WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith and today you’re listening in on my conversation with Gordon College president and Pulitzer Prize-nominated author D. Michael Lindsay.
- Michael Lindsay knows something about “hinge moments,” moments which he says are those moments when your life pivots, sometimes in unexpected ways.
Lindsay’s own life has been full of such “hinge moments.” As a child, his Mississippi home was flooded by the Pearl River, disrupting his life and making him aware at a young age that everything you thought was normal can disappear in a moment. Of course, not all “hinge moments” are so cataclysmic. Lindsay describes the moments in his life when he accepted the job to become the eighth president of Gordon College, a Christian college in Massachusetts, as another “hinge moment” that has had positive consequences for him, his family, and the college itself – which enjoyed his spectacularly successful leadership there for a decade.
And recently, Michael Lindsay had another “hinge moment” when he announced his resignation from the presidency at Gordon, and soon thereafter accepted the presidency of Taylor University, in Indiana.
Michael Lindsay discusses these milestones in his life – and many others based on his research – in his new book Hinge Moments: Making the Most of Life’s Transitions. Michael Lindsay’s previous books include Faith in the Halls of Power, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2007.
And I should note that I had this conversation with Michael Lindsay after he had announced his resignation from Gordon College but before he had accepted his new position at Taylor University. That announcement came just last week.
Michael Lindsay, president of Gordon College, welcome to the program. And, listen, I just want to thank you so much for your book. It was very nourishing to me personally and I know a lot of other folks will find it so as well. Let’s start with some basics, if I could, Michael. What is a hinge moment?
MICHAEL LINDSAY, GUEST: Well, thanks so much for having me here. A hinge moment is when you experience something in your life around which the rest of your life will pivot in one way or another. It could be getting married to somebody or getting into grad school. It could be getting hired for your dream job or being laid off. Hinge moments can be good or bad. They’re significant juncture points in our lives around which the rest of our life hinges one way or another.
SMITH: Well, I know there were at least three experiences in your life that at least two of them you called hinge moments in the book. And I’m going to sort of test a theory about the third. One of those hinge moments occurred when you were a child and your home was flooded, the Pearl River flooded. And if you were left, I don’t know about homeless, but at least houseless for a while. Talk about that experience and why you would call that maybe your first hinge moment.
LINDSAY: I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and the Pearl River runs right through the city. And as it turned out we had some really heavy rains for a number of different weeks and through a variety of missteps and management problems, the river ended up flooding significantly. There’s a reservoir that the river empties into and they were concerned that the dam was going to break. If the dam broke, it would flood the entire city. Jackson’s a city of about 400,000. If they opened the floodgates, they were guaranteed that they would flood about one third of the city, but that they would save two thirds of the city. And the mayor was put into a terrible situation where he had to decide to open the floodgates. Ended up doing that on Good Friday of my first grade year of school. And my life was changed dramatically overnight. What we thought was going to be a couple of inches of water, ended up being a five feet of water. It devastated all that my family had spent their money on. My parents did not have flood insurance because they didn’t even know that they were in a 50 year floodplain and had to start over. It’s a terrible situation and tragedies like that happen to us day in and day out. And I think it was an important hinge moment because it was the first time when, as a kid, I realized there are big changes that can occur that change your life for good. And how you respond to tragedies, opportunities, moments of deep loss, but also big opportunities for growth that really sets the trajectory. And so it’s a large part of how you respond to what the Lord brings into your life.
SMITH: Yeah. A second hinge moment, or it wasn’t the second one in your life, but the second one that I want to talk about now happened much more recently than that. You were an adult. You were well along in your career. You were at Rice University, I believe. And this opening at Gordon College came up for the presidency. It came, honestly, and I think you said it this way in your book, it came at a time when maybe it wasn’t perfect for you. Maybe you thought, at least originally, that maybe you needed a few more of seasoning. If it had come along a little later, it would have been better, but it came when it came. Talk about that hinge moment, how you responded to it. And what’s happened since.
