In 2008, Gordon College President Michael Lindsay (then a sociologist at Rice University) published his Pulitzer-nominated Faith in the Halls of Power, an unprecedented look at influential evangelicals from Washington, D.C. to Wall Street. His latest book, View From the Top, 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 leadership positions in the world. Over lunch at the Broadmoor resort in Colorado Springs, Jeff Haanen, executive director of Denver Institute for Faith & Work, interviewed Lindsay on leadership, the importance of elite networks, and why he wants more Christians in positions of power.
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 thought, "These people sit at the top of institutions. And that's where 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 has 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 book 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 parachurch organizations are really quite the opposite. We think about the celebrity at the head but rarely about the institution itself. What can we do to change that bias?
Here's one way to process this. The sociologist Max Weber had a helpful concept he called the "routinization of charisma."
Weber distinguished between different kinds of authority. Traditional authority is what the Queen of England has. You inherit it from your parents. Rational-legal authority is what President Obama has. You're on top of a major bureaucracy, and that's how you get things done. And then there's charismatic authority. This is the authority that Billy Graham had. It's the authority that Jesus had. 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; in other words, it has to be channeled into an institutional form. The authority of a charismatic individual has to be transferred into a rational-legal bureaucracy. So, for instance, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is a great example of the routinization of charisma. After Billy Graham is gone, his ministry will continue. Charles Colson died two years ago. But much of his work is continuing 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 set the White House Fellows 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.
Third is the importance of a broadening education. 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.
The fourth element—and other effective leadership development programs do this well—is public recognition. 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.
Is that what the Presidential Fellows program at Gordon College looks like?
Yes, the Gordon Presidential Fellows program is exactly modeled on that. 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.
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 ask how it went. And then I have lunch with my fellows, usually on Saturdays.
Each year, we bring about ten guest speakers to campus, and we ask them to meet with the Presidential Fellows over breakfast or lunch. We often take fellows 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?
Seventy percent 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 Christians in View from the Top with the non-Christians, then in general, the Christians 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. Now, that's not to say that's true for everyone. I'm speaking in broad generalities.
In your book, you mentioned that these leaders have a "liberal arts" view of life. How do average folks cultivate this appreciation for different subjects and perspectives in their work?
I find that you have to be intentional to develop that kind of approach to life. It doesn't occur naturally, because we tend to spend our time among people who are pretty similar. We tend to get the news from the circles of people that agree with us. We tend to not challenge ourselves.
With 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 Economistis really important. It's different—you're getting a more European-centered view of the world, not American-centered. 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 people who most impressed me during my research was John Mendelsohn, who just stepped down as the head of the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. He was a world-class cancer researcher and 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.
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, there are two methods for selecting participants in a study of elites. One method is to choose by reputation, based on recommendations from others. A second method is to choose by position, 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 was a little more textured than just choosing people with important positions. I was interested in the kind of data I'd get if I interviewed a former American president or a 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. 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." Early on, I set up appointments with 100 individuals who then recommended individuals of a much higher stature. For instance, Richard Mouw, who was president of Fuller Seminary at the time, told me I should go see Ralph Winter, who's a very successful Hollywood producer. I never would have gotten to Ralph without first having talked with Rich.
So, the leapfrog method allowed me to jump over a number of different hurdles. But then I modified it slightly once I started having some 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." So I built a board of advisors to give me some help.
Networks. This is obviously a big reason why people got to the top. But I could see people misconstruing this and thinking, "The way I get to the top is by knowing the right people." It feels like people, then, become instruments of our own ambitions. They have value only because we can use them. 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. 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 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 to George W. Bush. There were two big camps. There was the "compassionate conservative" crowd, which included many evangelicals. Then there was the "neo-conservative" crowd: people like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Condoleezza Rice was one of the few individuals who straddled both of those worlds.
A conversation had been going for about a year that was putting the President's compassionate conservative agenda to the test: What if the US government committed to addressing the AIDS pandemic is sub-Saharan Africa by contributing $15 billion to extend the life of AIDS patients?
The final meeting in the Oval Office involved about 15 core advisers. They turn to Condoleezza Rice. Basically they're asking, "Is this a good use of money?" She tells the story of how her mother, who battled cancer, was able to have her life extended for about 15 years. 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 those 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, even though his disciples were begging him to condemn Rome.
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 advocated by a social thinker named J. P. Nettl. 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 International Justice Mission has engaged policy makers, folks at very high levels. Gary Haugen, IJM's president, speaks at the Davos World Economic Forum. That is literally where the world's power elite gather. He's not repudiating them. 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. IJM does things in the local churches.
That's a great example of how you can engage both top-down and bottom-up strategy to make a lasting impact.
For many Americans, leaders at the top 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 that a significant number of high-ranking people lead gilded lives, far removed from the everyday concerns of ordinary people.
But the people in these positions don't stay there their whole lives. Often, they don't even stay there for 10 years. They move out. People in very powerful positions in the White House are there only temporarily. They don't have a life that stays permanently disconnected from everyday experiences.
In our current political discourse, both conservatives and liberals seem to relentlessly criticize "the elite." What would you say to that mentality of pent-up frustration against elites?
The moment of 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. 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 those who had willingly given up compensation because they wanted to practice generosity. But it was also a way they could bridle ambition and consumerism.
Can the fact that these few thousand people have an enormous influence really be justified?
Robert Michels was a German sociologist who studied socialist political parties in early 20th century in Europe. It stands to reason that if anybody is going to have an egalitarian ethos, where nobody is above anybody else, it's this kind of group. He expected that his research would confirm this belief.
Michels's most famous concept is the Iron Law of Oligarchy. This means that at the moment a group begins to organize, a power structure 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 worldviews 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 not giving up power. It is using power sacrificially. Why, then, would we not want more people who believe in that approach? Why would we not want more people like that setting the example in the upper reaches of society?
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