Gary Schwammlein shares how he brings top global leaders together to inspire others
By SANDY CLARKE
In the Christian Gospels, Jesus makes reference to laying foundations of rock upon which all else can be built, secured and able to withstand the toughest storms.
As one of history’s most influential leaders, this spiritual message from Jesus – that we should build ourselves from within – drives the efforts of the Willow Creek Association (WCA), a Christian organisation based in Illinois, US, that seeks to transform lives through leadership development.
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The association’s president and CEO Gary Schwammlein spoke about the importance of leadership on The Leaderonomics Show with host Roshan Thiran, citing John Maxwell’s well-known mantra that “everything rises and falls on leadership.”
Joining the WCA in 1996, Schwammlein spent 17 years as the association’s executive vice-president, leading its international department with activities in 100 countries.
In August 2013, he became president and set his team on an ambitious goal – to have 500,000 people attending the WCA’s Global Leadership Summit by 2020.
The summit is a two-day annual leadership event that is broadcasted from Willow’s campus every August. World-class leaders are invited to speak at the summit, and throughout autumn there are related events which take place in 128 countries worldwide.
Although organised by a community church, WCA’s summit invites speakers of all faiths and beliefs to share and teach leadership, and sees many thousands of people from other faiths attend the event in order to develop their own leadership skills and personal growth.
In 2016, the target of reaching 500,000 attendees was reached, seeing an impressive increase of 72,000 people from the previous year.
Amongst the speakers at their annual summit includes John Maxwell, former GE CEO Jack Welch, famous author Patrick Lencioni, former Ford and Boeing CEO Alan Mullaly and other global icons.
Commenting on the summit’s purpose, Schwammlein says, “We focus on two things – to teach leadership and reach the maximum number of people through our conference.
We also try to do workshops throughout the year to deepen what they have learned at the conference itself.”
Part of the reason for the success of the WCA is its commitment to inclusion and diversity in the people it reaches. While the association is proudly Christian-centred, its senior management team recognises that good leadership comes from all walks of life.
As Schwammlein says,
Leadership is fairly neutral. It’s like Christian music — there’s no ‘Christian’ music, there’s music and some of it has Christian lyrics or text to it. It’s the same with leadership: leadership is leadership.
“Probably one of the greatest leaders who ever lived, and is acknowledged pretty much anywhere around the world, is Jesus Christ. We can learn a lot from his leadership principles, but we have leaders who have accomplished great things in the marketplace, the military, education, church, business – you name it.”
There’s also an emphasis on challenging people’s ideas and beliefs, with the hope that it will help them to build a better foundation within themselves upon which solid leadership can be built.
“In the coming conference this year, we have Sheryl Sandberg from Facebook,” says Schwammlein. “When you look at her and what she has accomplished, we are able to expose our audience to challenging concepts, because if you only hear what you believe in, you cannot grow.
“So we want to challenge our listeners to new concepts – even those with which they might disagree, because that is what will help them grow as leaders.”
Within a Christian organisation, there are so many social challenges that are calling out for attention – so why does the WCA choose to focus specifically on leadership?
Good leaders make education better,” says Schwammlein, “good leaders build better churches, good leaders are better in the military, in the government – leadership is the key to any great development and that’s something we’ve seen throughout history. So leadership matters, it really matters.
With around 45 years of significant leadership roles under his belt, Schwammlein has enjoyed his own transformative experience over the years – although he admits that there were challenges along the way, having worked in global multinational organisations all over the world.
He says, “In my early days, I did the best I could and sometimes that was terrible. So of course, I have learned a lot in leadership. I grew up in a German household and wasn’t taught to praise people. I was never, in my whole life, praised by my parents when I did something good, and that affects you.
We know from leadership that if you do not praise other people, your leadership will only go to a certain level. So that’s something I had to learn to do with my children, to acknowledge and praise when they did something good, and praise other people when they do great work. That’s just one of so many things I learned through my years of leadership.”
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Having learned so much about leadership across four decades, Schwammlein is keen to stress that culture within an organisation is vital to its success, and he encourages leaders to ensure they invest their efforts in cultivating a strong sense of unity and cohesion.
Culture really matters. In most companies, culture is undervalued and gets paid lip-service. Culture and values might be in the company brochures, but it’s not practised, it’s not rewarded, and it’s not penalised. In my opinion, one of the greatest tools you can have is having a great culture. As the saying goes, culture eats strategy for breakfast every time.
Sandy is a freelance writer based in Malaysia, and previously enjoyed 10 years as a journalist and broadcaster in the UK. He has been fortunate to gain valuable insights into what makes us tick, which has deepened his interests in leadership, emotions, mindfulness, and human behaviour.