D. Michael Lindsay knows a thing or two about leadership. As a sociologist, he gained national recognition for his groundbreaking research in Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite. He then launched a decade-long research project on leadership called the Platinum Study. But in the midst of that he answered a very concrete call to leadership, taking up the reins as President of Gordon College in Wenham, MA. Having settled into that role, he somehow found time to complete the leadership study, gathering the insights in his new book, View from the Top: An Inside Look at How People in Power See and Shape the World.
Lindsay spent an evening in conversation with Comment editor James K.A. Smith at a recent gathering of Christian educators, scholars, and business leaders organized by the Cardus Religious Schools Initiative at the University of Notre Dame. We took the opportunity to explore some of the themes from his new book, particularly as they intersect with challenges and opportunities for Christian education.
This is the first part of a two-part conversation. Tune in next week to read the conclusion.
JS: Your new book on leadership, View From The Top, explores what innovative, catalytic, creative, influential leadership looks like. You begin by suggesting that some of our basic assumptions about power and influence are really mistaken. You suggest that we tend to overestimate some factors that create leaders and as a result we underestimate and miss other factors. Can you say why that is? What those factors are?
ML: There are lots. This is a research project that took me ten years to complete. The last study like this was conducted in 1970 by a team of researchers at Columbia University. It was called the American Leadership Study. For that project, they interviewed 545 very senior leaders in government, non-profits, and cultural sectors like media, arts, entertainment, and business. My goal was to do 546. [laughs] Fortunately, I was able to do 550.
I would have an hour-long interview usually with these folks. For every one-hour interview, we did twenty hours of background research on the individual, so we knew them fairly well when I got before them to ask them questions. We built this very, very large database that was looking at a variety of factors that might be part of their life and try to report patterns across all these various folks.
In my own field of sociology, we have a very strong belief that there are certain things about your family of origin that have a deep, permanent fixture on your possibilities, as well as the formative role of education and youth experiences.
What we found, however, is that there is absolutely no statistically significant relationship between what you do before age twenty and your likelihood of assuming a very senior leadership role later on in life. It doesn't matter where you went to school. It does not matter what grades you made. It does not matter if you were in extra curricular activities. It does not matter if your family was wealthy or poor. It does not matter in what city you were born. None of those things matter.
At the same time, there are certain things that happen uniquely in Christian institutions of education that make a profound difference in your likelihood to succeed. Principally, it's about having a formative relationship with a mentor. What we found is that a lot of schools and businesses try to create structured mentoring programs...say, a management training program where you take twenty new people and you match them up with a senior executive; or in my church youth group, we had basically a system where adult volunteers agreed to mentor a Bible study fellowship format with young people who wanted that.
Those are all well and good, but actually those don't work very effectively. The real way in which mentoring works effectively is through organic relationships. One of the most important things that Christian institutions can do is create the ecosystem of opportunity out of which those relationships can develop. Unlike state-run institutions of learning or public schools in this country, which have a pretty bureaucratic approach to relationships, Christian institutions recognize we're really about transforming the individual. We're in this work, not because we're trying to pass down a certain body of knowledge, but we're really invested in this young person. I care deeply about this particular student. I'm willing to do whatever it takes to try and help them, if it means helping them get a job, if it means helping them navigate a family issue, if it means helping them learn a subject.
So a lot of your major demographic characteristics do not matter on your likelihood to succeed. What does matter is the formative influence of an adult who speaks into your life and who has a sustaining relationship with you that you carry with you. Each of us could identify one, two, or three people outside of our family who had a formative influence, and my hunch is that the relationship you had was not for months, or for semesters, but for years. That's what Christian Institutions can create and that's one of the things that we found that was really special.
JS: It's intriguing that, even though you're emphasizing a kind of investment in an individual and a mentoring relationship—one-on-one often even—you're also saying there's a sort of institutional encouragement that can make that happen. So it's not anti-institutional to imagine it that way.
ML: I'm a big believer in institutions. I think institutions play a very formative role. What I don't think works are the structured mentoring programs where, as president of Gordon College, I go in and say "Look, we need to have a mentoring program, so we're going to get 200 of our best students and we're going to match them up." That almost never works.
You tick all the boxes and say you have a mentoring program, but actually the relationship investment you're trying to do, that doesn't work. What institutions can do, however, is introduce people and then stimulate experiences where relationships will flourish. So...wilderness experiences, taking people on trips—these are the things that you do where people bond. You're looking for opportunities where those bonding experiences can occur. One of the things that I have to think about a lot, as a college president, is that we spend a decent amount of our institutional resources thinking about the formal curriculum of Gordon College, when in fact the hidden curriculum has a much deeper influence. Every institution of learning has a hidden curriculum. I think Christian institutions are more mindful of that and more strategic about deploying it, but everybody has a hidden curriculum. What we have to do is create the environment where those relationships can last for a long time.
