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Part 1 of a fascinating interview by James K. A. Smith with Michael Lindsey about his new book, View From the Top: An Inside Look at How People in Power See and Shape the World (Wiley, 2014), who observes 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.” The key factor may surprise you:

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.

[You can read the whole first part of the interview here.]

HT: Andy Crouch

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6 thoughts on “The Key Factor in Someone Becoming a Leader”

  1. Mark says:

    “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.”

    I agree with the point about the importance of mentors and the real investment in the lives of students, but what a blanket statement about public and private schools. Is he really saying public school teachers and administrators only see their students as a number or test score? There are good private and public schools and there are good and bad teachers in all of them.

    And as Christians let’s please stop worshipping and teaching our kids to worship at the altar of success, safety and security and start living our lives among those God has called us to love and share the Gospel. It’s not always pretty or easy, but it has eternal beauty and significance.

    1. AllenD says:

      Not sure what this interview has to do with worshiping success. He does talk about senior level leaders in what seems to be a corporate sense. But, that way I read it, it sounds like the ideas in the interview are about how to develop leaders. Which is very important in the context of the church.

      In the church, we shouldn’t be against ambitions for leadership. We just need to keep a right definition of what makes a great leader. Humility, self-sacrifice, service to others, stuff like that. It could be, with the right definition, we’ll have the right people aspiring to leadership for the right reasons.

      Anyways, I found this interview very interesting. For application to myself and the ways I find myself gifted, and in how my church can raise up leaders more effectively.

  2. Articles like this make me wish that someone had decided in my youth that I was worth mentoring.

    Otherwise, it does beg the question whether it is worth looking for Christian schools on the basis of their reputation of mentoring students or if mentors should be sought separately. If every student seeking a school looks for them on the basis of mentorship, then programmatic mentorship may rise up as a matter of competition for students and destroy natural mentoring relationships that extend beyond the school years. If most people end up with a mentor, then we will either have too many chiefs and not enough Indians or mentorship will diminish as the predominant factor in growing leaders. Therefore, it seems that the onus should be on mentors to find their own mentees. Additionally, mentorship for leadership should be distinguished from discipleship, which all Christians need and at which the Western Church has been largely neglectful.

  3. Curt Day says:

    In responding to the title and the beginning of the post, but what about the masses who are not leaders? Have they failed? There is a time to need leadership and there are times to let the group work things out in a more anarchist fashion. My feeling though is that the best leaders are those who found leadership forced on them than those who force themselves into leadership positions. And those who are the best leaders can emerge from state or Christian programs. But I would hate to sell a program to a kid with carrot being you can become a leader.

  4. J.R. says:

    Good interview. Thanks for the link.
    Classically, integrity and good character were seen as requirements the precede leader development and responsibility. It seems like this is something that our culture and times has decided to move past.

  5. Good post. Thank you!

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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