(Here at Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit learning to improve leadership for our Operation Christmas Child team)
Our mission is crystal clear. In the next few days we want to stretch your mind, grow your heart, and invest in your leadership development. Everyone wins when a leader gets better. The stakes of leadership are sky high. Our world is demanding a better brand of leadership.
Are there any leaders left who will put the interests of others before their own? We believe you are not here by accident. We believe it was your destiny for you to be sitting in your seat right now. You have been prayed for by more people than you can imagine and you will feel the power of those prayers. The highest value at the GLS is humility with each of us declaring we have so much more to learn. Armed with enough humility leaders can learn from anyone. With sufficient humility the religious can learn from those who consider themselves less religious and vice versa. If we all grant one another good gifts of respect amazing things will happen in your life in these days.
Imagine me as a 10-year-old sitting in a hot classroom listening to a substitute teacher—bored out of my mind. I looked at my classmates and some were staring absentmindedly out the window, having lost all hope. It was still 30 minutes to recess. Within moments an exciting vision fell into my mind—all 30 of us were sitting at lift-top desks and I wondered if I could organize all my classmates to all lift and drop their desk lids at the same time. I started silently appealing to all the troublemakers first who I thought might become early adopters. I asked them to spread the plan to others. Then I went to work on the best students and I had to persuade them one-by-one. Eventually the whole class bought into the vision. The final challenge was to make sure the teacher had her back turned to us so at 30 seconds before 3:00 I asked her to clarify something and she turned to write on the board. Then all the desk tops fell at the same time and the teacher screamed like someone in a horror movie and we all exploded into laughter. The teacher shouted, “Whose idea was this?” The bell for recess rang but she refused to let us go until she found out who did it, so I eventually confessed. When I was the only one left the teacher had me sit in front of her desk as she decided on the consequences. Finally she said I would stay in for recess and stay an hour after school every day this week and said she would call my parents. She paused and said, “Billy, it’s obvious to me that you’re a leader. Enlisting your class to join you in this prank was no small feat. You pulled all this off as a 10-year-old. I think you’re going to be quite a leader. I only hope you use your influence for good.” I put my head down on the desk and thought about that – am I a leader or just a troublemaker? How could I get people to do good stuff and would that be as much fun? God used that incident to arouse my curiosity about leadership. In many ways my leadership journey started that day because of a teacher who planted a leadership seed.
Almost every leader can tell me how they first came to think of themselves as a leader and who first planted the idea of leadership in their mind. Who do you owe the most for giving you leadership responsibilities and believing in you? We all owe huge debts to those who took us under their wing. None of us got to where we are today all by ourselves.
Recently I reflected on the top 5 people who inspired me to lead and wrote each of them a note of gratitude. I vowed to God I would never stop playing that role in the lives of young people until the day I die.
I was in India as I was doing that exercise and was headquartered into a hotel. A young Indian server there put her heart and soul into her work and tried to motivate others. She set the example because she just kept moving. On my last day I thanked her for her service and asked if she planned to do this for a long time. She said she just decided to enroll in a course in hotel management. I told her she would have a fantastic future in the hotel industry. She blushed, thanked me, and went straight back to work. The next day I had a note from her. She told me she could barely sleep the night before because of our conversation. She said no one had ever suggested she could have a bright future. She said she would remember our chat for the rest of her life. That talk took me only two minutes. We’re here because someone had a conversation like that with us somewhere in our lives, so 2 quick challenges-
--sometime in the next 7 days, reflect on the people who influenced your past and express your profound gratitude to them
--renew your covenant as seasoned leaders to notice and encourage younger leaders—invest two minutes in a conversation that could change a young person’s life
I get emails from all over the world advising me on what to talk about the next year at the Summit. For months the biggest suggestion has been how to lead in a culture of disrespect. We seem to be living in an era of racial, ethnic, and religious divide—an era with increased disrespect for women and the poor. Social media has devolved into a cesspool of negativity and graduation speakers are heckled.