JS: It's funny. I was sort of rocked back on my heels when I hit this line in your book, and you've already broached it: "Counter to what many people think, it doesn't really matter what future leaders do before they're 20."
JS: What's intriguing is about half the people in this room [involved in Christian education] are invested in forming people before they're twenty and I know that you have constructive things to say about that.
ML: I try to be provocative.
JS: It's brilliant. In fact, I got thinking "How fascinating. Here is a person who is charged with leadership of an educational institution where a good chunk of students are under twenty."
ML: And I'm recruiting people who are under age twenty to come to my school.
JS: But surely your first year program at Gordon College is influencing people.
ML: Yeah, yeah.
JS: So it's a fascinating, mildly disturbing claim. What does that mean for those here who are invested, say, in K-12 education?
ML: Well, I think one of the key things is that it's very hard for us to predict, among the young people we work with, the likelihood of them succeeding by age forty or fifty. Too often, we fall into the very same trap that high school students do, where we choose the most popular kids to invest in. We evaluate popularity in different ways, but looks make a difference, the way in which students carry themselves and our pre-conceived notions. What I found is that some of the most spectacularly famous people would not be the folks who would fit well within our existing scholarship selecting programs, for example. Ted Turner, he would never have gotten a scholarship to go to college or university. He's an angular individual, doesn't fit into nice neat categories; he has rough edges.
This suggests that we have to hold our plans and our programs very lightly because at the end of the day there is something that the Lord does in young people's lives, basically from ages twenty to forty, that is in many ways outside of our control. We simply get them to the place where they could be prepared for those catalytic experiences.
JS: In View From The Top, you talk about what you call "platinum leaders," which is a really brilliant acronym that you can explain for folks if you want. I just kept thinking of them as "catalytic" leaders. They're influential. They change worlds around them and they have all these kinds of features. I was fascinated when you said almost all of them take "a liberal arts approach to life." Can you say more about that? Our audience here would be very interested to know what that means.
ML: One of the key things that we found is that if you're trying to identify the characteristics of what will make somebody a very successful senior leader, one of the easiest ways is to find out how good a conversationalist they are. Because when you rise to senior leadership, it's assumed that you understand your particular field or that you can do whatever it is that your company or organization does. But you also have to be able to build bridges with lots of different people. Most of senior leadership is bridge building, so you're looking for folks who can get along with lots of different kinds of individuals.
A liberal arts approach to life says, "Look, I'm not necessarily focused on trying to just become a specialist. I'm actually actively trying to become a generalist because senior leadership, at really high levels, is fundamentally about generalities." There is a reason why the US military refers to their top officers as generals. It is because you have to have that wide perspective. In the book, we note that most of corporate life, in particular in the US, rewards specialization. You promote somebody because they're actually good in their given field. The problem is that the more you promote them, the wider their perspective has to be and the less prepared they are for those kinds of experiences.
Our job in educating young people is to give them the lenses by which they can understand the wideness of their responsibilities, a viewpoint they will not have when they are twenty-five. You never, as a twenty-five-year-old, have a very wide-ranging job. That doesn't happen unless you create an organization yourself. Instead, you go to work in a junior level position at a particular company and you do one little thing. As you move up, you have to have that wide perspective. The problem is that most of professional development that happens in jobs doesn't prepare people for that wide experience, so if they don't get that liberal arts approach to life early on, they don't cultivate it.
When we're trying to identify people who are going to be very senior leaders at age fifteen, we're looking for folks who have that liberal arts approach to life. The good news is that it can totally be cultivated. It's not something you're necessarily born with, but you develop it and I think that's one of the key things we can do in Christian education.
JS: It strikes me that this is one area where Christian schools could maybe be more intentional, fostering these kinds of leaders and influencers by fostering habits of sanctified curiosity about everything, so that we're priming this kind of approach to life. It seems like, even though you make the provocative claim that nothing before twenty necessarily is a guaranteed predictor, that doesn't mean that you can't have formative experiences that prime you to become that kind of person.
ML: Absolutely. That's right. I just have to say, too: I was having a conversation earlier with somebody who said heads of school, principals, sadly often get locked into having to foster just specialized knowledge and often lose opportunities to cultivate their own continued liberal arts curiosity.
When you're in leadership, so much of your life can become instrumental. It's because everything is about allocation: allocation of resources, allocation of influence, allocation of time. All of which is very limited. One of the things about this liberal arts approach to life is that there has to be enough margin. You have to literally carve out enough margin in your life, so that you can continue to cultivate that. If you don't, it will erode and then you lose your effectiveness.
Click here for the conclusion of our interview with D. Michael Lindsay.