Interview with Michael Lindsay
As I sat down for lunch at The Broadmoor, a historic, five-star resort in Colorado Springs, it quickly became clear I was among the elite. White linen table clothes, waiters in black ties, and a view of the rolling green golf course nestled at the foot of the Rockies. I was glad, then, when Michael Lindsay, the President of Gordon College, joined me. His wide smile, gracious disposition and articulate brilliance exuded confidence and calmed my middle class nerves. He had been among the powerful before.
In 2008, Lindsay published his Pulitzer-nominated Faith in the Halls of Power, an unprecedented look at influential evangelicals from Washington DC to Wall Street. His latest book, View from the Top (Wiley, 2014), is the result of a 10 year study of “Platinum Leaders,” 550 elite politicians, CEOs and nonprofit executives who hold many of the most significant positions of leadership in the world. Over lunch we had the chance to discuss the White House Fellows, a liberal arts view of life, the power of elite networks, influence through institutions, the perspective of top-level leaders, and why he wants more Christians in positions of power.
An edited version of this interview was published recently in Christianity Today. Here is the uncut, unedited version of the June 2, 2014 interview in its entirety. It includes all the original details and my candid responses to Michael’s findings in View From the Top.
It’s longer than your typical blog post, but Michael offers a deeply insightful look into the highest levels of global leadership. It was a conversation I won’t soon forget.
Let’s talk about institutions. I think most Americans are very skeptical of large institutions, but the leaders you found in View from the Top are drawn to institutional leadership. Why?
It’s the locus of power in our culture. I started out thinking that individuals would have a lot of say. The way in which I went about my data was focusing on individuals. I got about two-thirds of the way through and I thought, “These people sit at the top of institutions. And that’s were there’s power. That’s how things get done.” You can see that within the private sector. You can see it in nonprofits. And you can certainly see it in government. It became a way in which I could understand what was taking place. Institutions matter significantly.
It’s interesting. The current generation of college students have a love-hate relationship with institutions. They hate bureaucracy, and they hate the machinations of big organizations. But they are real builders. They believe in starting things, and they want to build them up to make a real difference.
So, one of the hopes of the books is to help them to see [that] if you really want to make a difference long-term, you have to be connected to an institution.
One of your chapters is entitled, “Act Institutionally, Think Personally,” but I think many personality-driven churches and para-church organizations are really quite the opposite. We think about the celebrity at the head but rarely think about the institution itself. What can evangelicals do to change that bias?
Here’s one way to process this. Max Weber describes it as the routinization of charisma. Weber has this theory about different forms of authority.
Traditional authority, which is what the Queen of England has. You inherit it from your parents. Rational-legal authority, which is the authority President Obama has, which is, you’re on top of a major bureaucracy and that’s how you get things done. And charismatic authority. This is the authority that Billy Graham had, for a while. It’s the authority that Jesus had for a while. It’s the authority that gathers and collects around an outstanding individual, a persona.
But in order for that person to have lasting impact, Weber says, it has to be routinized. It has to be transferred from the authority of a charismatic individual, and has to be transferred into a rational-legal bureaucracy. So, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is a great example of the routinization of charisma. After Billy Graham is gone, you’re going to still have his ministry continue. Chuck Colson died two years ago. Much of the work of Charles Colson is continuing on in Prison Fellowship even though the founder is no longer there.
So, while it is true that evangelicalism does prize the personality, and there is a cult of celebrity in the church, what we are witnessing is evangelicals coming to appreciate the importance and the primacy of institutions.
Let’s think about leadership. You found almost all the leaders in View From the Top had a “leadership catalyst” experience. For many of them, it was a program called the White House Fellows. You’ve studied other leadership programs. What was the key to the White House Fellows that set it apart from the rest?
They did four things very, very well. I studied this deeply because I care about developing leaders at Gordon. One, it uses a cohort approach. Most of the research today will show that leadership development works the best in group settings. Leadership is as much caught as it is taught. So that’s very important.
