Everyone wins when a leader gets better. If you really care about the organization and people you lead, you will learn from anyone who can help you lead better. The pastors learn from the business leaders. The business leaders learn from the pastors. We all learn from the theoreticians who couldn't lead their way out of a wet paper bag.
I'm starting with a parable from the NT, Luke 8:
There's a guy who has a bucket of seed and he's sowing seed to plant a field. Some falls on hard packed soil and it can't germinate, and some falls on rocky soil and doesn't have any source of water, and there's thorny soil, it germinates but gets choked out by the thorns.
But there's some good soil over here, and a tree grows, and birds make nests in it and it bears fruit.
Jesus is saying that no matter how bountifully the seed is sown, the good news of Jesus, people in some cases are closed off to it. But Jesus tells them not to get discouraged, someone will eventually accept it and change their life.
Recently the math of this parable stuck out to me. Jesus used a 75% seed rejection ratio, which seems quite high to me, and then I pondered this idea of the tree and the transformation that happens in the human heart.
I get to see this because of my work, people who receive hope for a new day. I actually believe everyone's life would be better if God were at the center of it.
Now for those of you in business, you're wondering how this applies to you.
For you, seed might be a new product line or a new service that helps people
But after reading the parable, I thought to myself, I'd love to see more trees at Willow Creek than last year, more transformed lives than this year or previous years.
And I started thinking about all of this and I got hit with a lightning bolt.
If I want to see more trees next year, I should probably plant more seed. Overcome the 75% seed rejection ratio by planting all kinds of more seed to overcome that math. I should stop wasting time complaining about how many trees there are now.
Right about the time I was being gripped by this from a spiritual perspective, I received a brochure from a new church plant in my area. It was the best brochure I had ever received. I wanted to go, but my wife reminded me I was preaching that weekend. The next few weeks as I drove the 6 minutes from my house to the church, I looked with fresh eyes at how the neighborhood has changed since we planted Willow 30 years ago. Everyone knew who we were then, but I wasn't sure they knew who we are now.
I thought maybe we should send a brochure like that church plant. My team was open to it, but we didn't have budget or anything.
Then one day I saw a silver haired man standing next to his BMW in the staff parking lot and I walked up to him and asked if everything was okay. He said no, "I lost my cat." I asked him if he thought the cat may have wandered onto our property. So, I called Jean, my assistant, and asked her to alert the groundskeepers. When I turned to leave, the guy said, "You're a very nice man." I'm thinking, "Cat people, man." Then he said, "Hey, what is this place?" And I said, "What place?" And he said, "This place, all these buildings." He said, "I never noticed the signs, I thought it was a college." He said, "Do they hold church services here?" I said, "yes." He said, "Do you ever go?"
I'm walking to my car and I realize this guy lives close enough to our church to lose his cat on our property, and he doesn't even know we're a church!
We've got to sow a lot more seed.
I never forgot that conversation. It flipped a switch in me. It's time to sow a lot more seed.
We did send out some beautiful brochures to our community and told them they're welcome anytime. Our phoneboard lit up.
Soon after that, we finally started the Alpha course here at Willow. People have been deeply touched by it. We had never used it, partly because we didn't create it, and partly because it was put together by some Brits we fought against 200 years ago.
We did our first class a few months ago, and 1/3 of them crossed the line of faith. 18 more people accepted Christ in our second class, and 50 recommitted themselves to them.
We've started new classes for new people, training for our existing people.
We're pioneering microcommunities in our different seating sections. In the service we're doing that, we're growing 15% faster.
We're running dozens of experiments, more than in any other era, and we're starting to see more trees.
What if I hadn't read Luke 8, what if I hadn't read the brochure, what if I hadn't met the guy with the cat, what if God hadn't rattled my cage?
We might have missed all of this blessing.
Can I remind you that whether you like it or not, your whole organization takes its seed sowing cues from you?
If you sow the same amount of seed, not only will your tree count go down, so will your culture.
One of the fundamental requirements of a leader is to stay curious, stay courageous, and to stay experimental.