LINDSAY: Price Harding was the search consultant helping the Gordon board of trustees find a new president. He called me one morning and asked if we could talk about the Gordon presidency. And as he began speaking, I sort of tuned him out and began going through my mental Rolodex of names of a couple of people that I could suggest to him. After a few minutes, he stopped speaking. So I said, okay, Price, I’ve got three names for you. And he said, Michael, did you hear me? And I said, Oh yeah, but I really hadn’t. And he said, we’re interested in talking to you. And I said, Price, you know, that’s really nice and Gordon’s a great place, but I just don’t think that’s, you know, for me next. I’m very engaged here at Rice. We’re active in our church. Everything is good. My wife, you know, we have these newborn twins. Life is crazy. We’re close to family. I think we’re probably here for a while. And he said, well, do you ever see yourself being a college president? And I said, well, maybe in 10 to 15 years, but certainly not right now. And he said, well, would you just pray about it for a couple of weeks? And I said, sure, I’d pray about it. But really it was half-hearted and I wasn’t that interested. I did pray occasionally and asked the Lord to guide folks, but I was not interested in moving to Boston. I’m a native southerner. So the idea of living in New England where they get snow from November to May, it just didn’t sound like my idea of heaven. I did pray occasionally. About a month later, my 32 year old cousin, who was like a little brother to me, was killed in a car accident. And his death was a real wake up call for me because I realized, you know, we’re not promised tomorrow. The family has to deliver the eulogy at his funeral. And after that I loaded the kids up and we were driving back to Houston. We were going down the highway and I began thinking about Trent and his life. And it was right before Christmas, so I wondered what Christmas presents he had bought for his kids. I knew he was hoping for a big promotion at work and wondered when he thought that might come around. And then it got to thinking about sort of his long term trajectory and began wondering, you know, what did he think he’d be doing in 10 to 15 years? And the very minute that thought went across my mind, I remembered that conversation from a month earlier from Price and how I’d said, well, maybe I’d be a college president, but in 10 to 15 years. And I just realized, you know, the Lord brings opportunities our way, and we’re called to steward those, whether they’re our ideas or not. So the next day I called Price and asked if they were still taking applications, never dreaming I would end up being called to do that job. But I thought it would be a good experience. In the process of it, it ended up changing my life and the life of our family. And I’m very grateful for it.
SMITH: Well, I want to talk a little bit more about your tenure at Gordon College, but I’m going to table that part of the conversation for just a minute, Michael, if I could, and talk about maybe a third experience that I’m postulating may have been a hinge moment in your life. And I want you to confirm it or not. You wrote a couple of earlier books before this book, before Hinge Moments. One of them was called Faith in the Halls of Power, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. And another book View From the Top. Those two books, at least I think the latter of those two books, was very directly informed by a study that you did called the platinum study. So, first of all, could you tell everyone what the platinum study is? And, number two, I’m kind of guessing that that might’ve been a hinge moment in your life as well, because it was a real intense study of leadership, a study that not only resulted in, you know, the previous book, but also you refer to a great deal in this book as well.
LINDSAY: Yes. So, the platinum study started as my dissertation. So I’m living proof that you can write a dissertation that your wife might describe as actually interesting. So I had a lot of fun. In the end, I interviewed 550 senior leaders. So it’s the largest study based on a qualitative social science analysis of senior leaders ever conducted. The largest study prior to that was done in 1970 by a team of researchers at Columbia University. And the platinum study was really designed to figure out how is it that there are certain people who are able to lead for good over the long call. They don’t rust out. They don’t wear out. They don’t melt out, but they’re able to endure. And because of that, they have a certain quality to their leadership that really draws people. And I had a wonderful time working on that project. The first book Fate in the Halls of Power is really looking at the role of faith and religious commitment in their lives and how that shaped particularly American evangelicalism over the last 30 or 40 years, the second book was largely a book about leadership. How is it that they lead organizations, develop teams, get people excited, and get things done. This most recent book Hinge Moments comes out of the same study and is based on all those interviews. But it’s really a much more personal narrative talking about how did they approach change in their lives—some of which they sought and some of which came to them without their choosing. How did they respond to it? And are there lessons that we could learn that would be really significant for our own lives? The interesting thing is that I originally wrote Hinge Moments thinking it would be primarily a book for high school and college students thinking about big decisions of their life, but it ended up being a book with a much wider readership, because I realized that there’s an opportunity to talk about how do we deal with significant change, which is like a juncture point in your life, as well as the phases of transition, which take a longer period of time. They start before we experience the change and then they continue on after we’ve experienced the change. And it turns out while writing that book, the book ended up speaking to me directly and became part of my own journey, even where I am today.