Second, they were given substantive work assignments. If you have a program for leadership development, but there’s no real work assignment, it lacks the teeth, it lacks responsibility and accountability and the feedback loop that’s really important. So you don’t really know if you’ve done it or not.
Third is the importance of a broadening education. So, you have to expose emerging leaders to senior leaders. They have to be able to rub shoulders, get to know them up close. And those senior leaders also have to be willing to speak honestly and off the record. So it’s really important that you not just bring in talking heads but that you also find people who can be real.
The fourth element that the White House Fellows program does well, that other effective leadership development programs do well, is public recognition. So you have to be able to say, “These are really special people.” And we’re singling them out to say that they are worth our investment of time and energy.
Those are four things I’ve found that make a huge difference.
Is that what the Presidential Fellows program at Gordon College looks like?
Yes, the Gordon Presidential Fellows program is exactly modeled on that. So, we take a competitive group of students that come from all different majors, all different backgrounds, and we choose a cohort of 10 students. They have the chance to work directly with one cabinet officer. I require them to literally sit in the office of the cabinet officer. Each cabinet office has a little conference table in their office. That’s where the student works. The idea is that they will pick up on things, even when they’re doing their own work.
So, the students I work with will hear me interview people, talk with donors on the telephone, think about strategy. All kinds of things. And then we’ll have a chance to debrief. And then I have lunch with my fellows usually on Saturdays. And so that’s an intentional strategy.
We bring to campus about ten guest speakers per year. And so we ask the speakers to meet with the Presidential Fellows over breakfast or lunch. And then we do give them public recognition. We often take them on travel with me or with the college. We single them out. They meet with the trustee. It’s clearly our top leadership cohort on campus.
Tell me about the difference you see between the evangelicals you interviewed in Faith in the Halls of Power and those in View From the Top. Did you see a difference between evangelicals and their non-believing counterparts?
So, 70% of the people in View From the Top are Christian.
Now, they are not all practicing Christians, and they’re not all serious about their faith. Faith in the Halls of Power drew a larger constituency of serious Christians. So if I compare the 70% of Christians in View from the Top with those who are not, then in general, Christians who I interviewed tended to be more grounded. They tended to be more oriented toward relationships in the workplace. They tended to be less frazzled with disappointment or failure occurs. Now, that’s not to say that’s true for everyone. I’m speaking in broad generalities.
In your book, you mentioned these leaders have a “liberal arts” view of life. How do average folks cultivate this generalist perspective in their work – a teacher, a mid-level manager. What does that look like for us?
It’s all about how we live our lives. It’s how we build certain practices in our lives. So, I find that you have to be intentional to develop that liberal arts approach to life. It doesn’t occur naturally because we tend to be in pretty homogenous groups. We tend to get the news from the circles of people that agree with us. We tend to not challenge ourselves.
So, the people in View From the Top, part of the reason they got to the top is that they had cultivated this liberal arts approach when they were 20. It’s generally not something you do when you’re 70. It’s something you develop.
Is this a reading diet? People you spend time with?
Yes, it’s about reading. Where do you get your information from? Do you have a regular practice of checking news sources that don’t align with your own philosophy? So, I tell my students one of the best things they can do is get a subscription to Christianity Today and The Economist. The Economist is really important. It’s different – you’re getting a more European-centered view of the world, not American centered. So, you’re able to get a broader vantage point.
I tell my liberal students they need to watch Fox News once a week. And I tell my conservative students they need to watch MSNBC once a week. You have to get to a place where you have a wider diet of input.
It also means cultivating a habit of attending lectures, being exposed to experiences that are different than their own vantage point.
One of the persons who most impressed me was this guy named John Mendelsohn who just stepped down as the head of the MD Anderson Cancer Center. He was a world class cancer researcher. Really a top flight scientist. When I was doing the interview, he was reading a book on the history of opera. What does the history of opera have anything to do with leading the world’s leading cancer center?
It’s so rare to find people like that.
But it’s not among these people! They develop a lifestyle that has that kind of breadth. They’re great conversationalists. They make connections. Now not everybody is reading about the history of opera. But they’re intentionally building practices in their life that give them a wide variety of experiences.
