United Nations 33rd Annual International Prayer Breakfast

Remarks of Dr. D. Michael Lindsay on the occasion of the 33rd Annual International Prayer Breakfast on September 18, 2018 in New York City.

Thank you so very much. I am honored and grateful to be here this morning, and I bring you greetings from Gordon College, a Christian liberal arts college on the North Shore of Boston.

We actually share a wonderful connection with the United Nations, through a man by the name of Frederick Prince. Mr. Prince owned a thousand acres of land on the North Shore of Boston and had hosted a number of dignitaries in the early 20th century. Teddy Roosevelt used to play polo on what became our academic quad; he was close to the Roosevelts. As the organizing committee began thinking about the formation of the United Nations, the planning committee came out to visit Mr. Prince’s estate on the North Shore of Boston to consider placing the UN there. If they had gone for a Breton Woods-like environment, my hunch is that they might have chosen that place for the UN.

At the time, Gordon College, which started in the 19th century, was located down by Fenway Park where the Boston Red Sox play. We were just bursting at the seams. It ended up being that the organizing committee decided to come here in Manhattan, and we’re really glad for that, because it allowed us to then be able to acquire the property on the North Shore of Boston. We cordially invite you, if you would like to see what heaven on earth looks like, to come and visit us on the North Shore!

In my work as a college president, I seek to inspire our students to make the kind of difference that you make every single day. We are praying for the important work that you are about and for the commitment of your lives to trying to help improve our society. We pray that the shalom, the peace and the flourishing that you seek, can create a world where our kids will be able to play together, even across differences, where we will be able to have sustainable development and human rights which are shared by all. We are behind you and are grateful for the important work that you do, day in and day out.

As “Reverend” Brown mentioned, I spent about 25 years of my life studying leadership. It actually began as my dissertation at Princeton. I started out wanting to conduct a very large-scale set of interviews with senior leaders across the world. In the end, I was able to interview a wonderful array: 550 senior leaders from government, from the social sector, and from business; including 20 of the Fortune 100 CEOs, another 250 CEOs of some of the world’s largest firms; heads of governments including former US Presidents Jimmy Carter and George Bush; and leaders from the non-profit sector like the presidents of Harvard and of Stanford. I ended up producing a dissertation that my wife described as “actually interesting.” So, it was a lot of fun.

Many times people ask me, “How do you get a chance to interview some of these very interesting people who have busy lives and very demanding circumstances?” Sometimes it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I was out in Stanford doing some interviews in Silicon Valley and had a couple of hours to kill, so I went to the bookstore at Stanford University. I had been in there for a couple of minutes when I looked out of the corner of my eye, and I saw a woman who looked exactly like Karen Hughes. At the time, Karen Hughes was serving as Counselor to the President for George W. Bush, and I had been wanting to get an interview with Karen Hughes for quite a while.  Here she is in the flesh…or so I thought. I wasn’t exactly certain if it was Karen Hughes, so I decided I needed to figure it out, so I just sort of circled around Karen Hughes to see if I could hear her talk. Soon enough, she did end up saying something, and I instantly recognized this raspy Texan voice. So I got ready to ask her for an interview.

My heart started beating fast, and I started sweating. I realized that I had asked very powerful people for interviews by letter, by email, by fax and by telephone, but I had never asked somebody face-to-face. It’s kind of like asking somebody out on a date face-to-face. What if they say no? Then it’s awkward and difficult. So, I decided I needed to get my courage up, so I just sort of walked around Karen Hughes at the Stanford Bookstore. After I circled her once, I was still nervous, so I decided to circle a second time. I circled a third time. I circled a fourth time. On the fifth cycle, I finally decided . . . this is too stressful . . . and so I walked out of the bookstore.

There’s a large plaza outside of the bookstore at Stanford, and I’m thinking, “Now God, why was I so intimidated by her? So what if she says no? She’ll forget it in five minutes. I’ll remember it the rest of my life.”

I walked back into the bookstore, and I noticed that she is upstairs in the coffee bar. So, I started walking up and as I’m walking up I began thinking, “How do I address her? Do I say Madame Counselor or Counselor Hughes, Mrs. Hughes, or hey Karen? What am I supposed to say?” I didn’t know what to say when I approached her, so I just tapped her on the shoulder, and she turned around. Now I have this habit when I get nervous, of having red splotches appear on my neck. The minute she turned around, I knew I had about 30 seconds before I would be beet red. I said, “Mrs. Hughes, my name is Michael Lindsay, and I am doing interviews with senior leaders.” I told her a little bit about the research I was involved with and asked if she would be willing to sit down with me.

