What I Experienced at the 2013 WCA GLS

glsEach year since 1995, Willow Creek Association in Chicago has hosted a two day leadership conference called the Global Leadership Summit. In 2013, that summit has grown to reach 98 countries and to have participation from 14,000 churches represented by over 90 denominations. The GLS is truly a global movement. This year 75,000 church leaders in America attended and over 95,000 more are signed up to attend as each host country presents the summit talks around the world in the next several months. Here is what I saw at this yearly summit (yes yearly, not every four years or every other year).

The Summit

The summit was, in simplistic terms, 16 hours of sitting and listening to 13 speakers. My wife and I attended (for the first time) from our church in Detroit, which is a satellite host for the summit. However, I can’t remember even 1 minute of boredom or of wanting to fall asleep or of wishing I was somewhere else. I soaked up every speaker like a sponge. The summit was exactly where God wanted me to be for those two days.

In addition to the highlighted speakers, there were several others who made appearances in between. Comedian Michael Jr.  shared some of the funniest stories I’ve ever heard. He might just be the funniest man on planet earth right now. David Garibaldi shared an amazing painting experience, preaching the gospel with no words.  William Close played the “earth harp”, an astounding instrument set up inside the Willow Creek auditorium.

The nature of the leadership talks seemed to me to blend academia, business and religious backgrounds, with the explicit Christian gospel themes woven through each one. The official summit link is here: http://www.willowcreek.com/events/leadership/schedule.asp

It is difficult for me to express my “take-away’s” from this summit. Breathtaking. Exhilarating. Amazing. Astounding. Life-changing. Christ-centering. It will take some time to process, and I plan on ordering the DVD’s.

The Speakers

Bill Hybels. Founder and senior pastor, Willow Creek Community Church. Bill’s church has 24,000 weekly attendees. His opening talk set the tone for the summit. I was surprised by one of his opening statements: “This leadership summit will be unashamedly Christian. We will pray. We will quote from the bible. And we will sing. But this summit is not for Christians only. We welcome anyone of any faith and anyone who has not made faith part of their life story yet.” I had not expected this. And since Willow Creek has more than 24,000 weekly worshippers, I was surprised to hear Bill talk about how the leadership team overcame a time of being a toxic environment in recent years. Bill’s team reached out to an external party to gauge how they were doing. The external survey showed they scored in the toxic range of organizational health. So he sounded the alarm and they made the tough decisions to get back on track. This year they scored a rare high-mark in organization health. I learned that leaders have to sometimes say goodbye to other leaders in order to make the organization healthy. And leaders must define the core values of their organization.

General Colin Powell. Speech title: “It worked for me.” Former U.S. Secretary of State, senior level advisor to four Presidents, served U.S. Army for 35 years. Colin was surprisingly human and open. I expected an army general to be stiff and cold. He is nothing like that. One story he told was how he once complained a long time to President Reagan. Reagan said nothing until Colin was finished. Finally Reagan said “Look there’s a squirrel outside the window!”. Later Reagan taught him the lesson. You can sit there and tell me all day about your problem, but until I have a problem, don’t get me involved. I hired you to do a job. Now go solve your problem and let me know when I have a problem.”

Patrick Lencioni. Speech title: “How to lose your best people.” Founder and President of The Table Group, best-selling author. Patrick shared a high-energy, hilarious talk about a serious subject. He noticed over the years that people left jobs and churches for one or more of three primary reasons, regardless of culture: irrelevance, immeasurement or anonymity. He admitted that “immeasurement” is not a word. But it fits what he called a lack of feedback or sometimes improper feedback. People want to know how they are doing, and be able to tell for themselves. Human beings don’t want to wait around for “how their boss feels” or wait for the numbers to come in. Human beings want the gratification of knowing they did a good job. In other words, people are looking for fulfillment. And leaders want to know right away if they failed. He told of how leaders who are afraid of failure or think failure is not an option are bad leaders. For example, several successful companies actually measure how many times you fail, as a measurement for success. If you are not failing enough, you aren’t learning how to succeed. Some venture capitalists won’t fund you unless you failed at least 3 times for at least $1 million.

Liz Wiseman. Speech title: “The Multiplier Effect”. President of the Wiseman Group, best-selling author. Liz’ talk was not flashy but was perhaps the most thought-provoking. She shared with compassion and a genuine love for humanity. She talked about leaders who are multipliers and leaders who are diminishers. A diminisher is someone who gets very little effort or talent out of people around them. They are the empire builders, the tyrants, the know-it-alls, the decision makers and the micro managers. A multiplier gets double and triple effort and talent. They are the talent magnets, the liberators, the challengers, the debate-makers and the investors. Diminishers will kill off their organizations while multipliers will always eventually find their way to success.

