Executive Leadership: Do Mormons Have the Secret Sauce?

The Book of Mormon. Another Testament of Jesus...

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Unless you’ve been under a rock recently, you know that the topic of Mormonism is hot, and the subject of Mormonism and leadership may be even hotter.

What’s up?

There are things that have put the religion in public view such as the Tony award winning hit musical The Book of Mormon and the series finale after five seasons of Big Love, about a polygamist Mormon family of a husband and his three wives.

Beyond that, Newsweek [The Mormon Moment] – “Why Mitt Romney and 6 million Mormons have the secret to success” – and  Bloomberg Businessweek [God’s MBAs: Why Mormon Missions Produce Leaders] have splashed the Mormon name on their front covers this past month.

Mormons in the United States roughly number the same as Jews; according to Pew Research at about 1.7 % (around 6 million) people. The roster of people who are Mormons in senior executive leadership positions is both impressive and appears disproportionately high relative to their numbers. Mitt Romney, Jet Blue founder David Neelman, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, Credit Suisse investment bank CEO Eric Varvel, Stephen Covey, former HBS dean Kim Clark, HR wonk and University of Michigan professor Dave Ulrich, Gary Crittenden who served as the former CFO for CitiGroup and American Express are all Mormon. So is former ambassador to China and Utah Governor Jon Huntsmen, who tossed his hat into the GOP Presidential race this week.

In 2010 Goldman Sachs hired 31 MBAs from Mormon-founded and governed Brigham Young University, the same number as from the (more prestigious) University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

So is there something special about being a Mormon that gets you promoted to top jobs?

Yes, and no.

Apart from luck and personal networks (both of which you can learn to develop), current research taken down to its kernel tells us that the key to performance is three elements; perseverance or grit (see Angela Duckworth), effort and deploying different strategies (see Carol Dweck), and applied practice – akin to time in the role (see Anders Ericcson). Good coaching – the sort of work I do with execs – accelerates the process – but those elements are still all involved.

Around 20,000 Mormons a year, mostly males and mostly in the post high-school age bracket, serve a 2 year mission someplace in the world. Working in pairs they spend their time in community service by attempting to convert the local people with whom they reside. Prior to the actual mission they spend 1-3 months in a training center working from 6:30 AM to 10:00 PM preparing for their mission’s work.

So is it the Mormon belief in multiple worlds and multiple gods, Jesus’ visit to the Americas, and the existence of spirits – or the time spent on missions and in preparation that enable people who are Mormon to rise to senior levels in the business world?

I think it’s the latter.

Think of the traits that get instilled and practiced during that time a Mormon is preparing and on a two year mission – a time, by the way, in which males are still maturing – that provides a foundation and time practicing skills such as discipline, perseverance, and overcoming adversity. Happens to turn out [channel Ronald Reagan’s line “facts are stubborn things] that those same qualities are the ones that research suggests drives better leadership performance.

Cut to the chase.

The types of experiences Mormons who go on missions get are the very things that help develop leadership skills for the rest of their life. Not unlike the anecdotal belief that women who go to all-girls (and all-womens) colleges excel in business, and that people who go to the armed services academies do great things as well, experience – that time of applied practice that Anders Ericcson has researched – drives the development of leadership skills that manifest themselves later in life.

So no secret sauce. Just lots of practice in some of the right leadership areas.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.


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