Leadership for the Third Age

By Fahey, Charles | Aging Today, September/October 2012 | Go to article overview

Leadership for the Third Age


Fahey, Charles, Aging Today


Developing leadership is vital to the aging community since the well-being of people at all life stages involves their interaction with groups- from family to government to the whole human community.

The field has grown concomitantly with the number of elders, a cohort made up of individuals each with diverse capacities and needs. Virtually all sectors of society are striving to accommodate this demographic change and its epidemiological influence. In this rich environment, people and institutions have beenand are- rising to alter the status quo.

What a privilege to have been asked to participate in this issue of Aging Today. It has afforded me the opportunity to take a (virtual) walk down memory lane in the company of so many special people.

Unfortunately, in our busy lives we can become preoccupied and neglect to step back to consider personal and societal successes and failures- as well as the key figures in our industry. In my personal journey, still underway, I have been privileged to learn from and engage with those mentioned below, as well as countless others- many friends and colleagues-as we move through a new and emerging human experience.

Both in the United States and across the globe, people are beginning to recognize and come to grips with a new realitya Third Age- as a normal part of the life cycle with its inherent challenges, opportunities and even perils for all humankind.

Leading in Many Milieus

As a framework for this In Focus section of Aging Today on leadership we need to make a few distinctions. "Time" and "space-place" are important components in leadership. For the time element, we look to examples from the past, assess current activities and prepare for the future. Each period provides challenges, needs, opportunities and obstacles when leading. With passing time come com* plexity and a tendency to forget the past.

From a "space-place" perspective, we consider local communities, states and the nation as a whole. Leadership is rooted in different fields- government, community organization, institutional life, research and the media.

Leaders need three components to be successful: a time or place when action is needed, personal capacity that matches the "felt need" of a group and a readiness to risk success or failure. Some leaders will evolve because of a particular competence, for example microbiologist Leonard Hayflick in the biology of aging; others because of a specific societal need, such as Irving Wright, the founder of the American Foundation for Aging Research, or Robert Ball- the hero (in my judgment) of Social Security.

A "structural leader" is one who occupies a societally defined role such as that of public official or institution head. Then there is achieved or earned leadership by competent leaders who inspire people to do great things through skill and moral persuasiveness. Occasionally, structural leaders have earned the acceptance of those in their domain; unfortunately this isn't always the case.

A Look Back at Leadership

In 1951, President Harry Truman ordered the Federal Security Agency to convene a national conference that became the precursor to what are now the White House Conferences on Aging. In 1958, Congressman John E. Fogarty introduced legislation signed by President Eisenhower for such a conference to be held in 1961. This and subsequent conferences spurred the country to focus on the capacity and needs of elders, and marked the beginning of a movement that would change America's consciousness and social institutions. It- and subsequent events- gave rise to new leaders in the field of aging.

From the private sector, people such as Ethel Percy Andrus, Ollie Randall and Gloria Cavanaugh were key in establishing national organizations that developed and nurtured many who became and are leaders in aging organizations. Michael Harrington exemplified the power of the media by his book, The Other America (MacMillan, 1962), which greatly influenced President John F. …

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