STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 12/05/2013

Leadership and the Liberal Arts

By D. Michael Lindsay

President with fellows

Recently we rolled out a new institutional tagline: Lives Worth Leading. Of the many possibilities that came up in brainstorming sessions, this one resonated most deeply with many of us. As taglines often do, it has several meanings.

It refers to our faculty, who provide strong and caring leadership for the students entrusted to them. It points to those same students as they become alumni and go into the world and do remarkable things. It also highlights something distinctive about Gordon itself: We are fertile ground for growing leaders and innovators.

It’s this third meaning that I would like to address here.

As a social scientist I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to develop leaders. In fact, I spent the past 10 years of my sociological research studying the lives of 550 senior leaders—top CEOs, people in senior positions in government—the Who’s Who of our society. The book I am currently working on, View from the Top, extrapolates from that research to explore the actual territory—the “matrix,” if you will—within which top leaders are formed and launched.

For us, leadership is fundamentally about excellence and service. We prepare leaders so those individuals can lead with creativity and wisdom.

I was intrigued to discover that a majority of those 550 top leaders majored in the liberal arts as undergraduates. And no wonder. Students at liberal arts colleges develop the ability to draw connections among seemingly disparate ideas. They develop a liberal-arts approach to life that serves them well after they graduate. They are conversant with subjects far beyond their particular line of work. They have keen interest in current affairs and in people from other walks of life, and they are able to identify areas of agreement across divides. They bring all that to bear as challenges arise and opportunities emerge. They are equipped to forge creative solutions. There is, in other words, a strong link between senior leadership potential and a broad liberal arts education.

I believe leadership and the liberal arts fit together naturally in the matrix of Gordon College. Intentional focus on how best to equip and encourage young people to lead is a logical extension of the great work the College has been doing for nearly 125 years. We are “rich soil for noble ventures,” as Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership Director Carter Crockett has put it.

In researching, I saw that young leaders not only need to be in rich soil; they also need a push to begin their ascent. The highly selective White House Fellowship places emerging leaders in their 20s and 30s (73 percent of whom, by the way, earned a liberal arts degree) in the office of a U.S. Cabinet officer. The Fellows observe the demands of senior leadership, and have the opportunity to practice exercising power. They build connections with leaders in their field, and develop ties to similarly stationed emerging leaders in other arenas. Thirty- two percent of White House Fellows later become the CEO of a Fortune 1000 firm or hold an equivalent leadership position in another field. Clearly, there is something about that one year that sharpens the angle of their professional trajectories, and there is something about a liberal arts education that builds out the geometry around that angle.

At Gordon, we witness the catalytic effect of close personal mentoring by accomplished faculty, and of perspective- broadening study-abroad programs, and of network-building professional internships. These all give our graduates an edge in today’s highly competitive job market. The Gordon Presidential Fellows program, modeled on the White House Fellows program, adds a leadership-focused option to an already excellent, time-tested array of honors and service opportunities at Gordon.

Students in Boston

And there is more to the story still—an even deeper resonance of our new tagline. Many students at other institutions are tempted to seek powerful positions and impressive credentials to bolster their own personal profiles. We teach a different path: we believe a Gordon education affords talented students a chance to hone their God-given leadership aptitudes in order to serve. For us, leadership is fundamentally about excellence and service. We prepare leaders so that those individuals can lead with creativity and wisdom.

Christians are often uncomfortable with being part of powerful institutions. Too often evangelical Christians have adopted defensive or isolationist stances—what H. Richard Niebuhr, in Christ and Culture, termed the “Christ-against-culture” position. Too many uncritically adopt a triumphalist “culture wars” mindset, a term popularized by noted sociologist (and 1977 Gordon graduate) James Davison Hunter, whose scholarly work chronicles the fraught relationship between Christians and the cultures that surround them. In his landmark book, To Change the World, Hunter argues that culture rarely changes from the bottom up; cultural elites and powerful institutions enact enduring social change. Hunter proposes “faithful presence’’ in the world’s power structures as the realistic alternative to both isolationism and triumphalism.

Our new tagline is a trust mark, a warrant, and a promise. It expresses the present reality and also a healthy measure of aspiration.

This does not mean, of course, that every student who matriculates at Gordon should someday be the CEO of a Fortune 1000 company. But some of our students may. Others will plant a new church or launch a new enterprise. And many more may be surprised to find themselves in leadership roles in their vocations, their churches, their families, their communities—roles that their liberal arts training is preparing them for every day at Gordon.

This is my vision for Gordon College: that we will be fertile ground for young people who have an expansive view of their world, and its problems and possibilities—young people who possess that paradoxical combination of humility and confidence that ought to be the mark of every Christian.

Our new tagline is a trust mark, a warrant, and a promise. It expresses the present reality and also a healthy measure of aspiration. I love these words of theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper, in his Sphere Sovereignty:

Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: “Mine!”

At Gordon, we honor Kuyper’s sentiment. We do not compartmentalize faith or service, and we encourage students to explore connections that cross boundaries and link diverse disciplines. We strive to imbue the lives of our graduates with meaning, purpose, and concern for the common good. On the journey ahead, may each and every one of them discover lives worth leading.

D. Michael Lindsay, Ph.D., is the president of Gordon College and professor of sociology.
His first book,
Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in the category of nonfiction, and was also listed in Publisher’s Weekly’s “Best Books of 2007.” As a professor of sociology at Rice University, he received the Nicolas Salgo Distinguished Teacher Award. In spring 2014 Dr. Lindsay will teach his first course at Gordon College, Leading for the Common Good.

President Lindsay’s second book, View from the Top: An Inside Look at How People in Power See and Shape Their World, will be published in June 2014 by John Wiley & Sons Inc. It is based on ten years of research that included in-depth interviews with 550 high-profile leaders in the United States, including heads of 20 percent of the Fortune 100, former Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush, and dozens of Cabinet secretaries, members of Congress, and heads of federal bureaus and agencies, representing nine White House administrations from Johnson to Obama. The research also included interviews with over 100 leaders of the world’s largest nonprofit organizations.

President Lindsay comments: “After spending thousands of hours analyzing the lives and institutions of these leaders, I determined that many of our basic assumptions about power and influence are simply not true. The paradox of power in our culture is that although power may rest in institutions, it is individual leaders who leverage it to effect change. Talented leaders think institutionally, but act personally. That is the promise and the peril—the glimmer and the glare— of influence at the top.”


College in Four Dimensions | Stan Gaede

Arts, Liberated | Rini Cobbey

The Promise of Religious Liberal Arts Colleges | Thomas A. (Tal) Howard

Rich Soil for New and Noble Ventures | Carter Crockett