Helena Clayton | Leadership or eldership?



Leadership or eldership?

02 Aug 2020, Posted by Helena Clayton in Work as Love in Action

What creates loving cultures in our organisations? What enables the conditions for love to thrive? 

In my world of leadership development – and looking to develop our capacity to love – this post explores what the idea of eldership might offer us.  Whether we leaders or not – as we grow older and into our more mature years, in and through midlife – in which direction do we need to grow? 

Most people deemed leaders in organisations are likely in midlife, the time of life (according to Jung and those who have come after him) between approximately 40 – 55yrs when we question our purpose and search for greater meaning. Two key questions for that time are: ‘who do I want to be?’ and ‘how do I make the rest of my life really MEAN something?’ It’s a time of opportunity and also choice in particular: do we choose to move towards a deeper exploration of ourselves and our life?  And: do we choose to take action on behalf of others?

Midlife is often a gateway to our ‘second half of life’, although many authors, like Richard Rohr, are quick to say that’s not meant in a strictly chronological way but is more of an indication about our orientation and attitude to life.  And with new thinking about our lives are changing as our lifespan extends, we may need to reconsider the idea of two halves and think instead of three thirds.

But anyway, the literature is in agreement: as we enter midlife, we have new roles to consider for ourselves.  One of those is the role of ‘elder’ and eldership.

Eldership.  What’s that?

The term comes from traditional societies and indigenous peoples, and from times and places that many of us have lost connection with.  It means someone with ’a level of growth and service who is seen as critical to the wellbeing of the community’.   Eldership is an archetype, if you like – a template for someone who is ‘universally valued as necessary for the emotional and spiritual health of societies’.

I especially like how Stephen Jenkinson describes elders as a ‘sentinel species for humanness’. We need as many people as possible as to stand up for our humanness and our humanity right now.  Anything that puts humanness at the heart of how we show up will get my vote.

Which makes me pause and think as I write.  At 56yrs, what ARE the ways that my growth and service makes a contribution to the wellbeing or to the humanness of society? How would we each answer that, I wonder?

From my initial reading into eldership let me pick out a few things here that, for me, also link with leadership and with love.


  1. See the biggest picture (not just the bigger picture)

Eldership is not only about seeing the bigger picture but the biggest picture.  Elders hold the most encompassing and holistic view possible, a view that takes in all of the complexities of a situation.  This is someone who can see and accept the extended consequences of something and can hold and accept the polarities and contradictions inherent in that. Elders see and focus on interrelated systems and communities rather than individual components and communities. They hold multiple thoughts and ideologies at once. They understand things from many different perspectives.

Rare, right?

So rare that Robert Kegan suggests that this ability might be found in only 1% of the population.  In vertical development terms this is the self-transforming mind where more than simply adding more information into the container (our mind …) that already exists, we work to change the very form of the container—making our minds larger, more complex, more able to deal with multiple demands and uncertainty. Kegan recognises that not everyone will do the work needed to reach this level of conscious awareness – but it’s a level of development we should be aware of and work to attain.

Michael Meade says something similar.  He believes we need transformation not progress.  We need a transformation of humanity so that each one of us can transform into a new shape, with a new imagining of ourselves if we are to stand a chance of changing the world. He’s talking about leadership here, for sure, but also leaders with such an eagle’s eye view and such a grasp on the  complexities of life that they can transcend the day-to-day tensions that most of us get stuck in.

If you consider Kegan’s theory, which stage of development do you think you’re at?  How many leaders do you know who really hold this perspective and are at one of these more evolved stages? And if love is about expansion, as I have written about previously, how are you developing your capacity to expand your own container to develop a more loving perspective?

  1. Deep insight, wisdom and awareness

An elder is someone we turn to for deep insight, wisdom and awareness when we’re confronted with new challenges and need help. So not just someone who sees the biggest picture but someone who grasps it so well that they can help you make sense of it.  This is someone we would naturally turn do who is safe, wise and mature, who helps us sense-make from our experiences, puts life events in context, helps create more robust awareness of the things that are going on around us and helps us ‘sit with and learn to bear current anxiety’.