If you ever doubt the power of tinkering, remember tinkering for 10 years in the garage by two brothers brought us the commercial airliners we have today.
We need to get better and inspire everyone we lead to get better. Everyone wins when a leader gets better.
Let me remind you, trees are worth it. Transformed lives and eternities are worth it.
Sow more seed.
the 360 degree leader
You need skills to lead people under you, those skills and more to lead latterally, and even more sophisticated skills to lead those above you, but at the heart of this is self-leadership.
You are the most difficult person you will ever lead.
I want to talk about something that most people don't find that interesting but I do: The Work Habits of a Leader
Most leaders if they're honest will say they struggle with their work habits. They don't know how to order their life to make the maximum contribution. Many leaders incorrectly assume that the most important leadership asset is their time.
It's not, it's their energy.
The most important asset of a leader is their ability to energize.
I was coming back from a European trip and as the plane got closer the anxiety built up in my spirit because I knew the work that was waiting for me. I took out my journal and wrote one of the most profound questions: "God, in the remaining six weeks of this calendar year, what would be the greatest half-dozen contributions I could make to the church that you and I both love?" Answering that question took the whole two hours left in my flight. Part way through that exercise it came clear to me that I was going to have to energize some people and initiatives, then I got specific to see if I could energize six.
Near the end of the flight, I took out an index card and wrote 6x6 and felt a sense of clarity and excitement that was totally different to how I felt two hours later. I could barely wait to get back into the office. The next day I got into the office early and prayed over that card. I was like a heat seeking missle that last six weeks. I prayed, I energized, and disregarded second-tier activities. 5 of 6 got done by year-end and was exhilarated.
I did this again when the new year rolled around. There's nothing sacred about 6 weeks or 6 contributions, but I can't sprint for 6 months, none of us can.
Most of us are juggling dozens of things, but we can focus on 6 that will most impact our organization, not the 6 we feel like doing, the 6 that will matter most.
What happened next when I decided to take this round 3 brought this to a whole different level. Up until now I hadn't changed anything in my schedule to accommodate this, and I thought, what if I arranged my schedule around this, putting energy bursts against challenges with overwhelming odds and seeing God do incredible, supernatural things.
In 2000 we were praying some bold things. Go multi-site, make the summit global, and a couple of other things. When we calculated the total cost, I felt a drip go down my leg. I said to myself the next day, this is absolutely ridiculous, but then I thought for the last couple of years I've used the 6x6 strategy. So I started focusing my 6x6 goals on that.
For the next several years I ate, drank and slept the 6x6 concept. Finally there came that day when I realized the money is all raised, the building is completely finished, the three regional campuses are running well, and the summit is in scores of countries.
Now all of the senior leaders at Willow Creek church use the 6x6 strategy. It's how we manage. And this is above and beyond the regular job description. What we want to know is what new projects and new initiatives and new endeavors are you going to move forward in the next six weeks?
God didn't make you a leader to respond to stuff all day. He made you a leader to move stuff forward.
When you get to the end of the day and you've used this 6x6, you feel good. You know you've moved stuff forward.
Leadership matters. You only have a finite amount of energy. Find the stuff that needs energizing and focus on that.
What I want to talk about next is something that's becoming the most intensive leadership discussion.
This doesn't happen well in the church world. It especially doesn't happen in the megachurch world.
There were only 3 megachurches in 1950. There are thousands now.
A high percentage of these have been built by pastors about my age, so we're going to see what happens when they try to pass the leadership baton in a few years. Some of it will be pretty and some will be ugly, but there's going to be some high drama.
I turned 60 this year. I have a family history of heart disease, and I travel into high-risk area. The board of elders of Willow asked me if I would enter into more formal conversations about succession planning. They assigned an elder I trust, and our early conversations were a bit awkward. Me leaving Willow isn't something we love to talk about. But one day Mike asked me, "Do you ever see yourself dying?" And then he asked me, "Do you see yourself leading Willow until the very last day you die?" "What if you live to your late 90s and are walking slow and drooling?" And I asked, "Just how much drool?"
