How to Absorb New Ideas and Become a Better Leader

This is a guest post by Bill Hybels. He is Senior Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. He is also Chairman of The Willow Creek Association. You can follow him on Twitter. If you want to guest post on this blog, check out the guidelines here.

I believe that the local church is the hope of the world. But for it to reach its redemptive potential, it must be well-led. This means that those of us with leadership gifts have to step up and step it up. We have to take responsibility for our own leadership development.

Colorful Gears Making Up a Human Brain - Photo courtesy of ©, Image #13485370

Photo courtesy of ©

Here are four steps I use to absorb new ideas and become a better leader:

  1. Read as much as you can. Really. As a leader, you have to seed your mind with leadership ideas to keep learning and growing. During a the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit a few years ago, David Gergen said, “Not every reader is a leader, but every leader is a reader.” Leaders, read diligently. I take every opportunity I can to absorb new ideas.
  2. Use a “discernment filter.” Once you’ve exposed your mind to innovative concepts, you’ve got to put the ideas through a discernment filter. The truth is that some of the ideas you learn fit you and should be integrated into your current leadership style. But other ideas don’t fit you, and they don’t pertain to you. You shouldn’t act on them.

    Some ideas are good, but they fall into the “not now” bucket. I’ve seen leaders over the years who absorb all of these great ideas but are unable to keep up with taking them all in.

    There’s no short cut to discerning your leadership lessons. We all have to do the hard work of deciding which ideas are valuable—and which aren’t.

  3. Assign an owner. Once an idea makes it through the discernment filter, leaders have to determine how many leadership ideas they can implement in their church (or organization). I know that I can bear the responsibility of the vision for our church and make sure that our strategic values are clear, but I’m careful not to bear the weight of implementing all new ideas. That’s where your team comes in. Don’t be afraid to attach cool ideas to people on your team, so they can run with them.
  4. Embed the ideas into your culture. Once you discover new ideas, put them in a filter, and delegate them to a team member—you have to start to institutionalize the most important ideas. The ultimate objective is that all of the ideas have to find their way into the DNA of your organization. The main goal of ideas isn’t just to learn about them, it’s to embed them in the culture.
What are some of the new ideas that you’re starting to embed in your organization’s culture? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • Uma Maheswaran S

    Thanks Bill! That was a great encouragement to keep reading and learning  without ceasing. Though I am not CEO-level leader to embed new ideas in my organization’s culture, I have experienced from some tangible benefits individually.

    By reading, I have become more tolerant now; I am more open to other’s view points and opinions without any pre-concieved notions.

    Since I read,  I have  learnt to rise above the confines of my immediate environment and from those heights, I am able to get a broader view of the human experience, of history, of how others have tackled problems that beset me. 

    Ultimately, I am never the same again.

    • @kylereed

      How do you capture all the thoughts you gain from the books you read?

      • Joe Lalonde

        I get stuck there too Kyle.

        One of the ways I’m trying to capture my thoughts while reading is to take notes. I’ve implemented an idea that someone mentioned here: Instead of using a bookmark, use a note card and take notes on it. I’m hoping to get some results from this and hope this idea helps you also.

        • Uma Maheswaran S

          I agree Joe! It’s a great idea. It will work for sure.

      • Uma Maheswaran S


        I take notes from the book I read and I use that compilations to revisit the knowledge I gained during the process of reading.

        Subject: [mhyatt] Re: How to Absorb New Ideas and Become a Better Leader

      • @willardheath

        I would recommend a book called Love Is The Killer App.  It has some great insight on this specific topic.


        • @kylereed

          I have heard that is a great book. I definitely need to read that for sure.

          Good call

  • Paul Coughlin

    Nice post Bill, thank you.

    I hear the connection between reading and leading mentioned – however I wonder if it’s true. I suspect there are some good leaders who don’t read. The reason, is that I also suspect leadership has more to do with your second point than your first. Naturally good leaders seem to have intuitively good judgement skills – a high ability to discern the important and relevant, and make good judgement decisions based on what they discern, rather than consciously understand..

    I do love the way you emphasise integrating into the culture – bringing it home and bringing it to life.. culture of course is what aligns and connects people.. good stuff.

    all the best,

    • Michael Hyatt

      I would love to know of some good leaders who don’t read. I have never met one. (Maybe they are embarrassed to admit it!). The reason for this I think is that leaders have to be continually growing if they are going to lead well. Thanks.

      • Chris Patton

        I would have to agree with you…I have never met one.  I have, however, met a leader or two that does not particularly LIKE to read.  I know of one in particular that instead gets everything on audio because physically reading is difficult for him.

        Regardless of the method, I think getting continuous healthy input is critical.  Even if we were able to find a leader somewhere that does none of this, aren’t the statistics stacked overwhelmingly in the other direction?  Why fight that?

      • Ingmar

        Well… I havn’t met them. But what about Moses? Joshua? All the old leaders from the Bible. I don’t think they had our resources – but still they where really awesome leaders.

        Nevertheless – I absolutely love reading and I think leaders should grow by reading as well.

      • Travis Dommert

        We recently kicked off a study of exceptional people (outliers) from the world’s of professional sports and elite roles in the military to understand their personal and professional habits, as well as the environmental factors that helped them sustain discipline in their lives.  

        Just about every one of them was a strong reader.  One man, a Navy Captain and fighter pilot who led the Blue Angels team for 2 years, shocked me when he shared that he reads about 40 books a year.

        On the other end of the spectrum was an Olympic swimmer who only reads 1-2 books per year.  I started to think he was perhaps just a pure “jock”, then I discovered that he graduated from Harvard…and was very well read.

        Don’t have time, you say?  Foo-ey.