She was very nice. She said, “I’m actually out here looking at colleges with my son. But I’ll give you my card, and if you contact me in a couple of months, I’d be happy to sit down with you.” A couple months passed, and so I called her up and said, “Mrs. Hughes, I don’t know if you remember me, my name is Michael Lindsay.” She said, “Oh yes, that young man who turned bright red at Stanford!” I said, “Yes Ma’am, that’s me.”

We ended up doing the interview at the Hay Adams Hotel, right across from the White House in Washington. It was an amazing interview, because here’s a woman who had not spent her whole life trying to get into the inner chamber of political power, but that’s where she found herself. While there she realized, it’s a hard job with a lot of challenges.

One of the interesting things that I learned over the course of doing all of this research (which took ten years of my life) is that greatness does not come from the strong men that we see held up by the cheering crowds. But instead, greatness occurs when folks are willing to give up whatever power or influence they have to try and benefit those who do not have as much. Some of the greatest people, paradoxically, lead with a limp.

The Scripture that was read earlier, from Genesis chapter 32, occurs in the context of the Hebrew Bible, where Jacob is on his way to go and see his brother, Esau. You remember the story. Jacob had actually tricked his brother out of his birthright. As a result, Esau was very angry at Jacob; in fact, he vowed to kill him the next time he saw him. A long period of time went by, and the brothers had not seen one another. Jacob realized that he needed to be a good diplomat, so he sent his possessions and his people on ahead of him. He waited on this side of the Jabbok River for one more night. There, while he was alone, an angel of the Lord visited him.

Scripture says that this angel came and wrestled with Jacob. In some traditions, it’s understood to be actually God who is wrestling with Jacob. And they wrestled all night long, going back and forth. Finally, the angel says to Jacob, “Let me go because morning has come.” Jacob said, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” In the end, the angel did let him go. He marked that place, Jacob did, because he said it was here that he encountered God face-to-face. He walked away to see his brother for the first time, to be reconciled, but he walked with a limp. But it was that limp that actually gave him a sense of strength. The struggle, you see, had made him stronger.

What worked for Jacob, back in ancient times, can work for us even today. This morning I want to share three very brief stories of folks that came across my research, and how they, in their own ways found that they needed to lead with a limp.

Mike Ullman is a very unlikely leader. Mike has severe dyslexia, a learning difference which makes it difficult for him to be able to read. He has a degenerative spinal condition which makes it difficult for him to be able to walk; in fact, if Mike were here, he would literally not be able to walk up onto this stage because there’s no railing for him. He is in physical pain almost every moment of his life. But he says, it is that pain that he has experienced, physical pain in his life, that actually made him into a much better leader.

He’s regarded today as probably the most admired retail leader in the world. He served as the CEO of Macy’s, bringing them back from bankruptcy in the early 1990’s. He ended up serving as the CEO of JCPenney, an iconic American brand, not once but twice, both times helping to save them from bankruptcy. He ended up being the CEO of an organization called, “DFS”, based in Hong Kong. This is Duty-Free Shops. You know all those duty-free shops that we can visit at the airport? This is the man who invented that business. It was so wildly successful that it caught the attention of Bernard Arnault, who owns LVMH, the luxury goods conglomerate based in Paris (Louis Vuitton-Moët Hennessey), and he brought Mike to come and be his CEO based in Paris for a number of years.

What is it that has made Mike so successful that has garnered the support and encouragement of his employees? He has an amazing ability to connect with a vast array of different kinds of employees. They love him. Mike says it’s because he is in pain every day that he understands what it is like to have struggles in life. He now serves as chairman of the board of Starbucks. Mike may actually walk with a limp, but he also leads with a limp, and it is in that struggle, that daily struggle, that has made him a stronger and better leader.

A second leader I encountered was also an unlikely leader. She grew up in the segregated South. Her father was a pastor. He mother, when she was a young teenager, came down with breast cancer. She got into an experimental drug trial that allowed her to sustain her life for the next 15 years, but it never cured her of cancer. During that time, this young woman ended up graduating high school early, went to earn her doctorate, and began a teaching career. In the course of that experience, she was able to stay connected with her mom who was her constant cheerleader and confidante but, when this young woman was 29 years old, her mother passed away. She eventually found herself in the governmental sector, and she ended up serving in the White House. I asked her about her most poignant moment while serving there, and she told me about an afternoon that occurred in June of one year. She told me there was a gathering of the President’s key advisors known as the Principals Meeting. They were there to debate a public policy idea that had been circulating around the White House that was going to be a very costly expenditure of US foreign aid but might actually change Sub-Sahara Africa.