Mike was extremely sensitive to my feelings as we continued these conversations over the next year. But I want to cut to the chase and tell you where we are as far as transition planning.
First, there's this planning phase. During this phase every important topic must get surfaced. Who chooses the successor? What's the timeframe? How will the church honor the pastor who has given his or her entire life? Will the pastor have any continuing role? These questions have to be thoroughly worked through and cannot be rushed. If Mike had tried to rush these, it would have been very hard for me.
Phase two for us we feel very strongly about. We're going to try to find an internal person who can be my successor, and we've afforded a certain timeframe in which that is hopefully going to happen.
If that doesn't work, we'll go and look for an external candidate.
In the fourth phase is the transition itself. We've identified the person and I gradually begin to hand off responsibility and I am placed on an ice flow and pushed off into the North Sea.
I am extremely proud of our board and how they did the process. In my view they put on a clinic in doing this right. Willow's future feels more secure to me now. But as I drove away the night we finally agreed to this, I remembered when this was a farm wondering if God would ever help us acquire it. I looked back at the buildings and remembered all of the groundbreaking ceremonies. I looked at the pond and remembered all the baptisms of family and friends. It was an emotional night.
Board members, you have to understand how deep the feelings run in senior pastors or founding pastors. Don't assign a person with low emotional intelligence to have these conversations. These are going to be delicate conversations.
Senior pastors, some of you are tempted to hang on too long. Do the right thing for your church. Make sure your greatest legacy is to leave a church that is well led after you're gone.
I trust God will guide us in this journey.
If we're the leaders we all claim to be, we should leave our churches stronger than when we were leading them.
Remember last year I talked about moving people up and right on the graph.
God doesn't make you a leader to pontificate on how smart you are but to move people to a preferred future, a place that's better than here.
Don't paint the picture of there before you build the case for why we can't stay here. First, build the case why we cannot stay here. Build a huge sense of dissatisfaction until people can't stand to be here.
What I want to do now is pose a question so you can tell people next to you how smart you are:
When is the vision most vulnerable in this process? The early stages, middle stages, or near the end?
It's the middle. You're excited at the beginning, and when you're close to done you run for the finish line. But in the middle you need your best vision casting, inspiring, and motivating.
I've been thinking about this from a career leadership standpoint and ask myself when have I been most vulnerable?
In the early years I ran on pure adrenaline. I was idealistic. Nothing was going to stop me.
In the middle fifteen years, I learned I was not invincible. Some failures caught up with me. Friends left to serve other churches. Ministries I thought would flourish forever began to falter. By hindsight, I was so vulnerable during this part of my leadership. God not only protected me during this era. He carried me. I made some certifiably stupid decisions. I found out I wasn't invincible and couldn't see the finish line.
If any of you are in this area, be careful. Walk with God closely. Practice your spiritual disciplines.
Now that we've had these transition conversations, I can see the finish line. It's the first time I can kind of see it. And though I get sad about it, there's a certain level of excitement. I want to be the absolute best leader I can be in my remaining years.
My intention is to leave Willow stronger than it's ever been.
My overarching thought about my leadership these days, and it's taking over my mind, "What a privilege it is to be a leader." Only a few truly get to lead. These days I often find myself looking to heaven and saying, "Thank you God." I was among the lucky few who got to lead.
I know the heartbreaks of leadership, but every once in a while isn't it good to step back and realize what a privilege leadership is. We get to establish organizational values, solve problems, raise up young leaders, raise or earn millions of dollars we get to allocate to causes we believe in deeply. We actually get to further the causes of the transcendent God in this messy, broken world.
Our worst days of leadership beat the best days of being a spectator.
I was talking with a friend who built a huge business earning millions, and then he found a successor who grew it to 5x the size. He told me, "Billy, I had a ball leading that company, it was such a privilege. Billy, enjoy every single day you get to lead, because it will be over with in a blink."
I'm sowing seed, being experimental, prayerfully considering ways I can move Willow forward in six week increments.
Since this is the opening session, I'll include my usual disclaimer. Please note that this applies to the following sessions as well.