SMITH: Welcome back to the program. I’m Warren Smith. And you’re listening in on my conversation with D. Michael Lindsay, who will soon be leaving his job as president of Gordon College in Massachusetts to take over as president of Indiana’s Taylor University. We’re discussing his new book today: Hinge Moments. Let’s get right back to that conversation.
Well, Michael, I think it would be fair to say that we’ve spent maybe the first part of our conversation up until now talking about where the book came from out of your own life experience, your research, and so on. I want to pivot in our conversation, maybe have a hinge moment in our conversation and talk about some of the content of the book. Obviously we can’t cover everything that is in the book, but there are a couple of key principles that really jumped out at me that I just want you to speak to a little bit more. One of them is this idea of failure. You say, for example, in the book that failure is the wake-up call to transition. Say more about that idea.
LINDSAY: Oftentimes we experience failure in our life and if we don’t pause to see what really happened, we miss the great lessons that God wants to teach us both personally, about our character, about how we relate to other people, about how we get things done, but also thinking more comprehensively about our life is that failure can become the crucible of great transformation and change. I find looking at scripture most of the time it is in defeat, disappointment, loss, and grief that the Lord speaks most dramatically to his people. And it is in those contexts that he does the most transformation of who we are, our values, our character, the way we live out our life. Now it’s not to say that the Lord brings all of that into our life because we can’t learn character or we can’t develop virtue in the good times, but the human condition is much more open to that kind of transformational work of the Lord in those moments of great loss. And so what I try to encourage my students to think about, and I’d say I try to think about it in my own life, is how we can use disappointment and loss and those moments when we fail in achieving our hopes or dreams, how we can really learn from that. If you can fail early and often, it dramatically increases the possibilities of your upward growth and trajectory. I think all of us want to get better, stronger, want to be more effective in what the Lord has called us to do. But you actually have to learn that through some of the disappointments and setbacks, than just part of learning and growing up.
SMITH: Well, this is not an analogy from your book, but I’m a music fan. And I was once listening to an interview with the guys from Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. And he says David Crosby said one of the reasons that they got good fast as a band was because they recorded themselves from the very beginning. They would rehearse in a studio and they could hear their mistakes in real time. And that dramatically accelerated their coming together as a band and getting better. It seems to me that maybe a different format, that’s what you’re saying as well.
LINDSAY: Absolutely. I think that that’s really important. Most of us think about that in our professional lives. So, we think about what mistakes I make with my boss, or how did I miss one of my goals? But, actually, I think the most effective ways that we can do it in our personal lives, how do I relate to my wife, or how am I treating my kids, or how am I staying engaged in my church? You can bring the same kind of discipline, the same kind of focus, the same kind of energy to your personal life as you do to your professional life in the process of it, I think we can become the man or a woman of God that we’re designed to be
SMITH: One of the other things that you say in your book is that these times of transition, these hinge moments are often moments of great uncertainty, great anxiety, potentially. And you say a couple things about that period, and I’m going to just mention one of them right now, and then I’ll maybe come to the other one in just a second. But one of the things that you say is that God speaks to us from behind. That so often when we’re in these moments we have this anxiety, we want to know the path ahead of us probably farther into the future than God intends for us to know it. And we need to be quiet and listen to that still small voice. Is that what you mean when you say God speaks to us from behind?
LINDSAY: Yeah. It’s alluding to this verse in Isaiah chapter 30, where you’re going to hear a voice telling you whether you turn to the left to the right, this is the way. Walk in it. And it’s quite instructive to me that the Lord is not a voice speaking in front of us, calling us out and instead, he’s nurturing us. He’s encouraging us from behind. So you have to be quiet. It is the still, small voice we have to listen to you to sort of guide us in that process. In the book, I talk about that there are seven stages of transition. You start with sort of a discernment phase, and then there’s this sort of anticipation that something is coming, that something might happen. Intuitively we even sort of sense it in our bones that a change might occur.
