5 Leadership Lessons I Learned from America’s Most Influential Pastor

bill-hybels-leadership-summittAll of us can learn church leaders, and I’ve always wanted to learn from the very best. Let me introduce you to Bill Hybels. I consider him America’s foremost pastor. His pedigree shows why. 

Bill Hybels founded one of the most powerful leadership conferences (a.k.a.,The Global Leadership Summit) now in 530+ cities and 100 countries. He is the senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, a pioneer in contemporary church strategy and one of America’s largest churches with more than 24,000 weekly attendees. He is committed to developing and mentoring leaders worldwide, including those in some of the most difficult, overlooked and under-resourced countries.

Above all, he is a proven leader with an extraordinary track record. Every leader should take heed of his advice. Over the past week, I read one of his books Leadership Axioms: Powerful Leadership Proverbs in which he shares numerous wisdom bombs on leadership over his life-long leadership journey. I’ve chosen five lessons that were most memorable as I read his important read.

1. Language Matters

The right words will make vision talks soar. The very best leaders Hybels says he knows wrestle with words until they are able to communicate their big ideas in a way that captures the imagination, catalyzes action, and lifts spirits. They coin creeds and fashion slogans and create rallying cries, all because they understand that language matters. At Willow Creek Community church Hybels say “Hire tens” to a senior leader or talk about “the umbrella of mercy” with volunteers or rave that a recent event was an “only God” moment to a member of a congregation, and they get what he’s saying immediately. It’s like speaking in shorthand – “insider” language that deepens community and creates clarity and a special sort of solidarity.

2. Read All You Can

Leaders have a responsibility before God to constantly get better, and one of the most reliable ways to do so is to read. Hybels says that the older he gets and the longer he leads the wider his knowledge gap becomes and the more aware he doesn’t know much about leadership. He says how great leaders read frequently and voraciously. They read classics and new releases. They soak up lessons from the military, from academia, from politics, from nongovernmental organizations, and from church leaders who are leading well. Hybels knows that when you read, you invite new information into your subconscious mind. You may spend ten full hours going cover to cover and at the end feel like you’re none the wiser. But then a day or week later, you face a leadership dilemma that you are able to solve only because you read that book.

3. Let’s Debrief

To “debrief” something simply means to evaluate it from top to bottom. Debriefings are not about judgment and condemnation and ripping something to shreds; they are about taking responsibility for the good, the bad, and the ugly. They are about learning from each and every leadership play in hopes of improving play over the long haul. Hybels hosts the Willow Creek Leadership Summit every year where tends of thousands of ministry and marketplace leaders gather at hundreds of venues all over the world to try to get better at leadership. After the leadership conference, Hybels gather highly discerning leaders and talk about what worked well and what didn’t. So for many years, tend days following the Summit, they convene scores of pastors for a day-and-a-half-long debriefing. He asks, “Was this session helpful? Why or why not? Did we deliver enough skill training? Enough inspiration? Was our challenge bar set high enough?”

4. Pay Attention to Greetings and Goodbyes

Hybels says “I make it a habit to do a personal, enthusiastic, genuine, warm, highly relational, look-you-in-the-eye greeting to every single person sitting around the table before I even think about starting the meeting.” When a leader walks into a meeting, for example, he or she usually has only one thing on the brain: mission advancement. The are problems to solve, strategies to create, resources to raise, and peronnell fires to douse. Naturally, because the leader’s mind is singular focused “task,” the other people in the room can be easily overlooked. When the hour strikes, the gavel is pounded and the leader is ready to get down to business. Hybels’ mentor once asked him”Bill, do you know what the most important part of the meeting is?” His mentor said, “Bill, the most important part of every meeting is your greeting and goodbye.” Hybels asked “Why would you say that?” His mentor said “Bill, everyone who works for a highly motivated leader carries with them a low-grade concern that the leader is going to use them and then toss them out. They worry that aside from getting the leader’s agenda done, they’re not at all necessarily. Deep down, they simply want to know that they’re more than just a cog in someone else’s wheel.

5. Values Need Heat 

Whatever the value, if it’s alive and well in a local church today, it’s not by accident. It’s only there because of intentional, committed, dedicated effort. When you heat up a value, you help people change states. Hybels share the experience of visiting to speak at a church conference. As he drove onto the campus, he was greeted by a volunteer who offered to help him park his car. He walked inside and was approached by another set of smiling volunteers who were anxious to point him in the right direction. Between, still another pair of volunteers made sure he had plenty of hot tea and sandwiches in his backstage room. No less than ten times a day, Hybels was struck by the servanthood of this cadre of volunteers. After the conference, Hybels asked the senior pastor, “just out of curiosity, how often do you teach about servanthood around here?” He laughed and said, “Bill, it’s the central thrust of my entire ministry! We talk about it all the time.”

Question: How can leaders learn from America’s influential pastors?