Eldership: Some Ideas on What, Why and How

A brief look on Google revealed a remarkable shortage of information about this topic. The Wikipedia entry focussed on church governance and hadn’t been updated for 13 years. There were no dictionary definitions but there were a lot of biblical ones! The most common themes in these were sobriety, reliability, fidelity and age (preferably plenty of it!).

So who, or what, is an elder? Or more importantly, what is “eldership”. If leadership is defined as “The capacity to pick up a role which in that moment is needed to keep things moving forward” then eldership is definitely a form of leadership. But it differs from leadership in that it has a quality of stillness rather than action; a quality of “being with” rather than “doing with”, a quality of offering information or catalysing insight rather than directing, a quality of developing rather than changing. This leads to the definition:

“Eldership is the capacity to be with a person (or situation)
in a way which catalyses or supports their (or its) development”

So where might the skills of eldership be beneficial?

  • In a leadership context the qualities of eldership could enable the leader to maintain a positive outlook and convey that to staff in tough or challenging situations
  • In a mentoring context the qualities could help a mentor bring a new perspective to a problem
  • And in a consulting context the qualities could for example underpin a collaborative approach to planning in a way which does justice to the client’s real goals.

In short eldership can bring other perspectives, other paradigms and other wisdom to a person or situation in a way that encourages change or progress.

Then what might the skills of eldership be? They include:

  • listening, or validating or witnessing a person’s experience
  • posing good questions which help the other open to their own knowing
  • offering information graciously, so that it can be heard without judgement or criticism.

There are many skill-based learning activities available to resource people in these areas but is that enough?

What then is the essence of eldership? Its application demands more than just a certain set of behaviours. It demands what is sometimes described as “metacognition”: knowing about knowing, or knowing about how we know what we know. It demands, a mindset, skills, attitudes, knowledge and the ability to reflect that go beyond the “normal”; qualities which when well developed, can look more like magic to the untrained eye!

These qualities fall into two groups, self-focused and other-focused and include: Self-focused:

  1. Being present with one’s own vulnerability. The elder has the ability to hold his or her vulnerability without being overwhelmed by it or needing to dismiss it from consciousness. This could also be described as a feature of authenticity, sincerity or transparency but has at its core the ability to acknowledge one’s own pain or fragility in a way that it becomes a gift or catalyst for change rather than a burden to oneself or another.
  2. Letting go of the need for validation. So often we become dependent on others for our own sense of self worth. If we get good feedback we feel fine. If we get back bad feedback we at least feel noticed. If we get no feedback we feel non-existent! An elder will be comfortable with his or her own validation, his or her own sense of self- worth. You might say “Aha, many people have this quality but that doesn’t mean they’re good people; it just means they think they are!” True. This quality as with all the others does not in itself make an elder but it is a part of the whole.
  3. Being still with another. The elder can remain still with another even when the other is working though an issue that may be very painful or emotionally laden for the elder. The elder can transcend his or her own feelings and not need to deny them. In fact the elder is strengthened as he or she can speak from the perspective of having experienced at least a similar depth of feeling to the other, if not the identical feeling.
  4. Surviving naked. A true elder is still the same being when all the support structures of money, status, rank, power, friends, connections are stripped away. The elder is in a way even more present when naked as there are no barriers to forming a close relationship; no barriers of fear, envy, pride or perception.
  5. Knowing one’s truth. The elder knows what he/she knows, trusts that knowledge and makes decisions informed by it. The elder is both generous and reserved with that knowledge and will choose where and when to offer it. He/she also knows the limits of that knowledge and when reaching the edge of it will either pull back, engage to learn more or ask for help.
  6. Maintaining a light heart even when feeling sad. An elder can identify a spark of joy in a situation and nourish it to at least a small flame, either for the benefit of self or the other, and in so doing will feel joy as well.
  7. Being an elder to him or her self. The elder is aware of his or her needs and works to meet them in a responsible manner, knowing that he/she has an obligation to maintain “fitness” as an elder. This fitness includes at least the social, mental, emotional, physical, spiritual and collegial aspects of life. Good maintenance will involve an active focus on all of these areas as well taking time out to simply “be”.



  1. Being gracious with the differently informed. An elder carries knowledge and wisdom gently and often in an almost invisible way. An elder is not a zealot beating a drum for a particular cause, or someone trying to convince others of what is “right”. Knowledge is not regarded as power or an advantage over another; it is something that is offered graciously when sought and gently restrained when not sought.
  2. Being generous. An elder can acknowledge the successes and achievements of others generously while understanding that those successes and achievements are completely different from his or her own. The elder can see progress in others without having to have it for him or herself; this allows a generosity of fulsome praise.
  3. Moving in and out of intimacy. The elder can operate in highly intimate situations, sharing a very close relationship with another for a finite length of time. Stepping away from this intimacy can cause feelings of sadness or loss if the elder tries to cling to the moment or the relationship that was. The elder has the ability to reconnect to his or her own self and resume that intimate relationship.
  4. Speaking one’s truth. The elder is prepared to state his/her truth where it matters. Not for aggrandisement or reward but because it is important in the moment and will contribute to the context at that moment. The elder will do this recognising that there may be mixed consequences in the short or long term.
  5. Withstanding challenges. An elder will be challenged by people (and situations) who see the world differently; people who have different values, people who may claim to be more “pragmatic” or “down to earth”. The elder recognises that these perspectives are valid and is undeterred by what can seem like an onslaught or an attack. The elder accepts the challenge and sees it as an opportunity to learn.
  6. Not having full access to or knowledge of the consequences of one’s work. The elder does the work for the sake of doing the work; the outcomes of it may or may not become known within the context of the work. They may occur days or weeks or even years after the event and never be known to the elder.
  7. Understanding boundaries and mandates. An elder works within his or her sphere of influence trusting that this will contribute to wider improvements. The elder addresses the immediate, the imminent and in doing so transcends it. This is particularly difficult when working in a challenging or even toxic situation as it may be the elder’s mandate to simply support the other rather than fix the problem.

15.Saying No! The elder can graciously decline requests which would be better responded to by another or at another time. He/she knows his/her limits in terms of energy, personal capability, resourcefulness, boundaries and available time. The elder will not undertake a job that he/she simply cannot do.

And can these qualities be learned? Absolutely! They can be learned by anyone who believes in them and who is prepared to become their own elder and learn fully about themselves. This is usually done via a series of workshops which focus on the above qualities and include strategies to develop and maintain them in a way which works for each individual.

The workshops are a mixture of theory, practice and reflection during which the participants:

  • consider and practice the qualities they most need to develop
  • receive mentoring as they learn
  • practice new approaches between workshops
  • review the outcomes of their practice with colleagues and their mentor.

And is eldership solely the domain of the old? No! But it is the domain of the wise, the self- aware and the compassionate. It is the domain of those who are committed to the continuing development and transformation of people and organisations. It is the domain of tomorrow.

For more information about these qualities, how they could be relevant to you or your organisation and how to develop them contact Dave Burton at Potential Development.


© Copyright Potential Development Ltd 2014


This entry was posted in Blogs, Featured Blogs and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.