And then you reach this sort of intersection moment where the previous life or way that you were going about is no longer going to be your future. And for some of us, that’s a liminal moment, a state of being betwixt and between. And it can be really unsettling for us, but eventually we land in our new place, then we become integrated and then we become a source of both inspiration. And we realize what it is that the Lord’s called us to do, or how we can make a more positive difference. It’s that intersection moment that we’re sort of at the low — where we have the least amount of confidence, the least of a sense of affirmation that what we’re doing, but in the process of that, I think the Lord can really use those intersection moments of our life to shape us in pretty significant and positive ways.
SMITH: Well, one of the other ideas that I think is really related to that is this notion that change is a process and not an event. People that maybe have studied change management might know the name, Kurt Lewin, who talks about this process of unfreezing, and then being in this nebulous transition state, and then refreezing in the new state down the road, down the way. It can be very uncomfortable. It can be very amorphous, but you say that that’s something that we really have to get used to because while not all change is an improvement, all improvement does involve some sort of change. So, in some ways we all have to kind of become experts at this process of change management. Is that fair?
LINDSAY: It’s absolutely fair. All of us are going to experience that state of being betwixt and between. Whether it’s dealing with a loss that comes to us or big opportunities. There’s a degree of where you get butterflies in your stomach and you’re nervous because you’re thinking, Oh God, what I’ve used in the past, it’s not going to necessarily guide me in the future. But that’s actually where we get the point of real growth and opportunity. And I’m just amazed as I look at the lives of these extraordinary leaders, how the Lord used those sort of moments of being betwixt and between as these crucibles of their transformation. And then they did amazing great things in the book. I tell the story about how Condi Rice got a new vision for her own life, thinking that she was going to be a concert pianist and never dreaming that she would become an expert on the Soviet Union or are moving to an area of leadership informed policy. But lo and behold, that’s how God can use those liminal moments, the hinge that occurs to really change us insignificant ways.
SMITH: Well, you just mentioned Condi Rice and it reminded me that you’ve got a lot of really great stories in your book of individuals that you’ve encountered both in your study and elsewhere over the years. One in particular that I wanted you to talk about just to give everyone kind of a taste of some of the characters that you have in the book, is Bruce Kennedy with Alaska Airlines. Early in my career, I worked for Wien Air Alaska, which was a competitor of Alaska Airlines. So I knew who Bruce Kennedy was. And I was kind of surprised and delighted to find him in your book. You had a relationship with him. Tell me about that.
LINDSAY: I got to know Bruce Kennedy, gosh, almost 20 years ago, and sat down with him at his home not too far away from Sea-Tac airport in Seattle, Washington. And he talked about his own sense of calling to commercial aviation, how much he loved the field. But the thing that really struck me, and this is what I talk about in the book, was his decision to step away from it after 10 years of the job. Which is unusual because most CEOs, they don’t give up the job very easily. And in fact, he felt a sense of calling from God that his time had come to a close and that it was time to do something very different. That’s an extraordinary CEO. Somebody who’s willing to sort of give it up, even when they don’t know what is next and it was a real act of faith. He stood out to me as emblematic of what I think is probably the very best of Christian leaders in that they’re willing to steward the responsibility as best they can, but when the time is given for them to be willing to give it up, they do it voluntarily. So in the book, I tell a little bit about his story and his own journey with leading Alaska Airlines.
SMITH: Welcome back. I’m Warren Smith and you’re listening in on my interview with Michael Lindsay. Let’s get right back to that conversation.
