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D. Michael Lindsay

D. Michael Lindsay

D. Michael Lindsay is a sociologist at Rice University and the author of Surveying America’s Leadership: A Study of the White House Fellows. He is also author of the acclaimed 2007 study, Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite.

A Public-Service 'Game Changer'

In the midst of the tumultuous 1960s, President Johnson launched a new initiative--the White House Fellowship--to expose highly qualified young Americans to the inner chamber of power at the White House in hopes of enlisting them for a lifetime of service for the nation. This Saturday, October 3, 2009, is the 45th anniversary of this explicitly nonpartisan program, which has played such a critical role in the leadership development of hundreds of Americans. Although the number of White House Fellows has been relatively small -- 642 to date -- a remarkable number of them have risen to top positions in politics, business, higher education, nonprofits, and the media, influencing the lives of millions of Americans and shaping public life in profound ways.

Over the last year, I have directed the White House Fellows Project , a comprehensive study of the program and its impact on the lives of current and former fellows. Our just-released survey of the fellows reveals that this program is a vital pipeline of leadership talent for the public sector. Corporations devote vast sums of money each year to recruiting and developing talent among their people. However, this study shows that the White House can do the same with even less funding (total program costs, including all salaries and expenses is less than $5 million a year), and the White House Fellowship produces not only future leaders for the public sector but also public-minded leaders in a number of other professions. Beyond cabinet secretaries, congressmen, and presidential hopefuls (including Wesley Clark and Sam Brownback), the program boasts over 20 alumni who have become college presidents and deans as well as another 20 top leaders from the artistic, media, and nonprofit sectors.

President Johnson wanted the program to elicit much greater civic involvement among bright, ambitious young people. The study shows that the program does lead to more public service. For example, when comparing jobs held by fellows before and after this yearlong experience, the percentage of these young people working in government--at the local, state, or federal levels--nearly doubles. That's good for all of us. We need more bright, talented young people in public service.

And the White House Fellowship is a different environment than other federal bureaucracies: Applicants are selected on the basis of merit (like the civil service) but are given the access of political appointees. In many ways, this program represents a genuine alternative to existing models for staffing our government. Given the remarkable people the fellowship has enlisted for public life, I suggest that the Office of Personnel Management carefully consider if this model can be applied beyond the upper echelon of the federal workforce.

Because of its prestige and selectivity--thousands may apply but fewer than 20 are chosen, it is not surprising that the fellowship recruits very talented young people. By almost every measure, we see that these are no "ordinary" Americans. Six in ten report having had a conversation with a high-ranking official in the federal government before they even applied. Nearly all (96%) have earned a graduate degree, and over one-third (36%) have earned two or more graduate degrees.

Despite these auspicious backgrounds, fellows gush about the program's influence; nearly all describe the fellowship as transformational in their lives. General Colin Powell referred to it as a "turning point" in his career, giving him a much broader exposure to the work of governing and to the ways of Washington. Indeed, the White House Fellowship has been the launching pad for many leaders in government including seven people who have held cabinet and sub-cabinet positions over the last eight administrations, six members of Congress, along with dozens of senior military officers.

But wouldn't these individuals rise to the top of their fields without this program? Some might think so given their impressive credentials, but the fellows themselves disagree. Nearly all report that the program accelerated their leadership development and sharpened the degree of their professional trajectory. Indeed, 69% of all current and former fellows say that the White House Fellowship was "very important" to their development as a leader. And in qualitative interviews I have conducted in recent months, virtually every fellow has said that this program stands apart from all the other opportunities they have been given, referring to the program as a "game changer" and a "life-changing" experience.

Because the White House Fellowship draws younger leaders from many different fields--including business, the military, nonprofits, law, and academia, it provides one of the few professional settings where leaders from very different fields regularly work together and build collegial relations. This cross-pollination of leaders makes a huge difference over the long term. For instance, consider the program's impact on fellows' attitudes toward parts of the federal government.

