by Lynn O. Cooper
One of the engaging features of the Global Leadership Summit lies in the ability of a diverse group of speakers to tell stories that capture the audience’s attention, convey the speakers’ understanding of their subject, and build rapport with audience members.
The great storyteller Elie Wiesel wrote a leadership tale as the preface to his novel The Gates of the Forest:
When Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw that the Jewish people were threatened by tragedy, he would go to a particular place in the forest where he lit a fire, recited a particular prayer, and the miracle was accomplished and the misfortune averted.
Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Maggid of Mezrich, had occasion for the same reason to intervene with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say, “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” Again, the miracle would be accomplished.
Still later, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say, “I do not know how to light the fire. I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient, and the miracle was accomplished.
Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire. I do not know the prayer, and I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient. For God made man because he loves stories.
The Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit (GLS) is a two-day conference that brings together some of the most successful leaders in business and industry, governmental, religious, and non-profit organizations. The goal is to help Christians grow in leadership in order to maximize kingdom impact. Founded in 1992, the Willow Creek Association is the driving force behind the GLS. With its seven thousand member churches representing more than ninety denominations, and networks training leaders in ninety countries, the GLS is able to reach eighteen thousand churches with their leadership vision and resources. As measured by an independent company looking at the outcomes of people attending over multiple years, the findings suggest the GLS is effective in reaching its goals.
One of the engaging features of the GLS lies in the ability of a diverse group of speakers to tell stories that capture the audience’s attention, convey the speakers’ understanding of their subject, and build rapport with audience members. The effectiveness of these stories should not be surprising. Throughout our lives, values are conveyed within families, schools, workplaces, churches, and communities through shared narratives that help us understand our world and how we should live within it (Johnson 2015, 95-98).
Even the stories of unknown and fictional characters from literature and film help us identify common human experiences, expand our emotional capacity, and teach us how to act. Hearing stories of hardship and overcoming challenges can be an impetus to leadership development as they give opportunity to consider new ways of solving problems. Stories can create highly relatable and significant ‘crucible moments,’ which include experiences that stretch us (e.g., an overseas placement or new organizational role), tales of extended setbacks without change (e.g., stagnant times between promotions or not seeing programmatic success), narratives about difficult personal defeats, or stories that highlight organizational gains or losses.
The purpose of this study is to examine GLS stories in order to identify themes that teach valuable lessons about leadership development and train others for effectiveness in this role. Of the thirteen speakers in the 2014 Summit, ten of those messages were appropriate for analysis. Three of the ten speakers were female. Bible stories used as illustration were not included as stories; only personal narratives invented by the speakers were examined. Individual messages ranged from twenty-five to sixty minutes in length, and on average, speakers used three to five stories per thirty minutes of speaking time. A total of sixty-two stories were subsequently identified by student Megan Koontz, and used in this study.
Using a content analysis method, students in a leadership seminar developed discrete and mutually exclusive categories for several leadership themes, including empowerment, authenticity, conflict, and failure. Three raters were trained to code the stories to ensure the accuracy of the leadership theme and to test the exclusivity of categories.
From the sixty-two stories that appeared in the GLS speeches available to students, only the stories in which two or more raters agreed on coding are included here for analysis. Cohen’s kappa, a statistical test used to measure inter-rater agreement for categorical items, gives a margin between two raters to test both probability for actual agreement and probability of expected (chance) agreement. In this study, the kappa varied between forty to seventy-eight percent, demonstrating a fair to good response.
Lesson One: Leadership Is a Follower-centered Relationship
Student researchers Andy DeMoss, Moriah Reeves, and Joel Smith first looked at empowerment styles by analyzing twenty paired stories from the Summit, and found the GLS speakers reflect the significant shifts that have taken place in leadership theories. The older ‘transactional’ models that dominated in the 1970s and 1980s focused on leader-centered behaviors that offer benefits and punishments in a ‘give-and-take’ structure. These leaders are the individuals who look for mistakes or take corrective action, and avoid active engagement with followers unless a mistake is made.
