By Matt Proctor
As a leader, I wear many hats: team builder, decision maker, fund-raiser, and problem solver. But my favorite leadership hat—and perhaps the most important—is storyteller.
A leader’s primary job is not to fulfill a mission, but to create a mission-fulfilling community. A leader’s task is not simply to get a job done, but to mobilize and inspire a group of followers to get the job done. Of course, forging a hodgepodge group of individuals into an effective team with common values and a shared mission isn’t easy. So how do we get people “on the same page”? How can we help them buy into our core beliefs, embody our values, and catch our dreams? One powerful answer I’ve discovered: stories.
Everybody loves hearing stories. They grab the imagination and can be nearly impossible to forget. A good story can smuggle in truth so that, almost unconsciously, people absorb the lessons woven into the narrative. That’s why wise communicators through the ages have used stories to teach. Fully one-third of Jesus’ teaching was packaged in parables.
What’s all this got to do with leadership? Simply this: as leader, I am the communicator-in-chief of our “mission-fulfilling community.” I must constantly articulate who we are, what we do, and why we do it. So I make it my business to ruthlessly search for and repeatedly tell stories—anecdotes that capture our values and communicate our mission.
At a faculty retreat not long ago, I commiserated with our professors. I know what it’s like to pour myself into a lecture forged out of years of experience and study, to deliver it passionately, and then to see a student in the front row picking at a hole in his jeans the entire class hour, completely unaware of any educational activity happening around him.
In response, I told this true story.
Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian was a theology professor at Trinity College in Chicago, and every day in class, he would dream out loud about the Acts 2 church. “Wouldn’t it be great if there were a church that would have an Acts vision to reach the world for Christ?” yearned Dr. B. “A church where people truly loved each other, studied Scripture deeply, and preached Christ fervently?”
His passion was contagious, and one day after class, a 20-year-old student named Bill Hybels came up to Dr. B and said, “With God’s help, I want to build that church.” Of course, Hybels planted Willow Creek Community Church, now one of the largest and most effective congregations in the nation.
A few years ago, Willow Creek held an Easter service at the United Center arena in Chicago. As 20,000 people came in that morning, each person was given a keychain flashlight, and at the end of the service, creative arts director Nancy Beach stood on stage and said, “I’d like to try something.” The arena lights were turned off and it was pitch black. Then Beach said, “If you were introduced to Jesus Christ because of the ministry of Willow Creek, please turn on your flashlight.” A moment’s pause, and then lights started flashing on. Soon thousands of tiny lights dotted the darkened arena, each representing a life forever changed by that one church.
Beach then said, “Please keep your lights on. We’re going to take a picture.” The photographer used a wide-angle lens to take a panoramic picture of the thousands of lights. I don’t know the odds of it happening, but just as the photographer snapped, someone near the front took a flash picture. When you look at that photograph today—that panoramic scene in the darkened United Center with thousands of twinkling flashlights—you will notice the little flash from the second camera illuminated one face on the front row.
That one face is Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian. You can see him turned around, tears streaming down his cheeks, as he looks at all those lights—lives touched by the gospel because just one of his students caught the vision.
“That,” I told our professors, “is why we keep coming back to teach.” Afterward, one young faculty member, looking a little weary, came up to me with a smile and said, “Thanks. I really needed that.”
So tomorrow morning when I walk in my office, one of the first things I’ll do is reach up to my leadership hat rack and pull off a hat. Guess which one it will be . . .
Matt Proctor serves as president at Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri.