Passing the Torch to the Same Generation

A fellow airplane passenger recently told me what he considered a tragic story. He had built a large company up from scratch over 40 years. As his 70th birthday approached, he wanted to retire from his demanding position as President and CEO. He had planned to turn the business over to his protégé, who would lead it into a bright future. But then his chosen successor suddenly died!

I started in with the usual bromides: “So sad to see people cut down in the prime of life, so much left undone” etc. I then asked if the protégé had had young children.

“No” the CEO responded, “but one of his grandkids is only 11 and is taking it pretty hard. They were close.”

Puzzled, I asked how old the promising young heir to the throne was at the time of his death.

“65,” the CEO said sadly.

I said something like “Well, uh, well, uh, that certainly is a shock that, uh, I mean, to think that a person in their mid-60s could die is uh, well, uh, what can one say, really? You know the inflight movie is a Whoopi Goldberg/Pauly Shore vehicle that has always had a special place in my heart, so I’m going to watch it now but I wish you the best in working this out.”

I have seen many elderly people handle the transfer of control to the next generation smoothly and wisely. But I have also heard variants of the CEO’s story many times as well. Like many psychologists, I am fascinated by failures in human rationality and wonder what drives some people to such unwise decisions when the time comes to pass the torch.

It is no feat of mathematical wizardry to conclude that if you want someone to lead your company/institute/department/initiative for 20 years after you have retired, you should be looking at candidates who are at least 20 years younger than you are. Yet there are many organizations in which the current leader and all the plausible successors have heads of grey hair if they have any hair at all. I have several non-competing hypotheses that might explain this phenomenon.

(1) It feels rude to tell people that they are old enough to start planning for a transition.

I once evaluated a scientific center’s 5-year grant proposal for which one of the evaluation criteria was mentorship of young investigators. The mean age of the team presenting its application to our review panel was in the 60s so I raised this issue. The head of the center, a twinkly-eyed professor in his 70s, responded “We have always been committed to bringing along the next generation — Dr. Smith sitting right here next to me was my graduate student!”. Everyone laughed at his charming answer, including me.

It would have been churlish to say the truth: “Yes, over three decades ago she was your graduate student but that doesn’t make her a young investigator. And a man your age has a reasonable chance of ill health and death over the next 5 years, and it’s isn’t responsible to pretend that that is an impossibility.” So I said nothing and let it pass. Before the 5 years were up, Dr. Smith had retired and the head of the center had had a stroke, leading to an organizational crisis.

(2) The United States of America has a youth-obsessed culture, which leads many people to not want to accept that they are in fact old.

I don’t identify with this personally because I look forward to being old and value the company of the elderly more than I do that of the young. But I see it everywhere in insistent pronouncements that “30 is the new 20″ and “60 is the new 40″. I see it in the face lifts and dye jobs and trophy wives: Many people do not want to admit to themselves or others that they are old.

This self-deception could play out in organizational transition decisions if one’s own “youth” becomes a false anchor for judging the youth of one’s potential successors. If someone who is only 5 years younger than me is young, then logically I must be pretty young too. But if I have to look for successors 20 or 30 years younger than me, then I really must be old.

For the CEO I met on the plane, I suspect some of this was wrapped up in fear of death. If a 65 year old is not immortal then by implication a 69 year old CEO isn’t either. A scary thought for some, and one that can lead them to pretend to themselves that their chosen heir is a bright young thing rather than a fellow Medicare recipient.

(3) The Baby Boom has been suckled on youth culture more than any prior generation.

For 40 years, the mass media has told Baby Boomers that they are the most important and best people who ever lived, and that includes their being eternally youthful. That omnipresent media/marketing message combined with the enormous size of the Boomer generation means that with each passing year, we have more old people who don’t think of themselves or their same-age peers as old. Whatever individual psychological barriers there are to accepting one’s old age, they become magnified when they are sociologically shared within a generation.

If 70-year olds on a corporate boards can ask “I’m not old enough to think about a successor, am I?” and have a dozen other board members in their 60s and 70s respond “Of course not — none of us are!”, a culture of age-denial will persist in many organizations. Because everyone dies eventually (yes, even Boomers) that’s going to lead to some ineptly-handed organizational transitions in many domains of American life in the coming years. The exceptions will be the wise heads who understand that the search for new, youthful leadership starts with an acceptance of being old.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.