“Mastering Civility” by Christine Porath was helpful to me. New survey shows 50% of workers are treated rudely at least once a week. 95% of the US population believes we have a civility problem. We are near a crisis point.
Incivility decreases the performance of a worker by 50%. 25% of disrespected workers take their frustration out on their customers. Restaurant owner in NYC believes “customers can taste incivility in their food.” Southwest Airlines has said they will not tolerate disrespect—they took a passenger off a flight and bought him a ticket on a competitor’s airline.
The solution has to begin with me. Who I am as a leader and what I stand for is the place I must start. How I ask people to behave really matters.
The presidential election campaign was embarrassing. So much disrespect and I could feel divisiveness seeping into our congregation. So I preached on respect and reminded people EACH person has intrinsic dignity. We don’t get to choose who we respect. The Bible commands us, “Show proper respect to everybody.”
10 rules of respect for every leader
1. Leaders must set the example for how to differ with others without demonizing them
2. Set the example for how to have animated conversations without drawing blood
3. Leaders must not interrupt others
4. Must limit volume level and not use belittling or incendiary words that derail the discussion (Jesus said not to call someone a fool) – challenge yourself to choose 5 of these words and refuse to use them
5. Be courteous in word and deed
6. Must never stereotype
7. Apologize immediately when wrong
8. Form opinions carefully and stay open for additional information and change position if new data comes in
9. Show up when you say you will and do what you say you will
10. Set rules of respect for everyone in the organization you lead
Set a meeting and draft a written code of respect for your organization to follow. Christine Porath cites a leader who drafted a code for his employees such as “we will greet and acknowledge each other.” And “We will say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’” Basic courtesies set a tone of civility. “We will treat each other with respect.” And “We will address incivility whenever it occurs.”
AT&T Corporation CEO Randall Stevenson addressed race relations in the company and said, “I am not asking you to simply tolerate each other. Tolerance is for cowards. ,,, Do not merely tolerate each other. Word hard to move into uncomfortable territory and seek to understand each other.”
When is the last time you reflected deeply about your own convictions about respecting others? Have you examined the kind of organization you want to build? Everyone in your organization is looking to you for clarity on this issue.
I challenge you to set a meeting and develop a civility code. If each of us would do this we would call millions to a higher level of civility which could make a differnce in our world.
One more thing—4 years ago an Argentinian was selected to be the pope of the Catholic Church. Pope Francis decided not to live in the Vatican but in a modest guest house to symbolize his approachability and respect for those who live in modest means. He washed the feet of juvenile offenders and Muslims. He proclaimed a year of mercy and asked Catholics to forgive others. He is trying to teach the world to respect everyone always.
It’s time for us as leaders to step up to champion civility and acceptance.
Succession is the next topic I want to talk about.
In 2012 I mentioned a board member asked me if I planned to preach until I “die in the pulpit,” and as I thought about it I realized I needed to consider this. I want Willow Creek to achieve its future and it deserves a well-thought succession plan.
After many months we created a “succession document” that contained all elements of transition and a timeline for it. Usually in the top three questions from leaders around the world—succession is one of them.
Who? – who will make the final decision. (At Willow Creek it is the board.)
When? – Clarity on this will drive the whole transition process
How? – how will the process be led? Clarity is important here.
Phases = Planning (working through details which should not be rushed)
Internal – internal successors have a much higher success rate
Transition – credentialize successor
Now here we are 6 years later and we will give an update to the Willow congregation in the fall.
In the last 6 years we’ve learned—
--having a well-planned succession document really helps
--kept succession journey bathed in prayer and kept personalities and politics out of it
--in my view our process has been too long; one day I wrote, “If a succession plan is long and complicated enough it will motivate a leader to want to move on.”