I’d like to now, if we could, maybe pivot in our conversation to talk about that some and that is that you two are approaching a 10 year milestone as the president of Gordon College. You, too, have made a decision to leave Gordon College long before you’re ready for retirement, long before they were ready for you to leave, which I think is an important thing to note. You’re leaving of your own volition. You’ve had a tremendous run of success there. Why, why are you leaving now? LINDSAY: You know, I will say this was a year long journey for me. When the idea first came to my mind, I was listening to a talk that Arthur Brooks was giving. He came to speak at Gordon and talked in the conversation about his own journey to step down after heading the American Enterprise Institute after 10 spectacularly successful years. I think most people would say he probably was the strongest leader of a think tank in the world. And so everybody was shocked when he decided to step away from it. As he spoke about his own journey to go through a process of self renewal, I got these butterflies in my stomach and I went home that night and said to my wife, why was I nervous for Arthur Brooks? And she said, well, maybe it’s that God is trying to speak to you about your own journey. And I said, well, I don’t like what he’s saying. So I’m not going to think about that. Over the course of the next several months, in fact, while writing hinge moments, I began to get different promptings from the Holy Spirit that perhaps God was preparing me to do something different. And I did not like the idea because I’ve loved my role at Gordon and I love the institution and I thought I would be there the rest of my career. I’m relatively young and I thought I had a much longer run in the role. But I just continued to get sort of signals at different signposts. Eventually I had a conversation with my board and, as you say, you know, they were wonderful and encouraging, but I realized, you know, maybe God was preparing me. And it became an active obedience, to be perfectly honest. Over the summer, I was really wrestling. We had worried about how all colleges and universities would respond to the pandemic, but as it turned out, Gordon really was incredibly resilient. We ended our fiscal year on June 30th. It was our strongest fiscal year in the history of the institution. We’ve been involved in a very significant fundraising campaign and that’s gone spectacularly well. It’s our most successful and ambitious fundraising campaign in the history of the school. And we have been working on a significant affordability initiative. I really wanted to help Gordon be within the reach of more middle-class families in America. And it took us about 10 years, but finally we systematically were able to reduce expenses and grow revenues, such that we were able to reduce both the sticker price and the net price so much so that we called it the Gordon game change and reduced the sticker price by 30 percent. And every single student, including our current students, are going to save money next year, compared to what they spent this year. And that’s very unusual in American higher education.
SMITH: Well, it certainly is, as the father of four children, the fourth of which is a junior at Liberty University right now. I had one son at the Air Force Academy and the other three were at private Christian colleges. I felt that pain for the last 10 or 15 years. So, speaking for parents everywhere, Michael, let me just say thank you. And maybe also thank you—and this is where I’d like to go next in our conversation—maybe thank you for showing the way to other colleges and universities for how they might be able to bend that curve as well, which does cause me to want to ask—I’m just gonna ask a couple of open-ended questions and just get you to respond. One is what is the state of higher education now? Especially Christian higher education. I mean, there are cost pressures. There are technology pressures. You ran into a situation when LGBTQ activists were kind of leaning on you and Gordon a couple of years ago, and you had to kind of stand up to some of those challenges and figure out a winsome way to navigate through that. What’s going on? What’s the future going to look like? How should we as Christians be responding?
LINDSAY: Well, I will say it is a challenging time in American education. There are 2 million fewer students in college today than there were five years ago. And that trend is only going to get worse in the next five to six years, because in 2026, that will be the year that the babies that were born in the great recession of 2008, 2009, that they’re finally going up to college. And that was the lowest birth rate in the last 60 years in American history. So, there are going to be a lot fewer people who are actually going to colleges and universities. And that’s why if an institution is going to thrive in the days ahead, they’ve got to become much more adaptable, much more nimble. They have to be leaner operations. They have to be willing to pivot in various ways. Higher education has given rise to more innovation and more creativity than any other sector of American culture. And yet our institutions themselves are not that nimble. They’re not that adaptive. So, what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to build resilience within the institution. That comes by systematically figuring out how can we reduce our fixed costs and how can we increase flexibility so we can serve more students and more families? There are some wonderful examples of institutions that are doing that effectively, but if you’re not willing to undertake that process, then you probably won’t be able to survive over the next 10 to 15 years.
SMITH: Well, probably about 15 years ago, I interviewed the president of Grove City College, which is where my oldest daughter went to school. His name was Dick Juul. He was the president at that time. And he told me, I said, how do you keep Grove City’s cost so low? Because at that time it was one of the lower cost schools and may still be. And he said, we do not have any—and these were his words—we don’t have any manufactured cost. And we look hard at everything that we do and ask ourselves, is this necessary for the mission of the school, or is this necessary for some other purpose that does not drive the mission of the school? He would call that latter category manufactured costs. It sounds like that’s sort of the process that you went through at Gordon. Is that fair?
