Kat Miller-Stevens is an Assistant Professor in the Economics and Business Department and Faculty Director of the Public Interest Fellowship Program at Colorado College. She is also currently serving as the faculty advisor on our Silver Key Social Enterprise Project.
I’m Too Young to Be a Leader? You’re Kidding, RIGHT??
You’re not too young to be a leader. You don’t have to stack up your leadership experience to be a leader. You don’t need a title to be a leader. You don’t need a terminal degree to be a leader. You also don’t have to be a man to be a leader.
As a girl growing up, I thought I had to be older, experienced, overly-educated, titled, and well…. a man….. to be a leader. As I aged, I also thought I had to wear makeup, high heels, and dress pants to get any respect from my colleagues at work. At my first full-time office job, I dyed my hair brown (I am naturally a blonde) to gain more respect in the workplace – sadly, it worked.
I’ve thought a lot about young women in the workplace and the difficulties they encounter. I am a 41-year-old woman who looks ten years younger, and I have been dealing with ageism and sexism my entire adult life. I have an 8-year old daughter, and I think (and worry) about the advice I will give her as she grows and pursues a career. But, I have plenty of time to think about that….
For now, I can offer a few tidbits of advice to the young women working at the QUAD, and elsewhere. You may wonder why I am offering advice to women, not everyone. The answer is simple – I can offer the best advice on what I know and what I have experienced. I believe in the ‘take it or leave it’ approach – take the tidbits that fit, think about the ones that don’t, or throw them out completely.
First and foremost, know that you can be a leader no matter what your age. As you’ve read in some of the other blogs on this site, leadership can begin at an early age. Recognize that you shouldn’t let people put you down because of your age. The ageism barrier is real, but trust your instincts – if you want to be a leader, pursue that goal and don’t give up even when people tell you you’re too young!
Second, it is true, of course, that experience should make you a better leader over time. But, how do you gain experience if you don’t try to do the very thing that will give you that experience? If you want to apply for a job that really appeals to you, but you may not be the perfect fit on paper, apply for the job anyway. Take it from me – I applied for a job in the Economics and Business Department at Colorado College that, at face value, may not have seemed like a perfect fit. But I wanted that job, so I applied – and I got it. You never know until you try! Someone may see something in you that shines, even if you are a ‘different’ type of candidate.
Third, yes, education is important. But you can find leadership positions that rely on much more than education. Sometimes it is experience that overshadows education. But sometimes it’s simply your personality and motivation that have the biggest impact.
And finally, a word on the makeup, high heels, dress pants, and dyed brown hair. Do those things really matter? In my experience, it has always benefitted me to dress nice and show that I care about professionalism in the traditional sense of the word. But I have friends who don’t bother with these things and they are respected leaders in their work settings. It really is up to you. My only advice is that you should do what gives you the most confidence.
In the end, we are all human. We all make judgments of others, and others make judgments of us. I have found that following my instincts has (generally) worked in my life, and has gotten me to where I am now. I’d suggest you try it if you’re not doing it already.
And most of all, remember that no matter your age, gender, education, or experience, you CAN be a terrific leader!