeing a rendition of it in the movie Amazing Grace. At one point, author William Hague — a current member of parliament — asks a question I want to consider as well:
How was it that opinion in the eighteenth century would accept youthful seniority to an extent inconceivable two centuries later?
Was it really very different back then? He notes that 100 members of parliament in the early 1780s were under age thirty. 100 under thirty?!! It wasn’t just in politics. “The number of young prodigies in many disparate fields was far greater than it is today.” For example:
- Alexander Pope wrote his first verses aged twelve, and was famous at twenty-three;
- Henry Fielding’s plays were being performed in London when he was twenty-one;
- Adam Smith was a Professor of Logic at twenty-eight;
- the evangelist George Whitefield was preaching to crowds of tens of thousands in London when aged twenty-five;
- Isaac Newton had commenced his revolutionary advances in science in the previous century at the age of twenty-five;
- and Mozart had composed symphonies when eight years old and completed tours of Europe at the ripe old age of fifteen.
I guess we could point to Mark Zuckerberg and other internet pioneers, or Hewlett, Packard, Dell, Gates and Jobs in the generation before. But there seems to be more resistance to young leaders today, especially in established fields, businesses, organizations… or politics. The fact is that in most cases where a young leaders reaches high position, it’s because he or she founded the company.
Hague wonders aloud what was unique in that culture that so much was accomplished by people so young. Why did they get so much greater opportunity and empowerment? He explores a number of ideas, including the influence of aristocracy in bestowing “instant credibility.” Perhaps the most obvious example was a group of twentysomething monarchs in Europe, but it extended to people like William and Thomas Pitt building on their father’s name and reknown. It wasn’t just privilege; it was also early exposure. William Pitt the Younger gained incredible oratory skills at the feet of his prime minister father.
Those were important factors, but I think Hague nails it in his conclusion:
Perhaps the greater risk of early death produced an impulse of young brilliance, and certainly the intensive use of private tutors added to it.
To put it in today’s terms, the two greatest factors were urgency and mentoring. We no longer fear death before age 40. To require a young person to put in time in a job before taking leadership is a luxury they didn’t enjoy back then. On the other side of the coin, young people felt like they had only a few good years to contribute, so they gave it their all very quickly. Pitt was an extreme case, much of his brevity self-imposed. His physician concluded that he “died of old age at forty-six as much as if he had been ninety.”
Pitt’s private tutor was a man who would become a prominent minister in the Church of England. His father was prime minister. These mentors shaped a young man who dreamed of parliament as his next step, straight out of college.
My question today is this: Is there room in your organization for young leaders? In Servant Empowered Leadership, Don Page challenges how leaders are selected.
The typical pattern for moving people into leadership positions must be changed. First, nice people who are good at what they do are thrust or promoted into a position of leadership, without regard for their ability, or sometimes even their desire, to perform in a leadership capacity. Secondly, they are evaluated on their ability to produce short-term results for the organization and finally, if at all, on their ability to lead people. Yet this ability to lead others is the long-term basis on which those results can be sustained or improved upon.
If leadership gifting, competence and calling are all clear at an early age, why aren’t more organizations willing to allow young people to work in their sweet spots rather than promoting good practicioners with seniority? Experience in a field is simply not the same as leadership gifting. So, do we feel an urgency to find the best leaders available, to pour into them and to give them space? Until we do, we’re not going to gain the benefits of this generation’s William Pitts, Adam Smiths and George Whitefields.