LINDSAY: Well, I think that we went through a systematic process of restructuring our academic division, and it was the most significant restructuring Gordon had done in 50 years. I think every college and university in America is going to go through that in the next 10 years, because you’ve just got to figure out how can you offer more degree flexibility for students without significantly increasing your costs? And so that requires a lot of the flexibility you’re trying to build into it. You know, the pivot we did with the virus to offering online learning, it showed that it is possible for good learning to occur over digital platforms. I don’t think it’s the best learning. I don’t think it’s the ideal environment. And particularly when you’re thinking about virtue formation and values and character, that is accomplished in incarnational relationships. So, you’ve got to have people you see face to face, who you can have interactions with, and then you can live in community. But it is possible to combine that kind of ideal with some more flexible, modular kind of opportunities for learning that can create some real exciting possibilities for American higher education in the days ahead.
SMITH: Well, Michael Lindsay, I’d like to kind of close our conversation by talking about a situation that I think maybe brings together some of the many threads that we’ve been talking about. You were talking earlier when you did the platinum study about how that study was an attempt to identify leaders that didn’t burn out, rust out, or what was the third one? I can’t remember. Melt out. We’ve had a lot of Christian leaders burning out, melting out, rusting out lately. And I think of one in particular, Jerry Falwell Jr., at Liberty University, since I mentioned them, he was the college president. Liberty is a kind of a unique asset, I think, in the world of Christian higher education, because it’s kind of a full service university. If you wanted to major in philosophy, there are a hundred Christian colleges where you could do that. If you wanted to major in interior design or accounting or engineering, there are very few where that could take place. So, I just use that as an example, apropos of nothing, not to think that I don’t think Michael Lindsay would be a fantastic president for Liberty University. We’ll just table that conversation for another day. But what should we be looking for in the qualities of our Christian leaders these days to keep them from having some of the Jerry Jr., Ravi Zacharias, James MacDonald moments that unfortunately we in evangelicalism have experienced? And, in particular, what should that look like in the arena of higher education?
LINDSAY: You know my pastor said to me years ago that the challenge with leadership in the Christian community is that most of the people who get to those positions of responsibility are also very relationally gifted. And so it will be relational shortfalls that will be their undoing. And it’s a matter of exercising good judgment, and having those kinds of guard rails in your life. So, I learned those lessons early on by observing some extraordinary leaders and said, I’m going to build some accountability systems in my life. So I have an assistant who tracks my iPhone multiple times a day and he knows where I am and can find me. So it would be very difficult for me to be having an affair without him knowing what’s going on. That’s a simple guardrail I voluntarily put into my life because I recognize this job can be a very challenging job. And you need to have accountability structures that can keep you from your own worst proclivities when you’re facing those kinds of challenges. If you build those accountability structures in your life, it’s really hard to take them away. It’s really hard to dismantle them. And so you’ve got to build them and then sustain them along the way. I also think that boards are going to play an even larger role of helping executives have those accountability structures, but also helping them deal with the pressure that they face. I mean, the thing about a university presidency is that it’s a tough job and you’re always disappointing someone. So, you need boards that will come alongside you and that are for you and believe in you, but also want to help you become even better along the way. I also think it’s a daily act of having an active relationship with God and that you have those spiritual disciplines in your life. Until about five or six years ago, I had never really had the spiritual practice of fasting as part of my own journey. But it’s become a very important part of my own sort of process of discernment. And I’ve found that as I walk through the hinge moments of life, if you can have those kinds of sources of support, it can sustain you and in the process that you can make a more positive difference, not only for the kingdom of God, but also for the common good.
SMITH: Well, what’s next for you, Michael Lindsay? I have mentioned that Liberty University has a vacancy at the presidential level. I’m sure that if you were being considered for that job, you couldn’t talk about it, but I’d be happy for you to make news on my podcast. So, feel free if you want to. What’s up?
LINDSAY: Well, I really appreciate it. My wife and I have been very encouraged by the opportunities to have some options along the way. And we are prayerfully considering those at the very moment. So, no news to report just yet, but I’m hoping we’ll have something to share pretty soon.