Chris Brown. Speech title: “Right title…wrong kingdom”. Co-Senior Pastor and Teaching Pastor at North Coast Church. This was tied for my favorite talk of the conference (Andy Stanley’s being the other one). Really, Chris Brown gave a sermon, not a talk or a speech. I cried the most during his sermon because he spoke so powerfully and every word he spoke rang so true. Based on Mark 10:42-25, he obliterated the Moses or Elijah style leadership models. Jesus said “Not so with you”. Jesus turned leadership upside-down. If you model Moses, you model the world’s way of leading now that Jesus has demonstrated His style of leadership. Even a Pharaoh who didn’t know the Lord knew Jesus’ style of leadership (in dealing with Joseph) better than Saul, the anointed king of Israel. You just have to listen to this one.

Bob Goff. Speech title: “Love Takes Action”. Founder and CEO of Restore International, attorney. Bob Goff gets the prize for the most energetic and fanatical speech! He told humorous stories about his life on an island (yes he lives on an island). And he also spoke with passion and compassion about one of the most heart-wrenching events I’ve ever heard in a long while. He was the attorney for Charlie, the child attacked by the infamous Koby. Bob told of amazing acts of kindness, as well as unimaginable forgiveness. Bob’s point is that “love does stuff”. Love demands action. Love requires us to get involved in the terrible evils of the world. His talk was similar to an earlier talk he gave: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lo1jHeIn3TE

Mark Burnett. Speech title: “Unscripted Leadership”. Four-time Emmy Award winner, Executive Producer of Survivor, The Voice and The Bible TV shows. Mark’s time was not a speech but an interview with Bill Hybels. I enjoyed the dialogue-style speaking between them. This style was used several times during the Summit. Mark talked about how he courageously took his fame and fortune and poured it into the Bible series project recently.

Joseph Grenny. Speech title: “Mastering the skill of influence”. Co-founder of VitalSmarts, best-selling business author. Joseph gave a detailed talk about influence, one of the key abilities leaders need to understand. He talked about how leaders tend to focus on motivating people instead of influencing them. Motivating is important, but teaching skills is the primary influencer. He used God’s preparing of Moses in the palace and God’s preparing of Joshua learning from Moses as examples that God’s ways are about teaching skills first and then motivating people at the right time. Joseph taught from both a “heavy” example of behavior change involving changing the behavior of third-world prostitution and a “light” example of influencing the behavior of traffic laws. One amazing example he gave was about a traffic law enacted in some state in the U.S. A lot of people ignored the law until the officials posted a sign that said “Report violators, call 1-800-be-a-hero” (or something to that effect). The point was when people know other people are watching them, their behavior is influenced.

Vijay Govindarahan (“VG”). Speech title: “The Innovation Challenge: Getting it right”. Top 50 Management Thinker, Professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. Vijay gets the top award for the most complex talk. He talked a lot about ways leaders can sustain an organization. He used a “three box” model. He taught that leaders need to manage the present, selectively abandon the past, and create the future.  He talked about how organizational leaders must create separate (but loosely connected) team that plays by different rules than the “box 1” (or performance engine) part of the organization. Leaders need to create innovation teams. Leaders and organizations must re-invent themselves regularly in order to stay alive.

Dr. Brene Brown. Speech title: “Daring Greatly”. Research Professor at University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. Brene is a ground-breaking researcher into the topics of shame, worthiness and courage. She talked about how she once was invited to speek to a group of C-Level people. At first she was comfortable with this because she thought the term was “sea-level” people, meaning ordinary, down-to-earth people. She shared how she overcame fear when she realized “C” actually meant CEO, CIO, CTO, etc. She shared how leaders are human, how vulnerability is essential for any leader and how courage is so needed among leaders. She had a life-changing moment after reading the famous quote by Theodore Roosevelt about daring greatly.

Oscar Muriu. Speech title: “Viral Leadership: Multiplying your impact exponentially”. Senior Pastor of Nairobi Chapel, Kenya. Under his leadership, Nairobi Chapel grew from a 40 person local church to a network of 30 churches with 14,000 weekly worshippers. Oscar shared based on 5 life-changing principles. They sounded very familiar to me and were based on the command to “go into all the world and preach the good news.” He talked of sending African missionaries to all parts of the world, including America and Asia. He told the story of how he would pray for leaders without telling them he was praying for them to be leaders. One by one, people would come to him saying “I feel compelled to be a missionary”. He told of one couple who asked if they could devote the next 25 years of their life to being a Christian missionary in Oscar’s church network. He talked of how their missionaries train for 1 or 2 years. They stay in a country for 5 years to plant a church and then leave to plant another church, following Apostle Paul’s example.

Dr. Henry Cloud. Speech  title: “Reversing the Death Spiral of a Leader”. Acclaimed leadership expert, best-selling author, Clinical Psychologist and Businessman.  Dr. Cloud has experience in executive coaching of CEO’s. He has been a frequent contributor to CNN and Fox News Channel. Once Henry asked a CEO about culture problems in a company. As the CEO mentioned reason after reason about why the problems existed, Henry kept asking “Why?”. Finally the CEO concluded that he was in charge of the problems, whether he created them or not. Here are some quotes from Dr. Cloud: “In the end, as a leader, you are always going to get a combination of two things: What you create and what you allow”. Leaders are “ridiculously in charge” according to Dr. Cloud, and so they are prone to being burned out and depressed. He talked about examples from Wall Street when the financial markets crashed around 2008. He talked about why the culture of an organization exists the way it is. He says it is because of the way the leaders behave. Dr.Cloud gave some behavior research examples, which I think made the audience a bit uncomfortable, because the research was from many years ago when animals were used. One example was of a monkey alone in a cage subjected to lights and sounds meant to induce stress. The monkey’s stress level was very high when he was alone. But when a second, familiar monkey was in the cage with him, their stress decreased by 50%. Dr.Clouds’ point was that people need a friend to get out of the downward spiral. He talked about principles to get out of the death spiral.

