Expert on quest to find out secrets of successful leaders

Ability to build, tap connections more important than top schools

Expert on quest to find out secrets of successful leaders

Since 2003, Dr Lindsay has interviewed about 550 top decision-makers in the corporate, government and non-profit sectors to study their thought processes and experiences to see what special skills or attributes they used to reach the top. -- ST PHOTO: KUA

High-octane conversations with Wall Street players or the wielders of power in the White House are all in a day's work for leadership expert D. Michael Lindsay.

The challenge for the academic with a PhD in sociology from Princeton is to see what special skills or attributes they used to reach the top.

His decade-long quest to uncover the magic formula, if there is one, started in 2003.

About 550 top decision-makers in the corporate, government and non-profit sectors were interviewed in the process, to study their thought processes and experiences.

After chats with movers and shakers as diverse as JPMorgan Chase chief executive Jamie Dimon and former United States secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, Dr Lindsay observes a common thread among the leaders.

"It actually doesn't matter what you do before age 20. It doesn't matter where you went to school," he said in an interview with The Straits Times while in town last month to give a private talk on his research.

Singaporean parents who relocate just to improve their children's chances of landing a spot in a top school may be surprised to know that only 14 per cent of the leaders went to an Ivy League university.

"Brand identity is not a determining factor for long-term success. It matters what the experience is once you are there," he noted.

Dr Lindsay's talks with leaders, who were mostly from the US, revealed that many had mentors in the form of coaches or teachers who helped them outperform their peers.

He added that having a wide network of acquaintances and developing the ability to build connections with people and tap on those in advancing their careers - "relational entrepreneurship" is his term - are valuable.

"The most important thing that you can do is to find an excuse to get connected with a high-capacity leader, and sometimes that occurs through volunteer work and sometimes through friends of a friend.

"Those young people who end up being successful are relational entrepreneurs."

Practising what he preaches, Dr Lindsay, now the president of Gordon College, a liberal arts Christian university in Massachusetts, managed to interview two former US presidents through such networks.

His father, who is in the golf business, was friends with legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus, who in turn knew Mr George H.W. Bush, and helped Dr Lindsay to set up a meeting.

Dr Lindsay, 42, also called on a college friend whose father had ties with Mr Jimmy Carter, enabling him secure that interview.

Being in such proximity with the two former presidents showed him the different facets of leadership.

Through Mr Bush, Dr Lindsay saw the importance of having strong relationships at the ground level.

Mr Bush's political career was aided in part by his wife Barbara, who sent 10,000 Christmas cards a year to friends and acquaintances, garnering him core grassroots support for a national campaign.

A Washington outsider prior to his election, Mr Carter took a different path and was not afraid to be controversial at times.

"There is not a mould that you can apply and say this is what you always have to be in order to be president of the United States," Dr Lindsay noted.

Another key finding from his study was that most of the leaders he met had catalytic moments between the ages of 25 and 40.

A "leadership catalyst" is defined as an experience or encounter that significantly improves your performance trajectory.

Key to that are the willingness to take smart risks and not being a "serial risk-taker" who could bring harm to your organisation.

"Big companies like Johnson & Johnson or JCPenney or Wal-Mart, they are big money," said Dr Lindsay.

"But they also recognise that to develop great leaders means you have to create a culture of entrepreneurship, and that culture of entrepreneurship sometimes comes with risks and mistakes, and they are still willing to do it."

He cited Mr Ralph Larsen, the former CEO of Johnson & Johnson, who was on the fast track as a young management trainee.

During those early years, Mr Larsen made an error in orders, costing the company US$125,000, but it was deemed an honest mistake, and he kept his job.

A peer who was on the same management training programme got fired for taking two bottles of baby shampoo without paying for them.

Dr Lindsay's research into leaders has been his own catalyst, prompting him to write Faith In The Halls Of Power, which was partly based on the study, and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

He was also an early observer of leadership through his father Ken, who was the president of the Professional Golfers' Association, while his mother Susan was the head of a preparatory school.

"I have always been around leaders, and my parents were wonderful in that they encouraged me to succeed in the things that I had a natural talent for."

A lesson from the study that he is applying in his own life is to involve his wife Rebecca in his professional life as much as possible, as marriages that survive high-tension leadership stints are those where spouses do not lead separate lives.

The pair have three daughters, and Dr Lindsay hopes to pass on the leadership lessons to them, and to his students at Gordon College.

"My goal is to build an institution that really develops the next generation of what I would call faithful leaders, people who are serious about their faith, who also aspire to make a positive difference to the common good."

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