“Leadership is as much caught as it is taught”: An Interview with Michael Lindsay

by Jeff Haanen

In 2008, Michael Lindsay 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 (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 at the Broadmoor resort in Colorado Springs, I interviewed Lindsay for Christianity Today on leadership, the White House Fellows, elite networks, and why he wants more Christians in positions of power. This post is the first part of two-part interview — find the second here.

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.

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Jeff Haanen

Jeff Haanen is the Founder & CEO of Denver Institute for Faith & Work. Jeff lives with his wife and four daughters in Littleton, Colorado, and attends Wellspring Church.