What is the world view when you are at the top of a powerful organization?  The answer is both instructive for managing your career alarming for our future together.

Michael Lindsay is a sociologist who now is President of Gordon College in Massachusetts.   VIEW FROM THE TOP (2014) is a summary of his research team’s ten year examination about how leaders influence their organizations, communities, and society.  Five hundred and fifty leaders participated in the study, including two former presidents of the United States, 80 U.S. cabinet secretaries, 250 CEOs including 20% of the CEOs of Fortune 100 companies, and 100 leaders of the world’s largest nonprofit organizations. 

This elite group represents .003 percent of the United States population and yet they have a disproportionate impact on the world’s collective future. 

The 550 interviews were transcribed and coded along 122 variables to map demographic, social, educational, lifestyle, career, and network profiles.  There was an 87% response rate for requests for interviews, a very high response rate indeed.   Responses to interview questions were compared to the public information available about their leadership.  The information in this book is thus both quantitative and qualitative.

Below are some of the key themes you might find of value in managing your career.

It is Gratifying to Invest in Young People:

Mentors are critical catalysts to help aspiring young leaders make the ascent up the organization hierarchy.  The value for young people to cultivate mentors is obvious.  What is interesting about VIEW FROM THE TOP is the degree to which these top leaders find it gratifying to mentor the young.  Author Lindsay writes:

“I assumed they were saying this because it seemed like a nice sentiment.  But I always sensed something more meaningful under the surface.  I’m now convinced that the most gratifying part of leading a major institution …comes from relatively small deeds.   And the most common being investing in young people.” 

Dr. Lindsay mentions helping one student apply for a Rhodes Scholarship.  “It represented, at a micro level, the things that I love about higher education—investing in something that can be life-changing.”

In other words, young people need mentors to help them move up through the ranks.  And powerful people need mentees to find meaning for their work.

The challenge for young professionals is how to be perceived as worthy of being mentors.  Fifty-one percent of leaders mentioned a specific mentor who was critical in changing the trajectory of their professional lives.

The book does not deal with the difficulty young women continue to have in finding role models and mentors.   Given the importance of 1:1 mentorship for upward mobility, this is a critical issue.  Institutions of higher education can provide critical mentor experiences for worthy women and men if they but harness the power of their alumni networks.  Many alumni are waiting for phone calls that never arrive and are hungry for the type of “micro meaning” experiences Dr. Lindsay speaks about.  

Reach for the “Golden Web:”

Mentors introduce young professionals to higher level social networks.  And then the young professional learns how to leverage this new network.  Rising leaders seek out opportunities to build higher level connections.  They understand the connections between personal relationships and successful leadership. 

The best leaders deliberately seek out variety in social networks, rather than limit networks to one business sector, one golf club and one church.  This focus on an eclectic, diverse network is what the author calls “embracing the liberal arts approach.”

At the highest levels of power, the elite are part of a complex matrix of networks that reach across institutions, sectors, and geographical boundaries.   This eclectic, global matrix of networks is how power operates.  The author calls it the Golden Web.

Despite his role as a college President and what he has done on his own campus with the Presidential Fellowship Program, the book does not focus on the obvious educational implications for those in higher education: the teaching of substantive knowledge content will become increasingly broad and inexpensive thanks to the Internet.   What cannot be done on a webinar is providing students with personal networks and then teaching students how to build their networks.  This has always been an unwritten value proposition for elite private schools and colleges.  Now it is time to teach these skills more broadly.

Cultivating Networks at Lower Levels:

Golden Webs are the glitter of power.  Under the gold is a complex web of lower level networks that leaders cultivate.  Nearly all the leaders interviewed could identify at least one person lower down the economic ladder that they continue to rely upon for advice.  This lower level network includes childhood friends, favorite relatives, high-school coaches, and ministers. 

Some people are good at upward networking.  Some people are good at networking downwards.  A key characteristic of remarkable leaders is the ability to do both.

There is a section in the book called “Staying Connected to the Ladder.”  This refers to steps highly effective leaders take to fight against the tendency to become too insulated from the realities of life.  I wish the author had provided more examples.  But I can provide some examples from Stybel Peabody’s work with great CEOs.

One of my CEOs parks his car in the company parking lot in a slot that is the greatest distance from the front door.  As he walks towards the building, he randomly meets other employees and engages them in informal conversations.  He asks them, “What is it about this company keeps you from getting a good night sleep?”

Another company leader I work with has a “Soup with the CEO” program.  Once every two weeks, the CEO’s secretary will randomly ask an employee if that employee would be willing to meet the CEO for lunch.  For some employees it is the first time that they have ever been into the President’s Office.

One hospital President we work with has lunch once a week in the cafeteria and randomly sits down with patients, physicians, and employees he has never met before.  His question is always, “What’s the most important thing we should be doing?”  This is his way of “touching real people” rather than viewing sanitized data vetted by his subordinates.  In Dr. Lindsay’s words, these micro experiences both inspire him and give him an early warning system.

Dr. Lindsay relates one CEO who visits employees at their offices rather than summon them to her office.  Through this technique, “she communicated not only humility but also an interest in their working conditions.”

Leadership Begins at 20:

Nearly two-thirds of the leaders did not attend elite undergraduate institutions of higher education.  Fifty-eight percent of leaders participated in student government in either high school or college.  Forty-one percent were varsity athletes in high school and 23 percent were varsity in college.  Twenty-eight percent of White leaders held jobs.  The figure was lower for Black leaders.

In other words, future leaders were involved in life beyond formal classroom education.

While the majority of leaders did not attend a top-tier undergraduate school, nearly two-thirds of leaders who received graduate degrees went to a top-10 graduate school in their field. 

And after graduate school, these leaders tended to maintain an interest in fields that cross academic or business disciplines.  They are curious and practical people. And that helps them achieve the Golden Web of relationships needed to exert influence.

Leaders Are Sincerely Blind: 

The leaders in this study do not have a job.  They become the job.  And this is an important point of the book:  the role has a tendency to take over every aspect of life.  In the eyes of the world, they become the institutions they lead.  They become larger-than-life figures.  Over time, “many leaders buy into their own hype and imagine they merit ludicrously high salaries prevalent among today’s executives.”  They sincerely do not emotionally understand the investor and employee outrage over executive compensation.  And they genuinely do not understand the life of people different from the Golden Web they occupy.  They may have a “Liberal Arts” orientation, but there are limits to how broadly they wish to think.  And this is the dark aspect of the book.     


D.  Michael Lindsay with M.G. Hager. VIEW FROM THE TOP: an inside look at how people in power see and shape the world.  New York: Wiley, 2014


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