We see that fellows with no military experience express significantly greater confidence in the military after spending a year with a classmate who has a military background, and for each additional class member with a military background, the non-military fellow's level of confidence rises. Levels of support for the military can rise from 54% to 81% among fellows, depending on how many classmates with military backgrounds were in a class. Most significant, that positive attitude toward the military remains over the course of the leader's life, whether that Fellowship contact happened last year or four decades ago. That's important, especially in the U.S. military, where ultimate decision-making rests in the hands of top civilians such as the Secretary of Defense instead of the military's top brass.

This is a program based in Washington, but politics invariably seeps into the fellowship, even if it is designed to be nonpartisan. More self-identified Democrats are fellows during Democratic administrations, and more Republicans participate in the program when Republicans control the White House. However, the most recent administration (that of George W. Bush) had the most even balance of Democratic and Republican Fellows (35% and 37%, respectively with the rest being Independents) in the program's history. The most partisan results occurred during the Reagan White House (with 66% Republicans and 18% Democrats) and the Clinton White House (with 71% Democrats and 11% Republicans). The study shows that more people of the president's party apply, and this naturally shapes the partisan makeup of each class, even though political considerations are excluded from the selection process.

Overall, Democrats slightly outnumber Republicans among White House Fellows, but there are significantly more Fellows who self-identify as a "strong Democrat" (21%) compared to those who self-identify as a "strong Republican" (10%). And a majority of Fellows--whether Democrat or Republican--report being politically connected, even before beginning the program.

Like the demographic profile of other elite programs, the White House Fellowship is overwhelmingly white and male. Over time, classes of Fellows have become increasingly diverse, especially during Democratic administrations. The highest percentage of women occurred under Presidents Carter and Clinton (35% each), and the highest percentage of nonwhite Fellows happened during the Clinton White House (41%).

The White House Fellowship has recruited and developed over 600 leading Americans in every conceivable field. At a time when half of all Americans--according to the latest Gallup Poll--think the economy is getting worse and public confidence in Congress continues to slide to an all-time low, we need proven programs like the White House Fellowship, now more than ever, to produce great leaders that work for the common good.


Cindy Moelis on the current White House Fellows,
Jack LeCuyer on the vision behind the program, and
Roger Porter on his own fellowship surprise.

By D. Michael Lindsay

 |  October 1, 2009; 4:40 PM ET
Category:  White House Fellows Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: The Hollow Language of Sanctions | Next: Taming the 'Strange Monster' of Government


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Significant insights on leadership! Michael, thank you for sharing the lessons that you are learning about developing young leaders from your thorough research. This reminds us that one of the greatest legacy a leader can leave is his or her's investment in the next generation.

It would be interesting to compare the effectiveness and results of the White House Fellowship process with young leader's program on the state level.

Posted by: mwslusher | October 15, 2009 5:30 PM
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As always, Dr. Lindsay has done a thorough and engaging job of exploring leadership and how it's fostered. I appreciate learning about this initiative, its history and its current implications. I look forward to the day I can tell my son about this opportunity...hopefully it will still be around 15 years from now.

Posted by: llowry20 | October 6, 2009 7:43 PM
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Dr. Lindsay once again performs magnificently in his quest for understanding. This time he peers into an obscure entitlement program for "connected" young adults put together by an eager group of federal bureaucrats with an unknown agenda. The makeup of the 20 persons picked each time for the fellowship shows that these people most likely are not the brightest and the best, but rather "well connected" through the government/political party bureaucrats.

Posted by: robtnor | October 5, 2009 1:48 PM
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Colin Powell is a leader, but GREAT? I'm not trying to disparage his record or his achievement, what I am disparaging is the article writer's notion of Greatness. We had 8 years of Pres. Bush, he was the POTUS, but was he a GREAT leader? I think people misconstrue position, Wall Street CEOs, or titles, or national goodwill as signs of Greatness.