This is why the preaching of Tim Keller is so popular among these individuals. Because he’s so widely read. If you haven’t read classical literature since college, you can get snippets of it in Tim Keller’s preaching. And so, how do you get those kind of experiences? Those are the kind of things I’m interested in.
Tell me about the “leapfrog method.” In 2003-2004 you started interviewing prominent evangelical leaders, and in ten years, you were able to meet some of the most powerful leaders in the world. Tell me about how you were able to open up these networks over time.
In social science, the two methods for selecting informants in a study of elites is the reputational method, where somebody recommends an individual, or the positional method, which is to say, “I’m only going to talk to CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies and that’s it.”
The kind of research I was interested in doing was a little more textured than the pure positional method would allow. I was interested in the kind of data I’d get if I interviewed a former President of the United States or a former Cabinet Secretary who’s no longer in office. I was less interested in “What do you think about President Obama?” and more interested in how you get things done. So, you didn’t have to be an office holder for that to work. I decided I wanted to do a combination of those two approaches.
In middle of doing that, I realized I needed a networks-based approach. To get access to the really top level folks, you need somebody to say, “Hey, this guy is okay.” What I did at the early part of the process was I set up appointments with 100 early informants who then made recommendations of those at a much higher level. So, Rich Mouw, the President of Fuller Seminary, says, look, you need to go see Ralph Winter, who’s a Hollywood producer – very successful. I never would have gotten to Ralph if I would not have first talked with Rich.
So, the leapfrog method allowed me to jump over a number of different hurdles which allowed me to get there. But then I modified it slightly as I had some measure of success reaching people. I no longer needed somebody to help recommend someone. I needed a council of advisors who could help me say, “There are all these CEOs you could go interview, but you really need to go and figure out who’s most strategic,” and give me some help. So I built a board of advisors.
Networks. This is obviously a big reason why people got to the top. But I could see people misconstruing this and think, “The way I get to the top is to know the right people and that way I can climb the ladder.” It feels like people, then, become almost instrumental. They have value only because we can use them. I wonder, how do we avoid this temptation as people of Christian faith?
I’m absolutely persuaded that for evangelicals to have influence, they must be in the room when decisions are made. You must. And I can point to countless examples of how individuals at a particular moment are in the room and are able to change history.
One example I think I used in the book is Condoleezza Rice’s story. She was in the room when the decision about PEPFAR [President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] was made. Condoleezza Rice was serving as National Security Advisor. There were two big camps. The compassionate conservative crowd, which is some of the evangelical network: Michael Gerson, Karen Hughes, that kind of crowd. Then there was the Neo-Con crowd: Don Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney. Condoleezza Rice was one of the few individuals who straddled both of those worlds.
There had been a conversation that had been going for about a year, where the President’s compassionate conservative agenda is being put to the test. What if the US government made an amazing commitment to address the AIDS pandemic is Sub-saharan Africa by making an allocation of $15 billion of US aid to extend the life of AIDS patients?
There were having the final meeting. It was called the principals meeting with about 15 folks in the oval office. So they turn to Condoleezza Rice to give her speech. Basically they’re asking, “Is this a good use of money just to extend lives for $15 billion?” She tells the story of how her mother, who battled cancer, was able to have her life extended for about 15 years from the moment she was diagnosed until the moment she died. During that time, Condoleezza Rice went to high school, went to the University of Denver, decided to change her passion from being a concert pianist to being an expert in the Soviet Union, earned a degree from Notre Dame, got a teaching job, and was well on her way at Stanford University. And Rice said, “It changed my life that my mother was able to be involved in that 15 years. If we can do that for an entire continent, and don’t do it, it’s a moral failure.” That one moment swayed human history in a significant way.
In order for evangelicals to have influence on key decisions that affect millions of people, you have to be in the room. Elite networks matter.
