“You Have to Be in the Room”: 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 second part of two-part interview — find the first here.

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 Economist is 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 in 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.

[Tweet “A lot of good can come when people committed to God are in positions of responsibility.”]

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 restto makeTrue 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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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.