How do we see leaders and age? Spisak, Grabo, Arvey, and van Vugt posed this question in 2014 in The Leadership Quarterly. They examined two strategies.
- Exploration strategies encourage “risk-taking and innovation to remain adaptive and competitive in changing environments” (p. 806).
- Exploitation strategies “create stability and minimize negative costs associated with uncertainty by refinement and execution of preexisting systems” (p. 806).
In three experiments, the researchers examined preferences for leadership in different business-related situations. The participants were undergraduates at VU University Amsterdam. Participants were given scenarios and shown faces of older and younger people. In two of the experiments researchers used software to morph young faces to older faces. Spisak et al. designed each experiment to assess preferences for change leadership versus stability as related to older and younger faces.
Across all three experiments the results supported their hypotheses:
- “Younger leadership is preferred when followers are looking for a leader in times of exploratory change” (p. 812).
- “When followers are focused on the need for stable exploitation. they look to older leaders.” (p. 812).
1. Spisak et al. used an evolutionary perspective to suggest human groups have developed these preferences from human experiences across history – a preference for youth when new opportunities and exploration are needed, a preference for older leadership when things are going well and incremental change is fine. The authors argued these are not stereotypes.
2. Regardless of theoretical orientation, their results point to possible biases in how we think about leaders, both on the political stage and in organizations. Do we really prefer younger leaders where change is imperative? Are we inclined toward older workers where things are going well and change is not imperative? Spisak et al.’s participants (university undergraduates) may limit how much we can conclude from their report. Even so they raise interesting questions about how we may view age and leadership in different situations.
Spisak, B. R., Grabo, A. E., Arvey, R. D., & van Vugt, M. (2014). The age of exploration and exploitation: Younger-looking leaders endorsed for change and older-looking leaders endorsed for stability. The Leadership Quarterly, 25(5), 805-816.
Image of "Beard Face" by Ben Pollard. URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ben_pollard/2096491305/
Used with permission. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en
© John Ballard, PhD, 2019. All rights reserved. Modified from an earlier blog, October 2014.
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