What is the ideal age for a leader?

At a recent conference for leaders of major Jewish organizations, I had the privilege of representing Colel Chabad, Israel’s oldest and largest food security organization. While speaking on a panel about the challenges and opportunities facing “legacy” institutions, I noticed that I was by far the youngest person onstage — which was interesting because Colel Chabad was also the oldest organization in the room, having been established in the mid-18th century by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Rebbe of Chabad.

This juxtaposition got me thinking about the respective benefits of older versus younger leadership. 

Older leaders offer wisdom and stability gleaned through their years of experience, which is essential for guiding organizations through challenges. They have a more informed perspective that helps them understand the long-term implications of their actions, ensuring stability and continuity within the organization.

Young leaders, on the other hand, bring fresh ideas that can jump-start innovation and growth. Their familiarity with new technologies and trends allows them to adapt quickly and implement organizational goals in an ever-changing world. The dynamism and enthusiasm of youth can be a powerful catalyst for change, inspiring others and injecting a renewed sense of mission and excitement into the organization.

Looking around at what’s happening in society — particularly the recent wave of campus protests — one might conclude that young people are inherently irresponsible or misguided. The fervor and idealism of youth can sometimes be reckless or destructive, fueling the argument that senior leaders should remain at the helm, with young people relegated to supporting roles.

It is clear that we need to combine and leverage both the wisdom of the experienced and the passion of the youth, but the common approach — placing older individuals in top leadership roles while young people merely assist — often results in young leaders feeling sidelined, their enthusiasm going to waste as they are not genuinely empowered to lead. This is what leads to a society in which the youth feel compelled to shout their idealistic demands from the rooftops and impose their perspective on society. This arrangement not only fosters agitation and moral confusion amongst our youth but also leaves the roles of action and execution to the older generation.

This conventional model is fundamentally flawed, and the solution lies in a paradigm shift that transposes the traditional roles of youth and elders. This is where the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whose 30th yahrzeit we mark today, offers a profound and revolutionary vision.

The Rebbe had a unique approach that went beyond simply acknowledging the strengths of both generations. He believed that youth should be at the forefront of leadership, harnessing their vigor and innovative spirit to drive initiatives forward. This was not just a strategy but a fundamental aspect of his philosophy. The Rebbe saw the youth’s natural affinity for innovation and their rejection of stagnation and consensus as a divine gift meant to spread the wisdom of G-d far and wide. Even in the ’60s, when the Jewish establishment was shocked by the counterculture movement and vocal youth rebellion, the Rebbe saw a spiritual longing beneath this defiance, a longing that could not be calmed and would not be quieted by societal conventions. Granted, their energy needed to be channeled productively and towards Divine goals, but their passion and willingness to buck the status quo could be a tremendous tool in making the world a better place. 

The Rebbe’s vision for the elderly was equally revolutionary. He rejected the conventional notion of retirement as a time to withdraw from active life. Instead, he viewed those golden years as an opportunity for an even greater — albeit adjusted — form of contribution. The Rebbe valued the life experience and accumulated wisdom of older individuals, encouraging them to remain engaged as mentors and advisors to the younger generation. Their insight and guidance could help shape the actions and decisions of the youth, ensuring that their energy and innovation are aligned with timeless values and principles. 

The Rebbe’s philosophy was not just theoretical but practical. He put his beliefs into action by trusting young leaders to fill significant roles and sending them to diverse and challenging locations across the globe. My father, Rabbi Sholom Duchman, was only 22 the first time he represented the Rebbe in a meeting with a prime minister of Israel. Rabbi Avraham Shemtov was in his 20s when he started representing Chabad in Washington, D.C., and Rabbi Berel Lazar was also in his 20 when he took his position in Moscow. Today, that model continues as the Rebbe’s army numbers over 5,000 couples, with an overwhelming majority beginning in their role while still in their 20s. 

This approach is revolutionary not only in that it leverages the strengths of both young and old, but in getting the setup right. If we as a society can adopt this formula, we can accomplish amazing things. We should empower the youth and enable their contributions, while simultaneously ensuring that the framework and direction are garnered from the wisdom of the ages. This is especially true for us as Jews; our tradition is not static but entrusted to each new generation to carry forward.

By harnessing the energy of the youth and the wisdom of the elders, we can build a future that honors our past and embraces the possibilities of tomorrow.

Rabbi Zalman Duchman is the director of development at Colel Chabad, Israel’s oldest continuously operating charity. He lives with his family on Roosevelt Island, N.Y., where he directs Chabad of Roosevelt Island.