I remember one of the first times I felt old. While serving as a student pastor, I once entered our church’s gym and was met by a student exclaiming that another student had just “hit the Quan.” I immediately began looking around for something broken thinking, What is a “Quan”? Did this student mean “quad”? Can a quad even be broken? What’s going on here? I’m sure I asked something dumb like, “Is everybody okay?” which was met with laughter as they explained “hit the Quan” is a dance move—insert Jake Peralta saying, “Coo-coo-coo-coo-cool. No doubt, no doubt, no doubt.”
While aging, specifically in a pastoral role, I gain valuable experience to better lead people.
However, we as leaders, if we’re not careful, experience comes with a cost: irrelevance.
We can become “set in our ways” and fail to meet the needs of the people we serve. Complacency sneaks us, and before we recognize it, we’ve become what frustrates us about older generations.
One of the things older generations struggle to understand about our generation is the brevity of our purchases. Take, for example, our grandparents, when they bought a couch or television, this represented a significant investment—because it was. Sofas were/are covered, and few have the clearance to operate the TV. Juxtaposed with our generation, I’m standing on the couch cheering on the Red Raiders on newer tv—both replaceable and have been. My amazing phone gets exchanged often, too. Whatever the item, because of the rate of technological advances, ease of access and affordability, we swap for newer and better often. (Amazon needs a Rent-A-Swag option). It’s why we’ve been dubbed “The Throwaway Generation.”
While I do believe we need to be conscientious of our waste, not ravaging and destroying our planet, the advantages of product replaceability includes our adaptability to change and openness to risk. We’re not afraid to test things out because if it breaks, we’ll get another one.
Of course, there is a flipside: disdain for the old. It’s no surprise we worship, yes worship, youth culture. We’ve smugly ignored a world that taught us how to use a spoon and the restroom. Often unintentionally we’ve tossed both our super cool tech and elderly to the curb. Guess what: we’re getting old, too! And if we’re not careful, the younger generation will do the same to us.
And no matter the education or experience we possess, we’ll be seen as irrelevant, losing the essential authority—influence—necessary to lead well.
Thankfully there is a solution: reverse mentoring. We may throw everything away, but let’s not toss the baby out with the bathwater—because that baby in a few months will be commanding the newest tech. It’s why their generation—the generation we’ll be leading—has already been unofficially named Generation Alpha. Not because they follow Z. But because they’re going to be Alphas, given all the resources they’ll have at their disposal. They won’t need our knowledge, but they will need our guidance, which requires influence.
To maximize your leadership—this goes for Generation Z, too—consider being mentored by someone at least a decade younger than you.
Beyond learning how to “hit the Quan,” here’s what the youth in my life have shown me:
Being myself is okay. I remember in primary school that if you didn’t have the right clothes—or have cable television—forget sitting at the cool kids’ table. Starter jackets and Abercrombie clothing were beacons of the influential. Now, personal style often ranks higher than expensive displays of conformity. However, in the Christian circle, I often witness awkward efforts to “fit in.” In a court-of-law the exhibits would be skinny jeans, outlandish haircuts, and exotic tattoos. If that’s your thing, cool. But for those of you it’s not, don’t fake it—it’s not worth the credibility hit. In a brand-centric society, students are looking for what (who) is real. I’ve discovered they don’t want me to be cool. They want me to be authentic. And the best way to be real is to be myself—consistently.
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Available access doesn’t always translate to access granted. The political battleground regularly centers around the middle-class. The discussion is usually about which policies will best enable this middle group of people to gain access to the highest quality of life possible. While noble, I’ve observed just because someone has access to something beneficial, doesn’t automatically mean they understand how to operate within it. Take, for example, technology. I’ve watched many students holding a device, with literal access to every answer in the known universe, yet be incapable of accessing the knowledge on account of not knowing the right questions to ask.
This helped me to realize that the best way to lead the following generations is less teaching and more coaching—which is a question-centric approach to learning.
How to speak their language. Interestingly, humans have evolved from hieroglyphics to sophisticated writing—like cursive, haha—back to the modern version hieroglyphics: emojis. What this reveals about our humanity is that, while words Scripturally have power, we are wired for the bigger story. Consider the selfie. It wasn’t that long ago when we asked strangers in fanny-packs to snap terrible family photos for us at Disney. Now the selfie is a thing with some arguing that the selfie isn’t always a narcissistic act. They maintain it’s a modern means of communication. I can attest to the validity of this claim. I exchanged selfies, with the occasional shoe-pic, for over a year building a Snapstreak with a teen who had relocated to a different state. Without the selfie streak, I’m not sure our mentoring would be where it is today. As leaders, we have a message to share, communicate it in their language.
Honestly, sometimes I wonder why the rising generation of leaders would consider what I have to say, especially now that I’m often twenty years their senior. But because I value reverse mentoring, they keep me young. Not so that I can be young, but lead the young. And isn’t that one of the best approaches to say thank you to those that led us: to pay it forward. So go ahead, be yourself, be a coach, learn their language, and hit the Quan.
Of all the things you’ll throw away this year, Gen Z and Generation Alpha are worth keeping, and it’ll be up to you whether you lead them or they toss you.