This is someone who has really done their own work to intentionally and consciously consider and harvest the wisdom from their life experiences. As Martin Shaw says ‘if we don’t glean the gold, then we never have a gift to give to others’.  Stephen Jenkinson is good on this point too: he says that we treat aging in the West as ‘an extended-play middle age’ – and make no conscious effort to look back and review our life so that we can develop insight that might be useful for others, and develop our capacities to hold space for those who need it.

Maybe this role already feels as if it could be your coach, a mentor, your best friend or your grandmother. And yes, any one of those might well have developed and embodied eldership in this way.  But would you ever consider one of your organisational leaders to have these capabilities?  Do they have a wise and loving presence? Would you turn to one of your leaders for deep insight and awareness?  And what qualities or ways of being are you cultivating in yourself that mean people might turn to you at such moments?  How are you developing your capacity to be a loving and wise presence that people seek out?

  1. Being in service to the world

An elder uses their unique gifts and accumulated life skills and wisdom to be of service to the world in need and works towards creating benefit for others on a large scale.  This is someone who understands how our personal qualities and gifts can best serve the greater good.  Someone who focuses less on their own satisfaction, fulfilment or growth or having something useful to do as we age (although it does encompass these) and more on that of others. Someone who sees beyond their own team or their own organisation’s priorities.  This is more about ‘serving life itself as we develop experiential awareness of our own importance in something much larger than our own lives’ says Ron Pevny.  ‘You first; me after’.  It’s the most ethical stance we can take says Bernard-Henri-Levy.

This means, for example, that organisational leaders need to focus not just on turning the wheels of an organisation – unless that organisation has a clear social or environmental purpose in the world, maybe – but is also focused on activism of some sort, vigorous campaigning for social or environmental change.  Eldership means making a contribution towards easing the suffering of others in some way.

What does your organisation do to serve the wider needs of the world, beyond its commitments to itself? What do you do? What would you be willing to give up or sacrifice  – willingly and with love – to be of more use to others?  How can your gifts be put to use to help others?  What do you see happening in the world that is not ok – and what are you trying to do about it?

  1. ‘Deepened by diminishment’

In a world mostly focused on achievement and success and ‘the centre stage of life which is the principle seduction of middle age’ elders have developed the capacity to be deeply connected with and accepting of our limits and frailties, our failures and our flaws, our losses and disappointments, the things we have left undone.  And not only accepting but actually ‘deepened by diminishment’.  This is bold and radical work because ‘something in our culture inveighs severely against limit and ambivalence and not firing on all cylinders’.  So eldership is about ‘surrendering wide ranging competence with increasing grace’ and coming to terms with the ways that the life we thought we would have is not the life we actually have.  The ‘skilfulness of an elder is to be found not in avoiding loss but in knowing how to lose, learning to pay the price with more grace as you go’.

In the collapse of so many plans and hopes, brought on by the pandemic, when we have been deeply connected to our own vulnerability and that of others, helping people process loss and grief and sadness is now an increasingly essential skill of a leader.  It’s part of a leadership role.  There’s too much struggle in the lives of people in our teams for it NOT to be.

And work on grief and loss is work with love at its heart because it requires radical acceptance, compassion and courage. Love is called into play at exactly the time when people are at their most vulnerable.

How are you with loss and grief, weakness and frailty and vulnerability?  Your own and others?  Where are you experiencing some form of diminishment in your life and how are you responding?  Can you meet this with love, as an elder might? And how are the leaders in your organisation at working with loss and frailty? Does this stuff get spoken about in your workplace or with colleagues?  Why not?

So. Developing eldership in leadership 

As I think more about leadership and love, and what sort of leadership development work is needed to cultivate the conditions for love, I’m now adding eldership to my thinking.  Just as the qualities of leadership don’t automatically accrue to those in a senior roles or to someone with that title, so the qualities associated with aging well – maturity, wisdom, perspective, generosity – are not givens as we grow older.  We have to actively cultivate our wisdom and our maturity because most of us ‘become older and older without becoming wider and wiser’.