The gap between leader and worker routinely exists to create ‘management by exception,’ where leaders initiate contact or intervene only when failures occur. An early GLS story relayed by Bill Hybels gives an example of transactional leadership:
I made what I thought was a helpful suggestion to a boss that I had in my teenage years. His response lingers in my mind forty-five years later. “Billy, I didn’t hire you to think. I hired you to work. So shut up and work.” So I worked, but while I worked I kept on thinking, and not about how I could improve things on that job, but where else I was going to work someday.
While no longer the dominant theory, a transactional focus on the leader persists in popular work. Brad Jackson and Ken Parry (2008, 42) note a Google search that found fifty-seven terms about ‘leader’ for every one indicating ‘follower’. Looking at Amazon’s catalog, they found over five thousand nonfiction items with leadership titles for sale, but only six could be ordered with ‘followership’ in the title. Nevertheless, the GLS stories more accurately reflect the changing scene in the workplace. Only ten percent of GLS stories tapped into purely transactional models of leadership, and as illustrated above in Hybels’ story, these usually are illustrative of past practices.
Lesson Two: Leadership Requires Authentic Engagement of Both Leaders and Followers
In the 1990s, models of transformational leadership shifted focus onto the follower and largely displaced transactional models. Leaders were now trained to actively encourage and trust their workers, articulate a shared vision, and provide an appropriate role model or other individual support that would enable their followers’ more effective performance in the workplace. Group teamwork is an exemplar of this kind of leadership. Susan Cain describes this emphasis on transformational leadership:
So Jim Collins did this famous study where he looked at the top eleven best-performing companies and he wanted to figure out what set these companies apart from their more mediocre peers. And he found that every single one of these companies was led by what he called a Level Five leader, which meant that each of these CEOs had two characteristics. On the one hand, they were fiercely devoted to their companies. They had a sense of will and a sense of passion and, you know, they really knew what they wanted to do to move their companies forward. On the other hand, each of these CEOs was described as shy, quiet, unassuming, soft-spoken, low key. Like those whole constellation of adjectives that we usually think of being the exact opposite of what makes a good leader.
When students rated the GLS stories, seventy-five percent were identified as transformational in nature; fifteen percent appeared to be a combination of transformational and transactional leadership. Most commonly, transformational leadership was seen in the story by the leaders’ ability to articulate a vision, provide individualized support for how followers were to act, and utilize appropriate role models.
There was not enough data to support research that women use more transformational tactics to empower others, since only in one of the twenty transformational stories was there a female leader, but over half the stories indicated female followers. While the GLS planners worked hard to incorporate diversity in its speakers, many of the stories still portray leadership from a male perspective.
Transformational leadership sometimes is perceived synonymously with servant leadership, a popular style that is de facto for many Christian trainers. It can also be seen as a kind of ‘return on investment’ approach in that it assumes that a specific amount of time and effort will profit the leader in the long run. Patrick Lencioni corrects this message during his speech when he said, “I’m kind of tired of hearing about servant leadership… Because I don’t think there’s any other kind…if it’s not servant leadership, then it’s just economics…”
Lesson Three: Leadership Is Synonymous with Integrity, Character, and Morality
Contemporary models of leadership have moved to a neo-transformational approach, where leadership is joined to a higher purpose. Other terms that emphasize this approach are ‘authentic’, ‘ethical’, and ‘spiritual’ leadership. It studies people who are aware of their moral structure and values, and are grounded in moral and virtuous foundations: universal values, sounding the alarm when real threats arise, developing followers into leaders, and focusing on the best in people. Hybels gives an example of this approach, which he calls ‘legacy’ leadership:
Now, our world lost a one-of-a-kind legacy leader since we last gathered, Nelson Mandela. For a quarter of a century he was imprisoned on an island off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. During that time, as you all well know, he was humiliated, beaten, and worked nearly to death for his crime of wanting to end apartheid in the country he loved. When he was finally released from prison in 1990 he had every right to declare that his final years were going to be spent licking his wounds and hating his white oppressors until his final breath. Instead, he committed himself to a grander vision, that of running for high office in order to end apartheid and unify South Africa. Nelson Mandela left a breathtaking legacy and history will never forget him.