--If a succession plan lasts too long it affects the vision casting of the organization
--If any restructuring needs to take place it can be delayed
--We underestimated the emotional toll this would take on the rest of the staff
--We made one tiny process mistake that caused unnecessary pain; I worked for 5 years to see who God would want to take Willow into the future. It was a very thorough, prayerful, and expensive process. When I made my final recommendation to the board, they would then do their own process to validate my decision or not. During this process the board and I got disconnected. It would have been wiser for the board to check in with me every 30 days. The board’s plan came late and caught me off-guard. I might have over-reacted and this made the process a bit bumpy but we eventually arrived at a unified plan. During that 30 day period I turned to some people outside Willow to help ground me. Proverbs 11:14 says there is wisdom in many counselors and those who counseled me reminded me God works all things together for good.
For those in the middle of a succession plan or about to begin one—it’s hard! Jack Welch said, “As hard as it is to build a good organization it’s almost impossible to transition one successfully.” Talk about your feelings during this process, find some safe friends to talk with, and keep in Scripture during this process.
Everywhere I go I’m asked “What will you do when you’re done at Willow?” I explain that God found me on a hillside when I was 17 years old. He reached out to me in His kindness and redeemed me by His grace. At that time I had a plan laid out for my life—running my dad’s business and making money. What I came to understand is that our God is so kind and so smart that He writes a customized story for our futures and invites us into it as we trust God’s story-writing capabilities. A few years after my redemption I left my father’s business and started a church in a movie theater. If I’d missed that I’d have been a rich guy with a poor soul; instead I’m a poor guy with a rich soul.
I have zero anxiety about my future. I know the Summit will be part of my future and I know God will write a better script for me than I could on my own.
God will do the same for you. If you’re interested, you can experience that for yourself.
One more topic—from time to time God writes an ending to a part of our story. I have spent my whole life challenging people to discover God’s story for their life. What I have not done a good job at is helping people discern when God might be writing an ending to their current story. One day last spring I sensed God whispering to me, “Bill, I am now beginning to write the final chapter of your Willow story.” I’d been involved in this succession process for 6 years. I thought the work of transition needed to be done but I never thought of God actually showing up to tell me a season was ending. On one hand that day I sensed God releasing me from my current role but I had no idea what it would be like to walk into the future without this responsibility. To imagine a future not consumed by these people felt foreign and irresponsible. God clearly but gently told me this season was ending. I wish I could tell you I just moved on in my spirit that day but I cannot. It took countless hours but I can tell you now I have just a tinge of excitement about what God might write for my story in the future. Willow will still be my home church and I will offer coaching without you having to pay me a full-time salary.
I want to pose the question: Might it be possible God is writing an ending to the current season in your story? God is teaching me that endings matter too. Carve out enough solitude to read Henry Cloud’s book “Necessary Endings.”
A friend told me this would be his 15th straight GLS. He said I come to get new marching orders. God tells me to pay attention to ‘this one’ every single year and I need new marching orders. Another friend emails me the day before the Summit each year and says, “Punch me in the face again, Bill.”
Let me throw out a few challenges—
1) Spend 15 minutes in a chair you love to sit in every day and read and reflect on your life, your leadership, your faith, your family – read the Word and reflect on what God is saying to you. 100% of the leaders I work with who had a ‘crash’ of some sort admitted to squeezing out all reflection time in their lives.
2) Make this the year of the ‘grander vision’, improving not only your product but getting behind an organization that is making change in your community and the world. Mere financial success is not enough; your soul was created for more than that. Mere profit should bore you. Does your company have a grander vision of some kind?
3) Measure the health of your organization’s culture and be committed to making your culture the best it can be. It will only be as healthy as those at the top wish it to be.
4) Have a personal betterment plan for your leadership in the coming year. The best leaders have a year-round plan—read a book, listen to podcasts, etc.
5) Lead on the homefront as well as leading at work.
When I was in my late 20s an older leader came to visit me and told me he had some concerns. He said someday your ministry will be over and if you’ve lost your family you will hate what’s left of your one and only life.