The most recent issue of Bloomberg BusinessWeek examines an interesting question: Why do so many Mormons go on to be successful leaders? There’s two in the presidential race, for starters—GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney, of course, as well as former China ambassador Jon Huntsman, who plans to officially announce his candidacy June 21. JetBlue founder David Neeleman is a member of the Mormon Church. Credit Suisse CEO Eric Varvel is too, as are self-help guru Steven Covey and Gary Crittenden, who has been CFO at Citigroup, American Express and Sears.
The insightful piece, which is deeply reported and turns up many prominent leaders who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), says the answer to why so many are successful is the mission trip taken by so many young Mormons. All young men are asked to complete a two-year stint, often in far-flung locales, that require demanding hours (ten hours a day, six days a week), cultural sensitivity (whether they’re based in Indonesia or Ghana, they must live like the locals) and, of course, a tolerance for rejection (all that knocking on doors has a way of toughening one up).
All of which is pretty good for molding future leaders. The story makes a convincing case that successful Mormons (or at least some of them—Romney and Huntsman refused to comment) see a tie between the emphasis their faith places on hard work and the mission experience. "I'm not going to say we beat everybody out, but we do have a reputation," Gary Cornia, the dean of Mormon-run Brigham Young University's Marriott School of Management, told BusinessWeek.
But it left me wondering: Are Mormons really that much more greatly represented in leadership? (The story says “Latter-Day Saints hold, or have held, a seemingly disproportionate number of jobs” at major corporations such as Marriott, Dell, Fisher Price and American Express.) Or do we just notice them more because the Mormon Church is a less common religion?
My guess is you’d find a similarly disproportionate number of leaders who have risen above a background of hardship; who have been in the Peace Corps or taken on some other early eye-opening role; or who were simply raised by parents who modeled and instilled from day one the necessity of extremely hard work in getting ahead in life. Anyone who has a “crucible experience,” as former Harvard Business School Dean Kim Clark, a Mormon, called the church’s missions, is likely to be forever changed because of it. It’s not just a religion but all of life’s challenging circumstances that shape a person into a leader.
Some of the numbers in the article are quite impressive—for instance, the number of Brigham Young University graduates hired by Goldman Sachs in 2010 was the same number it hired from the University of Pennsylvania’s famed Wharton business school. And I have no doubt that the rigorous mission experience and ingrained hard-work ethic in the Mormon Church has a profound impact on the people who choose to go into business or political leadership careers. But I’m a bit skeptical that the number of Mormons in high-ranking executive and political roles is really that out of proportion to the overall population of people who belong to the faith. We might just notice them more.
What do you think? Does the Mormon faith produce an outsized number of leaders? How have your own “crucible experiences” shaped you as a leader?
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