Are age and experience overrated when it comes to leadership?

Studies show that children who can delay gratification -- by resisting marshmallows -- are more successful as adults than those who can't (courtesy of Smith609)

Age and experience: How much do they matter when it comes to positions of power and authority?

Fifty years ago today, the United States elected its youngest leader to date — John F. Kennedy was just 43 when he edged out Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election. The U.S. Constitution, of course, sets minimum-age requirements for the House (25 years old), Senate (30) and presidency (35). Many other countries set the bar somewhat higher. In Italy, for instance, a person must be at least 50 to become president.

In education, there aren’t any minimum-age requirements for principals or superintendents (at least, not to my knowledge), and in this day and age it’s no longer odd to find young people at the helm.

Consider Shonda Davis. Last month she was appointed principal of Barringer High School in Newark, N.J., a troubled high school of 1,300 students whose leader, Ron Lustig, quit after one month on the job. Davis is 27.

And then there’s Zeke Vanderhoek, who founded Manhattan GMAT — a high-end test-prep company that has done very well since its founding in 2001 — in his early 20s and who is now, at 34, principal of The Equity Project (TEP) Charter School that he founded three years ago. The school, which grabbed headlines for its business model of paying teachers minimum salaries of $125,000 each, opened its doors in September 2009.

Michelle Rhee, former Chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools, was appointed to that position by Mayor Adrian Fenty when she was 37. Rhee had three years of teaching experience.

This isn’t an entirely new trend — back in 1964 Ted Sizer became dean of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education at age 31 — but it seems to be accelerating.

It is against this backdrop that I participated in a recent discussion — entitled “Manage Millennials to Get Their Best Work” — on the BAM! Radio Network, with Jeanne Meister (an expert on workplace learning) and Holly Elissa Bruno (our host).

Jeanne noted that “millennials” — whom she defines as those born between 1977 and 1997 — constitute about 38 percent of our current workforce. She also noted that millennials will be a majority of the nation’s workforce by 2020, at which point we’ll have five generations working side by side.

Are millennials different than their predecessors? If so, in what ways? Jeanne argues that millennials have a different set of expectations than previous generations — and that, among other things, they’re much more driven and want to be developed in personal, social ways (such as through mentors or “coaches” at work). Also, they have come of age communicating online and prefer texting or Instant-Messaging over the more traditional, old-school form of email. (Who would have thought that we’d already be describing email as “old-school” by 2010?)

In a May 2010 Harvard Business Review article, Jeanne and her co-author Karie Willyerd report the following from their survey of 2,200 professionals in a number of fields: “Millennials view work as a key part of life, not a separate activity that needs to be ‘balanced’ by it. For that reason, they place a strong emphasis on finding work that’s personally fulfilling. They want work to afford them the opportunity to make new friends, learn new skills, and connect to a larger purpose. That sense of purpose is a key factor in their job satisfaction; according to our research, they’re the most socially conscious generation since the 1960s.”

They also point out, as Jeanne did on the radio show, that millennials want constant and immediate feedback on how they’re doing at work. But this isn’t necessarily something their supervisors are accustomed to providing, of course. Jeanne and her co-author suggest three types of mentoring that can work for the “mobile, collaborative lifestyle and need for immediacy” that characterize millennials: reverse mentoring, group mentoring and anonymous mentoring. (To find out the specifics on these, read the original HBR article.)

Jeanne described “anonymous mentoring” on the radio show as similar in approach to A person can identify areas he or she wants to grow and develop in, and then an online platform – making use of “micro-feedback assessment” – allows for peers or mentors to offer anonymous feedback, Twitter-style (max. 400 characters). The beauty of such feedback, Jeanne said, is that it’s succinct and immediate — two things millennials prize.

I ended up playing something of the skeptic in the conversation, arguing that just because millennials want certain things doesn’t mean they should always get them. Yes, younger people tend to like workplaces that are less hierarchical and less formal — the Googleplex, complete with free laundry rooms, swimming pools and beach-volleyball courts, is perhaps this generation’s ideal — but there is also some value in hierarchy and formality. So, too, is there value in paying one’s dues and working one’s way up the corporate ladder rather than expecting to be CEO by 30.

I very much believe that learning to delay gratification is an important life skill. Parents, and teachers, need to be in the business of teaching young people that we don’t always get what we want right away (or ever!). Self-control and persistence are values we should instill in children from birth, not least so that people don’t immediately give up when something goes awry. It’s no secret that many — most? — inventions are the result of hundreds, or thousands, of failed attempts. Success is sometimes the result of a lifetime of failure, which is a lesson quitters never learn.