As I have written elsewhere, love takes intentional practice (as does leadership, natch) and so too does eldership.  ‘Becoming an elder is not an automatic process nor a right, but an aspiration and something that human beings are designed for if we put our heart and mind to it’, says Diana Percy.  So elderhood offers us new things we need to practice intentionally and consciously.

So modern leadership development can also help develop eldership.  We can:

  • encourage deep and radical inner personal growth work that helps us ‘get out of our own way’ by exploring and healing our wounds and frees us up to offer a loving response to the world
  • challenge assumptions and bring new perspectives and ways of seeing so that the container of our mind is expanded to be able to increase our capacity for working with complexity and paradox
  • support leaders to identify what matters most to them in the world, focus on the idea of ‘being in service’ and help them see that they have a responsibility that goes beyond them to others to ease suffering in the wider world.

That’s the sort of work that I want to do in the world.  Coming back to that question at the start of this piece, maybe that’s one of the ways that my growth and service might make a contribution to the wellbeing or to the humanness of society.

What about you?

H x

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    Profound and important stuff! Thank you for taking up this baton and adding to it. I can’t tell you how much sense this all makes to someone in their mid seventies. Your blog is helping me further crystallise my role in life and the continuing work I need to do.

    • Helena Clayton

      Thank you, Nigel. I was coaching someone in their late 20’s the other day and they had such clarity for themselves about these things – it was amazing, so rare. And so we also have ‘young elders’ in our midst 🙂

  • Dave Burton

    Hi Helen, great to see something written about eldership. I’m 70 and have developed a passion for this topic! I’ve built a list of characteristics that contribute to eldership. One that stands out of me is that the elder does the work without having full access to or knowledge of the consequences of the work.. The elder does the work for the sake of doing the work and may never know what the outcome was. This to me speaks to the elders need to function without validation or judgment of the work’s value

    • Helena Clayton

      Hi Dave, and thank you, I love the way you phrase that …doing the work without knowing the consequences. Yes, trust that the work (Work) has merit and have faith that when we keep doing it the effects will show up somewhere 🙂
      Thank you
      Helena x

  • Richard Grey

    Hi Helena,

    Long time, no see! But … not forgotten! I’ve just read this (your piece on Eldership) as this is a current focus of mine too. I would love to know more about your thoughts on the subject and your research. You mention several people in your post of whom I haven’t yet heard. I am in the middle of one of Stephen Jenkinson’s books – ‘Come of Age’ – and his audiobook ‘Die Wise’. I also have a copy of Louise Aronson’s ‘Eldership’ which I have yet to start. As you may already know, MKP has an ‘Elder Circle’ which I joined recently and we’re starting to explore a ‘Conscious Elder Journey’ with a nominated ‘companion’. At 62 years of age (63 next month, October 2020) I had the good fortune to retire from paid employment a few years ago and since then I have been struggling with the question “What do I want to do now?” Serving the community seems like one pre-requisite for elderhood. And I’ve read or heard many times that by doing so, we serve ourselves. I love that you are focussing on love and leadership (and now eldership) in organizations and wonder if that includes life, love, leadership and service, after our organizational identities come to an end?

    • Helena Clayton

      Hi there Richard, and thanks for commenting. Yes, I went to MKP for some inspiration when I first started exploring this topic and James Benn was super helpful. And thanks for the Aronson reference – I’ll now go and buy that, not least because much on eldership is written from a masculine perspective.
      And yes, I love what you say …’that in serving the community, we also serve ourselves’.
      H x

  • Jeannie Hodder

    Hi Helena,
    So many wonderful thought provoking ideas and questions, taking leadership development into a much bigger frame. Thank you for exploring this under-used resource. So relieving to include meaning and purpose at the heart of leadership development. It is important that eldership is given gravitas; that we elders are now sometimes not so driven by the need to achieve status, a good salary and recognition. We can use our wealth of experience and wisdom in service of our humanness e.g. acting to prevent climate disaster. I certainly feel more free now to act in line with my values, freed from financial and personal imperatives.

    • Helena Clayton

      Thanks Jeannie, and likewise, the question of how I want to show up as I age and how I can best put my experience to good use is a very current one for me. H x


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