Adults are not born, they are not products of 18+ years of living in a human body, they are made. The prerequisite for this creation into adulthood? The death of their identity and habits as a child. I’m not referring to the inner magical child, the enlightened innocence, the sense of wonderment that most of us could use more of. I’m referring to the insecure, ego-positioning, self-gratifying, not taking responsibility, me-firstness of a child.
I propose a serious cultural blind spot we have in this county and many other westernized countries is the lack of culturally sanctioned and supported rites of passages. Rites of passages in tribal cultures were the demarcation of becoming an adult where children went off into the bush to survive and pass through initiatory experiences. It was assumed by the tribe that some of the children would not return and that was rationalized in part by recognizing not everyone is made to become an adult due to the responsibilities that an adult must embody. While this can sound harsh, I am not suggesting we place our children in life-threatening rites of passages, simply to raise the bar about what it takes to become an adult and realize that we need to seek out our ongoing initiatory experiences because they are not readily presented to us.
How is this a coaching tip? How is this relevant for leadership? Stay with me. These tribal structures had generally, and I’m generalizing and over-simplifying for the sake of the point, three tiers within their society. They had children, they had adults, and they had elders. Elders were products of living a life as an adult and learning to become an integrated human being that would then be able to serve the role of stewardship of the tribe and the next generation of adults and eventual elders.
As a young leader in this transitioning world, mentorship has been an essential ingredient in the development of my competencies and general capacity over the course of my life. As I and my peers develop further, I am finding an interesting dynamic where existing leaders can feel threatened by the strong presence, ideas, expression, etc. of us emerging leaders. It is rare for me and my peers to both feel unconditionally “seen” by a supposed elder in a given field and inspired to emulate or at least learn from the experience of that person. Its also important to qualify that this article is coming from my and some of my peers lived experience and is simply the beginning of a dialogue that deeply needs to continue with input from all perspectives.
This point I am making is also not one to leverage a position to direct blame. This dynamic of the creation of elders, although rooted in not having culturally sanctioned and supported “true” rites of passages, still requires all of us at this time to come together and understand how to create a trans-generational dialogue that serves the future and the past. I believe this inquiry, within each individual, between peers, and inter-generationally, can begin to heal the cultural wound that has left us without many true elders and a lot of emergent leaders that have too much to prove, little direction, and are not connected to the honoring of the past that has enabled their privileged position. It’s important to note that a main reason we lack true elders, is because their wasn’t true elders to mentor the individuals who are currently inhabiting that generational role. What I am pointing to is a systemic problem and this inquiry is intended to invite a broader perspective to enable us as a community and society to engage and begin to remedy this issue.
For the sake of the article, I am going to refer to people on the cusp or in process of becoming an elder as “olders” and up and comers as “youngers.” I will be framing them in the context of relating with the other. I also want to acknowledge the limitation of my perspective as a younger and again point to the fact that this is a systemic issue needing many perspectives over time to begin to heal. What I’ve noticed is that when olders, are not “seen” by youngers for the contribution over time that has laid the track for emerging leaders, olders can get defensive, competitive, exclusionary, and searching to remain relevant at the same level they once were out of insecurity and fear of being obsolete and ultimately of death.
Youngers, when not “seen” by olders for their innovative insight, wisdom beyond their years, and potential to be a new paradigm leader, can also get defensive, disrespectful, dismissive of what they think are “outdated” modes, and arrogant in their righteous perspective. This often leads to impulsive action, learning hard lessons, and having to go through universal processes of human initiation and growth without a role model or mentor to normalize the difficulty and lend a wise hand and heart of support.
Olders do not become “elders” because facets of their child has not appropriately healed and transitioned into adulthood. This leads to the expression of some of the negative qualities I outlined above. Without clear models of eldership, youngers are left to fend for themselves and while bright and energized, have no clear north stars to receive guidance from. This leads to the continuation of the cycle of youngers who do not complete their childhood and become olders who are not able to step into true eldership.
Part of my vision of a future world is one where we re-engage the process of true rites of passages that enable the development of adults that eventually come into true eldership. This could then serve a societal guild structure where youngers are expected and groomed to surpass the mastery and positive impact of the olders. This is one, albeit idealized and over simplified, version of a future reality of interdependence.