The difference, however, is that the gospel compels us to not live our lives to curry the favor of those in authority. Jesus is clearly not spending his ministry trying to get the Roman authorities to believe his position. And yet, not once does he curse the Roman authorities. The harshest thing he says about Rome is “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.” That is certainly not a condemnation, and his disciples were begging him to condemn Rome. Just begging him, and he never does.
Why? Jesus recognizes that a lot of good can come when people committed to God are in positions of responsibility. What we have missed in the evangelical community over the last ten years is an insight that a social thinker named J.P. Nettl has advocated. He says social movements are akin to stalactite rock formations, which come from the top down, and stalagmite rock formations, which come from the bottom up. The column is most powerful, he says, when those formations meet. If we want cultural change, we have to attend to both grassroots movements as well as top down efforts.
What would that look like for evangelicals? What would it look like to build the top-down structure, since we’ve historically worked with the poor and weak? Does this mean seeking more positions of authority?
Think about the mobilization of concern we’ve seen for international justice in the last 15 years. It’s a wonderful example of how an organization like IJM has engaged policy makers, folks at very high levels. So, Gary Haugen speaks literally at Davos. That is where the world’s power elite exist. Gary is not repudiating it. Gary’s actually speaking there. He wants to be a part of it. It makes a real difference. At the same time, Gary is trying to get college students, who are really far from Davos, interested in international justice. They’re doing things in the local churches.
That’s a great example of how you can engage both top-down and bottom-up and can actually work a coordinated effort that can make a lasting impact.
Let’s change the pace a bit. I think many Americans see leaders at the top and they seem incredibly disconnected from the rest of us. True or not? If so, what should change?
It’s both true and false. It’s true in that there is a plurality, not a majority, who lead gilded lives, far removed from the everyday concerns of ordinary people.
But the people who are in these positions don’t stay there their whole lives. They don’t even stay there for 10 years. They move out. So the people who are in very powerful positions in the White House are at most in those powerful positions for 10 years. They don’t have a life that is so disconnected from everyday experiences forever.
So they have opportunities to reconnect. But when they’re in the top seat?
When they’re in the top seat, it’s very hard. It’s hard to know what’s happening in your organization much less what’s going on outside your organization.
You see our current political discourse, and I would say it’s become nearly sport for both conservatives and liberals to cast “the elite” onto the rocks.
Even though they’re both the elite!
Yeah, ironic. What would you say to that mentality, that pent up frustration against elites that I think permeates much of our public discourse? What would you say to those who are just watching the news, and joining in to say, “Yes, it’s their fault”?
The moment of the greatest cultural angst against elites occurred in the wake of the financial meltdown, where certain industries, like finance, seemed to be above the fray, and not really experiencing the country’s challenges. I will say, it is difficult when you are making an unbelievable amount of money to stay grounded. It’s really hard.
The people that really impressed me were the people who had willingly given up compensation they had come into because it was a way that they practiced generosity. But it was also a way in which they could bridle ambition, consumerism, and all the things I think we need to be attentive to for those who have power and privilege.
So it is unjustified that these few thousand people who have an enormous amount of influence on our culture and on the world? It is unjustified that there be such a frustration? Does the average guy voting really have any influence on, for example, the making of policy?
There’s a guy named Robert Michels who studied what everybody believed was the most democratic of all forms of social organization: socialist political parties in early 20th century in Europe. If anybody is going to have an egalitarian ethos, where nobody is above anybody else, it’s this group. He went into that expecting to find justification for this belief.
His most famous concept is the Iron Law of Oligarchy, which is to say, at the moment a group begins to organize, an oligarchy forms. In order to get things done, you are always going to have a small group of people with disproportionate privilege and power. It is how we work together in public life.
The reason I care deeply about having more serious Christians in positions of responsibility is because there are very few world views that preach a gospel of self-sacrifice, and none that are built around the very concept of self-sacrifice, like the Christian gospel.
The antidote to the pernicious effects of power is giving up power. It is sacrifice. Why, then, would we not want more people who believe in that, and that say these are their values? Why would we not want more people like that setting the example in the upper reaches of society?