Andy Stanley. Speech title: [Andy gave a closing sermon just entitled “closing session”]. Founder and Senior Pastor at North Point Ministries. Andy pastors one of the largest churches in America, with over 33,000 worshippers each Sunday in his network of church campuses in the Atlanta area. Andy’s sermon was based on Matthew 16:18 “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” It was a sermon of sermons, a sermon so inspiring that I believe he just re-ignited Christianity in North America.


  1. Reading your report makes me feel so bad that I did not attend it!!

    • My offer, Ben, is an open offer to any ubf chapter (who will pay my travel expenses) to share Chris Brown’s sermon or Andy Stanley’s sermon video and lead a Q&A session afterward.

    • If you ask your Toledo UBF brothers and they agree, I will gladly make the trip from Chicago and join.

    • The last I heard Ben, they are not ready to handle me yet :) But I believe the time is coming when such a visit would be possible. I am told they are still trying to process what happened 2 years ago.

  2. “We welcome anyone of any faith and anyone who has not made faith part of their life story yet.” Bill Hybels

    In the past and even today most churches require that you believe before you can belong. Such churches will likely continue to die out because of their exclusive and elitist tendencies. Today, the churches that thrive are those that make you feel that you belong even if you don’t believe. Both Newbigin and Tim Keller have strongly advocated this.

    UBF has become so unique (insider prayers, unusual speaking and sermon style, foreign accents, sometimes even by Americans!) that they are so unlike the culture in America that unless you first believe and feel loved many newcomers will just feel that our church atmosphere just seems so unnatural, odd and even “cultish.” Only what the younger people do “feels” normal, such as the music, or skits or drama. This was most evident at the ISBC.

  3. Thanks for the summary. This sounds really inspiring. Chris Brown’s message is exactly what UBF needs. What’s wrong with UBF is really the Moses style leadership where leaders have too much power. Not only is this directly opposed to what Jesus taught in Mk 10:45-48 and Mt 23, but there are also important psychological reasons why this leadership is harmful for the souls of everyone, including the leaders themselves (http://www.npr.org/2013/08/10/210686255/a-sense-of-power-can-do-a-number-on-your-brain?ft=1&f=1007). This may explain why the top UBF leaders who are in power seem to be unable to understand what we are talking about.

    • I may have shared this before, but here is my unpolished, unrefined, technical “Chris Brown” message on the leadership that Jesus condemns: http://westloop-church.org/index.php/messages/new-testament/23-matthews-gospel/313-shepherding-sheep-mt-20-25-28

    • Wow, Ben, perhaps you should be at the next GLS :)

      You nailed the essence of what Chris Brown preached:

      “Shepherding is not to change people, but to offer them space and freedom where change can occur. It is not an invitation to adopt the lifestyle of the shepherd, but the gift of a chance for the sheep to find its own.”

      Space and freedom. Chris Brown used Old Testament examples of good (Pharoah) and bad (Saul) leadership events. He called it “making room in your chariot for a younger leader to take your power and credit”.

    • I wished Samuel Lee would still live and could hear you preaching that way. Honestly.

  4. One of the most heart-moving moments of the GLS was when Pastor Bill introduced their president who was leaving their organization to go somewhere else (Compassion International I think?). Pastor Bill shared the Willow Creek tradition of sending off one of their leaders. The entire 9,000 gathering stood up and shouted “We hold you in high regard. Way to go.” Then they all clapped wildly as he stood on the stage alone. The clapped like this for several minutes. It was breath-taking to see how much they appreciated what this leader had done for them. The man being sent off broke down in tears and could hardly speak.

    • sheepherd1

      Can we just be grateful when a member of a church gets a prompting from the Holy Spirit to do something else for Christ’s Kingdom? A shepherd who helps a sheep with bible study and then one day decided to do something for Jesus should be blessed to do so. Instead getting angry or bashing that person who left, the shepherd just have to pray and let go that person. God will bless His people. God will bless the men and women who has left UBF.

    • You’ve got the right idea, sheepherd1.

  5. Here is a brief synopsis of Hybel’s leadership lecture: http://www.buildingchurchleaders.com/articles/2013/bill-hybels-and-taylor-swift.html

    Though I don’t quite get the connection with Taylor Swift, her take home point seems to be that leadership is not for wimps, and that if a leader is unable to or refuses to (humbly) take criticism, he/she will invariably be a horrible leader.