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