In June of 2016, I left my job as CEO of the Institute for Nonprofit Leadership, handed the mantle to a much younger woman, and began my retirement. I was 74. The INP was on the verge of a major expansion – adding programs in New York and possibly Chicago among other cities –and although I found it all tremendously exciting, I didn’t want to lead that effort. And I also didn’t see myself as the best person to do so. . Friends, family, and colleagues supported my decision as the right move at the right time.
With the debate over age and the presidency now raging, I find myself musing on the question of timing: Why did I think it best to pass the torch?
The obvious answer was that I had grown old, that I wasn’t up to the task. It was time for new ideas and new energy. There’s some truth to the energy matter…less about ideas, since I still have lots of them. It seems to me, though, that it might be even more useful to turn our lens elsewhere: towards the differences between my successor, Yolanda Coentro, and me. She’s a brilliant manager and leader, far more adept than I at building teams and operational systems, managing to strategy, and speaking to large audiences. Even if I were 40, she’d be the right, and I the wrong, person to lead the INP at this phase of its development.
At the same time, I believe that, if I chose to, I’d still be entirely competent to begin new organizations, consult on strategic considerations with organizations ranging from startups to national corporations (which I have done in the past), or restart a psychotherapy practice. In other words, the distinction between Yolanda and me might have more to do with temperament and skill than with age.
I’m getting irritated with people like Seth Moulton, who smugly talk about the need for new blood without saying what youth would add, what they would stand for, or what they can accomplish that old pros like Nancy Pelosi can’t. Why wouldn’t a wise old head with lots of energy and experience fill the presidential leadership role as well or better than a young Turk?
The Nobel Prize winning scientist, Harold Varmus, quips that he doesn’t think “anyone is competent to be president of the United States.” There’s an impossible amount to learn. Besides, if s/he’s over 70, there’s a 20% chance s/he’ll die in office. That said, Varmus, who was born in 1939, served as the Director of the National Cancer Institute from 2010 to 2015. You do the math. “I’m still pretty good at learning new stuff,” he said. As a matter of face, he believes that his judgment, writing ability, perspective, and temperament had all seemed to improve in his late 80’s. So, yes, he figures that he could have responsibly taken on the presidency late in life.
You might say that Varmus is the exception, but that is precisely my point. People vary so much, not just in their skills and temperament but also in how they age. Years ago, Howard Gardner, wanting to break our society’s fixation on logical and verbal skills, insisted that there are many forms of intelligence, including musical, rhythmic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and kinesthetic. Daniel Goleman has documented the importance of “emotional intelligence,” and Angela Duckworth, among many others, tell us that “grit” is as important as any other quality in predicting the success or failure of children — and adults.
Research has also provided a more textured idea of our cognitive ability as it evolves through a lifetime. Raymond Cattell, for instance, juxtaposes two kinds of intelligence—“fluid” and “crystallized.” “Fluid intelligence” is the ability to reason and solve novel problems, independent of accumulated knowledge. This is the stuff of logical problem solving, as well as scientific, mathematical, and technical problem solving. It is the form of intelligence tested by I.Q. exams and generally peaks in the twenties.
Crystallized intelligence is acquired through experience and education. Another cognitive psychologist, Richard Nisbett, concludes that:
“…when it comes to intelligence, experience can outrun biology… Older people make more use of higher-order reasoning schemes that emphasize the need for multiple perspectives, allow for compromise, and recognize the limits of knowledge.” Despite a decline in “fluid intelligence,” complicated reasoning that relates to people, moral issues or political institutions improves with age.”
I would add that our nation — perhaps all nations — has a narrow (and erroneous) idea about what kind of mind and temperament are best suited to leadership. Generally we envision assertive, decisive men, preferably 6’1” or taller, able to stand strong and alone even when buffeted by setbacks and criticism. That ideal is closer to Ayn Rand’s amoral bully than we’d like to think. But great leadership comes with the ability to bring together people and resources in the service of objectives. It is the achievement of shared objectives that we’re after, isn’t it? And that requires a very different set of skills than the popular model, which imagining charisma to be the end all, envisions.
What if we assess our leaders on their ability to select and depend on others with greater expertise in specific arenas? to bring out the best in individuals and teams — like the Cabinet, for instance, or the Foreign Service? These skills require considerable social-emotional intelligence as well as some humility. There’s no guarantee that older politicians, who have lived years with life’s complexities, will necessarily demonstrate this style of leadership. But I might bet on them first.
I’m not suggesting that older people are necessarily better at leadership. Clearly there are virtues in both youth and age — and each person, each candidate needs to be evaluated not as a general phenomenon but as an individual. We might associate youth with vigor, daring, and originality but, for example, which of the Democratic candidates now seems the most vigorous, creative, and mentally alive? Whether you like her or not, you’d have to say it’s Elizabeth Warren.
What’s more, we shouldn’t have to guess so much about our politicians’ ability. What if we figure out some of the basic qualities required of presidential leadership, like social-emotional intelligence, and the ability to both understand and act in large, complex systems, then require candidates to be tested before running for office. For that matter, why don’t we require annual physical and cognitive exams for those in high office? That way we might not be saddled with the Woodrow Wilson’s and Ronald Reagan’s of the world, whose mental infirmities were kept secret, their unelected proxies running the show.
I would like to see a much more nuanced discussion about age and presidential fitness and ability. Before leaping to conclusions, let’s ask what set of abilities and attributes suit the job and, only then, decide who meets our criteria.