The idea was that just as countries like the United States had been able to develop a set of anti-retroviral medications that people could take if they were HIV positive; it wouldn’t cure them of AIDS, but it would extend their lives for 10 to 15 years. At the time, Sub-Sahara Africa was being ravaged as tens of thousands of young people were becoming orphans as their parents died to AIDS. It went around the room. They were taking stock of what that policy initiative would say. It was the largest expenditure of US foreign aid in history, and President Bush wasn’t exactly sure if he wanted to do it. He got to the last speaker, Condi Rice, and she said, “You know, Mr. President, when I was 14 years old, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and because she was able to get that medical treatment, it extended her life for 15 years. During those 15 years she saw me grow up to be the woman that I am today. Those are the most precious years of my life.” She said, “If it is within the power of people in this room to give an entire continent of young people an extra 15 years with their parents, if it is within our power, and we choose not to do that, I think history will judge this as our greatest moral failure.”

She told me the room went silent then for about 60 seconds, which she says is an eternity when you’re in the Oval Office, and then the President said, “Well, I guess we know what we have to do.” That was the beginning of PEPFAR, probably the most significant public policy achievement of President George W. Bush’s administration.  And it occurred because Condoleezza Rice, who had been carrying around the pain of losing her mother with her for many, many years, brought that with her into her position of responsibility and she was able to lead with a limp. The struggle made her stronger.

The third story I want to share is my own. In the middle of doing this amazing research project, my wife gave birth to a little girl named Elizabeth. Within the first few hours of Elizabeth’s birth, we realized that something wasn’t quite right. The medical team couldn’t really diagnose it, but they called it “failure to thrive.” Over the next nine months, Elizabeth did not make significant developmental milestones. Her head wasn’t growing in the way it should, she wasn’t being able to do the things that infants normally do. We took her to an array of different doctors and one afternoon in September, we took her to see a specialist. The doctor looked at Elizabeth and then looked at me, looked at Elizabeth, looked at my wife, looked at Elizabeth and then handed her to the nurse. She took her glasses off and she said, “Dr. Lindsay, I don’t know what is wrong with your daughter, but something is very, very wrong.”

In that moment, it was like all of the air in my body just came out. I couldn’t breathe. I could barely stand. We spent the next three years trying to figure out what was wrong with our daughter. It ended up being that she had a very, very rare genetic condition, fewer than 500 known cases. If you looked at Elizabeth, you would think that she looks typical. But if you interacted with her for even a couple of seconds you would know that she’s special. Elizabeth has trouble with her internal organs, she has very low vision, she can’t speak, she has the cognitive development of about an 18-month old, and she’s now a teenager.

I’ve spent over a dozen years of my life praying that God would heal my daughter Elizabeth, wrestling with God late at night and early in the morning. I will say it is very hard for me to understand why the Lord has chosen not to heal my daughter, because we have certainly prayed very earnestly. But somehow in God’s providence, He has decided that the struggle will make us stronger. And so, my wife and I have carried around that limp for a long time. But I have to say that, like Jacob, I have encountered God in the midst of that struggle. My hunch is that if we had time to go around this room, every single one of us could identify a challenge that we carry with us to this very day that has made us partially who we are.

The counter-cultural claim of Jesus is that greatness does not come from us being strong or powerful. Greatness comes from being like a suffering servant. We demonstrate power in what we are willing to give up and to be able to bless others with. I speak as a Christian. I know that we come from many traditions, but I do think that every one of us owes it to our self to at least carefully consider the claims of Jesus, because one of the things that I love about the Christian tradition is that the life of Jesus makes real for us that there is actually purpose behind our pain; that ours is a God who wants to bless us, to encourage us, and to redeem even those difficult struggles that are in our lives.

The world is praying that the people in this room will succeed, that you will succeed in advancing a world where everybody can flourish; not just the wealthy, not just the powerful. Young people around the world are looking up to you to set the tone for global leadership, to demonstrate it is possible to lead in a different way; in a counter-cultural way. Friends, let us lead not by showcasing our strengths, but instead by acknowledging our struggles. The struggle makes us stronger. Greatness comes when we lead with a limp.

The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make His face to shine upon you, the Lord be gracious unto you and give you peace, now and forevermore, Amen.

—D. Michael Lindsay