GLS speakers included historical characters (e.g., William Wilberforce) as well as contemporary leaders (e.g., Burl Cain, the Chief Warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary) as examples of how harmony, charity, good work, confidence and high standards for emulation, healthy ethical climates marked by transparency, trust, integrity, and high moral standards enable others to become their best selves.
They assume that dramatic performance improvement on the job comes from visionary leaders who inspire followers through charisma, rather than formal authority. These leaders are not only true to themselves, but help others be likewise. Moreover, leaders exhibiting a neo-transformational approach show a continued desire to solve problems of poor leadership. This represents a shift from ‘means-to-an-end’ work toward establishing important moral and ethical goals.
Student researchers Sara Kohler, Emma McRoberts, and Allison Woodfin looked at twenty different paired stories to understand aspects of authenticity. ‘Self-aware’ individuals know what they excel at and what they need to improve upon. ‘Balanced processors’ are able to address both the negative and positive aspects of a situation. Those with an ‘internalized moral perspective’ are able to do what they believe in without being affected by the behavior or opinion of others. Finally, ‘relational transparency’ fosters teamwork through trust and intimacy.
The student researchers found relational transparency was most commonly used in Summit stories (forty-five percent) to exhibit authenticity. Self-awareness and internalized moral perspective were closely behind. Speakers were clearly comfortable sharing stories of vulnerability on a professional level and this impacted the team in a positive way.
However, balanced processing was not used strategically; speakers were less inclined to be transparent about negative impacts. The context of the Summit may suggest that whether you are the CEO of General Electric or leading a para-church ministry, revealing failure to a small group of coworkers (who may already be aware of your failure) is less intimidating than conceding them to thousands of people that esteem you as an exemplar. GLS speakers may not want their efficacy as a leader called into questioned.
Corollary: Failure May Not Be an Option
Every leader encounters failure. From experiencing company fiscal losses, staff dissatisfaction, and relational conflict to owning up to outright mistakes and blind spots, leaders are human and failure is inevitable. Moreover, overcoming obstacles can be invaluable learning experiences to strengthen an organization and refine the leader’s character. According to one GLS speaker, “You can either learn from your own pain or inflict it on somebody else.” Failure stories are important resources for others to learn and gain insights without experiencing the consequences.
Student researchers Abby Coster, Fallin Dennen, Carissa Kano, and Susannah Sullivan found agreement on only eight failure stories for their study. They presumed that leaders would talk about their failures as personal growth in a manner that saved face and maintained self-esteem.
Six of the eight stories were indeed ‘personal’ failures (i.e., due to an internal behavioral cause or unethical leadership, rather than a situational or environmental set of circumstances), and described in either the first or third-person point of view.
Half the time, the story’s outcome was not indicated, and it did not seem to matter whether the outcomes were positive or negative for them to be shared. However, stories where the leader had a positive outcome at the organization’s loss were never told, and in twenty-four categories of ‘failure’, only one rater coded a particular story as having a negative outcome for the leader but positive organizational outcome.
While limited by the small sample size and ‘fair’ inter-rater reliability (forty-seven percent), these student researchers concluded that leaders chose to talk about failure in a positive light only some of the time. Similar to the concept of balanced processing, giving both sides of the story is not a respected strategy.
Lesson Four: Leadership Uses Conflict as a Teachable Moment
Student Andrew Sedlacek focused on twenty-four GLS stories that addressed conflict situations. Coders first rated whether the leader stressed individual goals, relationships, or ignored personal aspects. Second, they marked whether the leader expressed, suppressed, or underplayed emotional aspects. Third, coders indicated whether the leader in the story emphasized negotiation by hearing out multiple viewpoints, sticking to the rules, or outright avoidance.