Posted by: edwardlee35 | October 3, 2009 11:36 PM
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Since this Fellowship is not very well known, I'm interested in knowing what types of people learn about it and who applies. Are they all similar types of people with a common background? How do they learn about the program?

Great study!

Posted by: age1 | October 3, 2009 12:31 PM
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Very interesting study, the use of interviews will make its results relevant to a lot of careers. I didn’t know much about the White House Fellowship before this, but I would guess that as much as prestige, credentials, and raw talent were factors in their success, the social aspect of this kind of fellowship made a difference in the fellows’ careers.

Posted by: huphantes | October 3, 2009 12:00 PM
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Lindsay ends with >

The article did not inform me on how the White House Fellows program contributes to the COMMON GOOD. It has become less and less clear to me over the 4 decades of adulthood how our elected body actually DOES work toward the common good.

Ever more frequently the Congress works toward the good of its incumbents, and to the good of the big donors (virtually all of which are large corporations [AKA "persons" according to insane judicial precedent although clearly contrary to our own Declaration of Independence & US Constitution] and / or trade associations).

Posted by: Bill_Marston | October 3, 2009 10:36 AM
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I really like Dr. Lindsay's suggestion for reforming civil service.

Posted by: amp51 | October 2, 2009 11:41 PM
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Great study with many facets to investigate. Interesting that one of the periods most inclusive was under President Carter. I wonder much each President tweaked the program to his preferences.

Posted by: mlg22 | October 2, 2009 11:31 PM
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I think it's interesting that such a prestigious fellowship is so unknown--I had never heard of the White House Fellows before.

Posted by: marygrace1 | October 2, 2009 10:55 PM
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Having never been a WH Fellow, I can only say it resembles other highly selective fellowships and interns: having been selected puts you on a career fast track.

In a similiar vein, do Ivy League schools actually make their students smarter... or are the graduates of those schools simply talented individuals who are given greater opportunities because of that prestigious credential?

Posted by: Alan4 | October 2, 2009 10:09 PM
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A GAME CHANGER worse than a serial murder would be usurping the Office of POTUS!

Another GAME CHANGER would be being in the Congress or being the VP at the time of the electoral count for an elected POTUS accused of usurpation, knowing there were issues of usurption, and, failing to act, that too would be worse than serial murder!

The Leadership Skills practiced in Washington DC are despicable, fraudulent, criminal and there needs to be a thorough house cleaning of Washington politicians, of the controllers of the airwaves, and; a repudiation of the money printing franchise wielded by the Federal Reserve unless they are taxed sufficiently to pay for all wars and the health care of all Americans...

Posted by: Archarito | October 2, 2009 7:10 PM
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If my memory is accurate that was just after LBJ stopped the presses printing the Silver Certificates that JFK initiated to compete with Federal Reserve Notes and thereby protect our country from this despicable organization wasn't it?

Posted by: Archarito | October 2, 2009 6:58 PM
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Colin Powell a leader? As a former Army officer I used to admire him and looked forward to his speeches at the Armed Forces Communications Electronics Association in Washington D. C.

He then sold out to Lord Cheney taking his lies of yellowcake and WMD in Iraq to the UN. One would think these young leaders would pick someone more honest to look up to.
Powell is now a disgraced, fallen shill.

Posted by: coloradodog | October 2, 2009 6:51 PM
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The study appears to have been well done and the article is clearly written. Even though the White House Fellows Program touches the lives of so few, and it appears the cream would have risen to the top with or without the program it seems to be a very worthy endeavor and makes a significant contribution to the lives of some who will do exceedingly well in life and will have a wide circle of influence.

Posted by: blandrum | October 2, 2009 3:58 PM
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Apparently some people have completely forgotten that General Powell has a long record of leadership in the Army - a record that predates his political career by a long time. That's how he earned stars on his shoulders, after all.

Quite frankly, some people should be ashamed of their partisan posturings, most notably people who post knee-jerk reactions.

