“Quit Bowling” and “Start Digging Ditches” – two memorable quotes from the first day of the Willow Creek Leadership Summit (Seth Godin and Steven Furtick respectively).  My mind is still processing and thinking through all that was presented today in the presentations and discussions with other attendees.   The conference reminds me a lot of TEDx GR from this summer – a number of great presentations from top speakers with wonderful conversations in between – but this time focused on a narrower theme of all things leadership.

Bill Hybels kicked off the day with five big questions and four helpful group exercises to work with leaders of any organization.  How do you determine if your leaders are under challenged, dangerously over challenged (DOC) or appropriately challenged?  Or even better how can you help your leaders reach that optimum level where they can operate at peak efficiency.  How do you deal with challenging people?  Are you evaluating, facing and resolving the problems facing your organization?  Do you routinely re-evaluate the core purpose of your organization?  Finally, Bill observed that all leaders need to get their “bell rung” by having situations that force them to ask the hard questions and get out of their comfort zones.

Next we were presented with perhaps the best and most authentic and realistic discussion of modern entrepreneurship I have ever heard, from Len Schlesinger.  So many presentations of the ideas of entrepreneurship present it as requiring determined people with high-risk new ideas, usually in the technology arena, and needing a great deal of venture capital. In reality, most entrepreneurs prefer low-risk, not necessarily original ideas which typically see something that exists already and find a way to do it better.  Similar myths about new ideas and inventions are that they are based on research and predictions about the future based on the past.  In reality the future is always a non-linear extrapolation of what has come before.  You can’t predict the future – but you can create it.  Because of this “Action Trumps Everything” (which just happens to be the title of Schlesinger’s new book.  But sometimes frequent action leads to failure, but Len noted that if you are working on new ideas “by failing you probably learn what nobody else knows”.  Facing new efforts with the idea of “affordable loss” and taking “smart small steps” with regular action leads to success over time with new efforts.

I wouldn’t want to follow that presentation, but next up was a man that spoke with passion, ideas, compassion and intelligence that I have not heard from a politician in a long time – I don’t even know Cory Booker’s political party but I would vote for him for office in a minute (and be very tempted to campaign for him).  Booker is the mayor of Newark, New Jersey (who’s life and story were detailed in the movie “Street Fight”).  His inspirational stories of his life and experiences in one of the most challenged (and oldest) cities in the country covered a range of issues and ideas on topics ranging from housing, to violence, to finding the best in every person.  He struggles with many peoples’ willingness to settle for average, status quo, and things being done the way they always have been done before.  He talked about “televisionism” and quipped about the various reality TV shows that have taken up residence in New Jersey.  He challenged all of us, with all our different organizations, to not settle but rather “do something”.

After being challenged about several “comfort zones” of leadership and ideas, Brenda Salter McNeil kicked off the afternoon with some inspiring and wise words about bridging cultural divisions in our community, country and world.  She walked us through the modern-day implications of Acts 1:8 and how we need to build community with those closest to us, those near us but with some differing views, and also those who are as different from us as possible.  She also observed that we often need catalytic events to help us to mobilize people to go and do what is necessary.

With all the different topics today, it was easy to feel like we were “channel flipping” – except the quality of the presentations were so much higher than what is available on television.  Case in point was who came next, Seth Godin.  I have read several of Seth’s books and am familiar with a lot of his ideas.  He took us through a similar theme of average efforts leading to even more average products.  He reviewed his work how modern “tribes” turning social structures upside down and the laptop being the new means of production in the information and social age.  Seth also reinforced the idea of failure as an important option and possible outcome, noting specifically that “if failure is not an option than neither is success”.  His most striking illustration is that people need to “Stop Bowling” – meaning that, the whole point of bowling is in doing a repetitive task, over and over, and just trying to do it a little better the next time.  He compared this to competition in the bottled water industry, “What are they going to do, make the water wetter?”  Do great new things, “Don’t wait to get picked – Picked Yourself!”

To cap off the day we had a challenge to not only come to the conference for ideas and inspiration, but also to turn ideas into action.  Steven Furtick is a young, energetic and gifted speaker with a contagious passion to have faith in the big things that can be accomplished by faithful people.  He took us through a modern retelling of 2 Kings 3 where the armies of Israel and Judah found themselves desperate for water.  Through the words and actions of a spirited Elisha, they found that they needed to “make the valley full of ditches” (NIV) and that God would supply the water that they so desperately needed.  We can act in many different ways, in faith, but “Only God can bring the rain.”

I am looking forward to another day at the conference tomorrow, and the days afterwards as I take what I’ve learned there and found ways to put it into practice – but for now, some sleep.