A fourth measurement was whether the leader stressed the importance of people working together cooperatively, managing groups by using codes and systems, or deemphasizing groups. Fifth, coders looked to see if the leader stressed honor (face saving), accuracy of the procedure, or exercising verbal assertiveness as most important. Finally, the raters were asked to assess the leader’s behavior as good or bad.
Some significant tendencies toward harmonious, yet confrontational models of conflict management were apparent in the GLS stories. They encouraged the use of relational communication, especially including verbal and emotional assertiveness. Honoring procedures and codes was not important; negotiation was preferred. However, regardless of tactic, leaders must face their conflicts. Avoidance is not a good leadership strategy.
Final Thoughts on the Use of Story in Leadership Training
GLS speakers are consistent with the WCA mission and goals, as well as current research. Leadership is best accomplished in other-centered, mutually authentic relationships that are embedded in character and morality. Leaders inevitably will fail, but such crises and conflicts provide teachable moments to grow in this role.
In his keynote address to the CCCU’s Presidents’ Conference, Fuller Seminary president Mark Labberton noted that the challenge of leadership today reflects a shift from a time in which many of our institutions are surrounded by “well-formed, intentional Christendom that is now largely cracking and eroding” (Labberton 2015, 31). Using the story of Daniel, Labberton understands that ultimately “we lead people into their needs, rather than our competencies. Rather than mask our vulnerability and be the leader people expect, depending on God daily in our weakness as well as strength should be our aim” (2015, 34).
Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition and pastor of the Lamb’s Church, used personal stories of God’s grace in his family’s life to address the same audience. He noted that while our ministries can be framed positively as places of power, hope, and creativity, or places of defense under siege, effective leadership requires us to reexamine our stories (Salguero 2015, 18-19). This may involve differentiating between nostalgia (an idolatry of the past) and memory (a Christian discipline) in order to build synergies within team alliances and solidarity with unexpected allies (2015, 20).
Much like Wiesel’s rabbis in the opening story, leadership consists of stories to be told:
…if God in this season of your life—with all the collection of your experiences, of your success and your failures, of your attempts—has put you at the head of an institution…it’s because you have every gift, every ability, every relationship you need to see God glorified, his church edified and our enemies terrified. (Salguero 2015, 21)
Jackson, Brad and Ken Parry. 2008. A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book about Studying Leadership. London: Sage.
Johnson, Craig E. 2015. Meeting the Ethical Challenges of Leadership: Casting Light or Shadow. 5th ed. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage.
Labberton, Mark. 2015. “Leadership of Another Kind.” Advance. Spring: 31-37.
Salguero, Gabriel. 2015. “Christian Leadership through Change and Crisis.” Advance. Spring: 17-21.
. . . .
Lynn Cooper is a professor of communication at Wheaton College. She completed degrees at the University of Illinois (PhD), Edinburgh University, Scotland (MSc), and Wheaton College (MA). Lynn teaches courses in leadership, group dynamics, conflict and reconciliation, and organizational communication. The research team is grateful to Chris Armstrong and Ben Norquist of OPUS: The Center of Faith and Vocation at Wheaton College for providing funding to purchase Summit transcripts and speeches used in this analysis.
EMQ, Vol. 52, No. 3 pp. 298-306. Copyright © 2016 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.
Questions for Reflection
1. What practices have you found useful in focusing on a follower’s point of view?
2. Transformational leaders articulate a vision and provide support for others to act on it. Can you remember a specific occasion when you did this?
3. What individuals in your organization can you identify as appropriate role models to aid you in the leadership process?
4. What do you think is your legacy as a leader? What do you want it to be?
5. What story can you tell about your own failure as a leader? What does this tell you about how you think about conflict?