Posted by: JeffRandom | October 2, 2009 3:53 PM
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In fact, Wikipedia has a long list of White House Fellows from all kinds of careers.


Posted by: iamoutlier | October 2, 2009 1:10 PM
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The criticism over Powell--whether accurate or not--misses the point. The White House Fellowship is about bringing together individuals from all kinds of different sectors. For example, I know editor Paul Gigot of the WSJ was a White House Fellow.

Posted by: iamoutlier | October 2, 2009 1:09 PM
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Intelligent, intellectual people in government! A legacy few would attribute to LBJ. Most likely these people would have eye opening stories about their introduction to DC world.

Posted by: posttwo | October 2, 2009 12:46 PM
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Responsibility and trust are often very conducive to the development of leadership skills, as are great examples of leadership. This is very insightful. I would be interested in knowing more details about what happens during white house fellowships that has such transformative power.

Posted by: jasenvance | October 2, 2009 12:24 PM
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Fascinating research that highlights a program that has demonstrated significant impact as well as incredible future potential. This is a great example of a development program which influences leaders and future leaders to use their sphere of influence for the common good. Thanks Michael for your leadership in studying the merits and implications of the White House Fellows Program. I will be very interested to see how this research is leveraged in the future.

Posted by: mvanhoozer | October 2, 2009 12:07 PM
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Interesting study. Parents, pass this article along to your kids. This is the type program that our kids should strive to be a part of. Guys - lay off Collin Powell. He has given his entire life to public service and for that I give him my utmost respect.

Posted by: rgregory1 | October 2, 2009 11:08 AM
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More than a third (36%) have two or more graduate degrees? Sounds like the program values education as much as experience. And like the academic credentials that help young leaders gain entrance to the program, I wonder how much of their future success is due to the skills and perspective obtained through the program versus the credential of having been a White House Fellow.

Posted by: BCS2 | October 2, 2009 10:45 AM
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This is a highly original study with important implications for the ways we think about leadership, civic participation, and elites. It reminds me of Samuel Adams' observation: “It does not require a majority to prevail but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brushfires in people’s minds.”

Posted by: mdesmond | October 2, 2009 10:38 AM
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Intriguing study. Some obvious expectations of study - applicants have impressive credentials and risen to top positions. Not so obvious conclusions - Only 96% have earned a graduate degree? I would have thought this to be closer to 100 given the limited number chosen with strong academic backgrounds. Lastly I'm interested in finding out why the George W. Bush had the most even balance of Democratic and Republican Fellows (35% and 37%, respectively with the rest being Independents)?? Ready to read more.....

Posted by: juliewestu | October 2, 2009 10:31 AM
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Fascinating study. There's a growing perception these days that work in the public sector is of greater civic value than occupations in the private sector, but I'm not so sure that is the case. With respect to this study, I wonder about the diversity of program participants - not just political perspective but race, class, and gender.

Posted by: BCS2 | October 2, 2009 10:20 AM
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The previous two posters who disparaged Colin Powell are a couple of cans short of a six pack! I'm sure that they believe he achieved the position of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs as a media creation. I have a suggestion for MIDDLEJM1 & EDWARDLEE35 - read the following - http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/pow0bio-1
Also, I'd appreciate it if both of you would come back and post your military service record so we can see what great patriots you really are!

Posted by: philasportsphan | October 2, 2009 9:52 AM
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Associating Colin Powell with leadership is like putting a picture of a frog on the cover of a beauty magazine. Colin Powell was an elite media creation in search of a role model for the black community. Powell received credit he didn't deserve. Recommend you replace his picture with one of Gen Norman Schwarzkopf.

Posted by: middlejm1 | October 2, 2009 8:13 AM
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Colin Powell = Great Leader? I think this programs helps build careers of ambitous bureaucrats vice truly great leaders who are tested in unbearable adversity and hardship and come out with a message of hope.

Posted by: edwardlee35 | October 2, 2009 6:20 AM
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