From my perspective, qualities of a true elder in relationship to youngers include:
- one who knows when to be the sage on stage, when to be the guide on the side, and when to support the younger (emerging sage) to take the stage
- identifies youngers with potential, sees/names that potential and is willing to support in whatever way that serves their organic process
- can feel the trajectory of generativity and when their actions are coming from true inspiration (keep doing it!) and when they are coming from a need to stay relevant (time to step back)
- notices when they feel threatened by a younger’s perspective or presence and is honest about that internally, interpersonally, and works to heal that part within, rather than lean on egoic patterns of defense
- has a genuine desire to serve evolution and be surpassed in mastery, scope of influence, and success by those that they have paved the way for
- is actively seeking constructive feedback from peers, youngers, and Life itself
From my perspective, a younger that serves cultural evolution in relationship to elders has qualities that include:
- one who humbly realizes that they are in a privileged position of riding the wake of the forerunners that have come before them
- one who respects the gifts of the older generation and also boldly and respectfully points out the blindspots that they see solutions for as opposed to criticizing what they feel is obsolete or sub-optimal
- one who actively seeks out the synthesis of previous forms of knowledge and understands that innovation that comes through them is simply novel iterations of what has come before
- seeks mentorship from olders in different domains of mastery without placing anyone on a pedestal or giving away their power or discernment
- has a genuine desire for mastery, a willingness to collaborate, and have the intention to share that mastery through collaboration, mentorship and the eventual expression as an elder.
- is actively seeking constructive feedback from peers, olders, and Life itself
It is my hope that this article can invite natural self-correcting insights and impulses within olders, youngers, and in-between-ers alike. To truly shift our society as a whole will take time, collaboration, innovation, and new structures that support comprehensive and embodied leadership development for future generations.
I understand that there are some true elders out there, partial elders, and olders posing as elders. My intention is that olders posing as elders can engage the necessary inner work required to step into their eldership, partial elders to engage the necessary inner work required to step into comprehensive eldership, and true elders to hone their expression and support catalyzing their peers into this capacity more and more.
We must mend this divide between olders and youngers and establish, as much as possible, a true guild system. This guild system enables olders to stand in their mastery, experience, and view from a life well-lived. It also allows olders to identify, witness, and invite and be available to be asked by youngers into appropriate mentorship relationships that deepen and support both parties. It also enables youngers to understand they are privileged in their position and must respect the ground they stand on and the lack of perspective their limited experience offers to them while honoring the deeper evolutionary wisdom that cannot be taught by experience alone.
This coaching tip is not a static artifact of knowledge to be implemented, rather a jumping off point of a dialogue. May these ideas start conversations within, inter-generationally and trans-generationally to serve the unified reality we live within and co-create together. We are working to cohere the wisdom of the past and future to take individual and collective steps in the present to steward the emerging world that is possible.
***Upon writing this article, it was clear that this topic requires a larger body of work to fully flesh out the nuance of what I am pointing to and it also requires multiple voices to weave together a more complete picture. I humbly ask that you receive this article with the caveats of the limited space and multiple qualifiers that act as placeholders for the nuance to come in time from me and ideally many conversation partners from all generations and realms of experience.
About the Author
Michael Brabant, PhD is a facilitator who guides individuals and groups interested in embodied spiritual awakening to embrace the totality of their human experience as the essential stepping stone towards their divine embodiment and expression. From a young age, Michael was always acting as an ethnographer of his environment, studying the ways people interact and how life unfolds, initially reaching for transcendence to move away from deep psychological pain. By uncovering the beauty within his pain, the light within his shadow, and the clarity within his confusion, he now shares a teaching what he calls Divine Humanity. His first 5 years in graduate school were spent in a clinical psychology doctoral program and simultaneously in a MA in Integral Theory at JFK University. He eventually transferred to Saybrook University to complete his PhD in Psychology and Interdisciplinary Inquiry where he researched an integrally-informed leadership curriculum that wove together transformative learning and embodied secular growth practices within a learning community context aimed at qualitatively expanding student’s worldview. You can learn more about his work at