        Hard-wire it into your life.  For starters, have a book with you at ALL TIMES.  Early to a meeting?  (another good habit) Read 3-4 pages.  Stuck in line at the cleaners, read 3-4 pages.  Working out on an elliptical?  Read 20 pages.  

        Last September, I made it a priority to read 20 pages per day 4 days/wk.  That has translated into 14 books.  It is possible for anyone to do this and change their life.  Dislexic?  Do what my business partner does…fire up  He “reads” more than I do!

        Good luck!

        • Joe Lalonde

          Thanks for sharing your experience Travis. I’m amazed at the amount of books some readers go through. I often wonder how do these people retain what they’ve read? Are they applying the principles they’re reading about or just obtaining information?

          • Mary

            My daughter is an avid reader who was privileged to attend Girls Preparatory School in Chattanooga.  Virtually every graduate goes to college.  They were taught to maintain a separate journal that the students called their “Quote Books”.  They wrote down quotes that resonated with them; the things they really wanted to remember and maybe even put to use.  They often reviewed these journals and it was fun to watch the girls sharing them with each other.

        • Robert Ewoldt

          Travis, I totally agree that you have to make it a habit of your life. My pastor reads voraciously… he reads one chapter per day, sets aside one day per month to do nothing but reading, and one entire week per year to do nothing but reading. The amount of knowledge that one can absorb by reading, and the amount of wisdom, is amazing.

        • Uma Maheswaran S

          Thanks for the practical tip Travis. I need to more intentional in using my spare time in reading .

    • @kylereed

      I think for me, I can tell when I start to run on empty. The times I run on empty is because I haven’ been filling myself up. So I see that when I read books, blogs, and listen to conversations I am full of new ideas, thoughts, and emotions. 

      I think the biggest thing about reading is that it allows us to be filled up so that we can overflow our ideas. 

      • Anonymous

        Great thoughts @kylereed:disqus, makes me think of stagnate water – if there’s nothing flowing through it’s not life-giving and can even turn toxic. Reading is so key to healthy, vibrant life.

  • Chris Patton

    Thanks for a great post, Bill.  While it would be easy to simply tell us that reading is critical, you went the extra steps to give us great advice on how to implement what we have read.  

    I don’t know if anyone else has ever been guilty of this, but I have found my self reading voraciously for a period of time, only to look back and realize I have built up knowledge without action.  That cannot be!  I feel we must take what we have read and learned and we must put it into action.  Thank you for the method to help me do that!

    • Anonymous

      I was about to comment when I read yours.  Our thinking is very similar.  I find myself struggling with Hybels’ second point.  Sometimes I almost think I’ve read to much and I’m so overwhelmed with ideas that I can’t decide which ones to proceed with.

      • Chris Patton

        Karl, I understand completely!  Frankly, I don’t think that is a huge problem as long as we recognize it and deal with it.  I have also felt “overwhelmed” and had to take a step back.

        One strategy I use (see this post – is to complete a “net-out” on every non-fiction book I read.  If we were in the 3rd grade, this would be called a book report (with purpose)!

        Michael explains it better than I can, but I can at least confirm (from experience) that it works.  First, it causes you to read the book with more focus and purpose in mind.  I find myself unknowingly using Bill’s “discernment filter” as I read now.  I take notes and highlight more as well.

        Second, I have to finish the complete “net-out” before I go on to the next book.  This slows my reading progress, but increases the quality of my retention.  It also assures I take action on something (assuming the book had worthy content!) before I move on.

        Take a look at the post and see what you think.  I think you will find it very helpful…I know I have!

        • Anonymous

          Thanks for the reply and the link. I do need a better system for retaining what I read.

        • Uma Maheswaran S

          That was a great technique Chris! Taking notes and highlighting really works for me.

    • @kylereed

      great thought. I think I can do the same by getting caught up in the motion of reading and not the application. I try and spill out as much stuff as I can after I have read. So I try and get it out there through conversation with people so that it sticks in my head more. 

    • Joe Lalonde

      Chris, I’ve reached that point and feel like I’m at it this moment. We often read and listen and store up information with no action. Bill laid out a great idea with the discernment filter. Another great way is to take notes while reading and filter through them once a week or so. This keeps the ideas fresh and will hopefully call you to action.

  • Robert Ewoldt

    Thanks for the post, Bill. I especially appreciated that you included #4. Sometimes, leaders come up with a big new idea every week, and never fully implement those ideas, so their followers come to expect new ideas to fail. Sometimes, followers then will shrug off the new ideas, and then change never happens within the organization.

  • John Richardson

    Insightful post, Bill. As an avid audio book listener/reader, I hear a lot of new ideas on my daily commutes. When I hear something that really resonates, I usually buy the printed book and plot out a course of action. The problem with new ideas is that many are unproven in the workplace or they were developed in much different situations than my own. 

    For instance, when I read The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris, I was really intrigued by some of his radical ideas. After buying the book and using a “discernment filter,” I realized that many of the ideas could be distilled into a workable, but much less risky plan, than what was described in the book.

    To take a plan like this further, it would be a good idea to get buy in from the team of people who would be implementing it. Brainstorm it and ask people to think it through. This is the stage where you don’t want the idea to die, but you want to hear the negatives as well as the positives. Great ideas will survive… poor ones won’t.

    • @kylereed

      what is one audio book you would suggest purchasing today? I have a drive to Atlanta that I need some audio accompaniment to go with

      • John Richardson

        For a personal development book, one of my favorites is,”The Way We’re Working, Isn’t Working,” by Tony Schwartz. For fiction, Lee Child’s, Jack Reacher series, read by Dick Hill will keep you intrigued to Atlanta and back with one of the best audio voices in the industry.

      • Joe Lalonde

        If you haven’t read/listened to Linchpin by Seth Godin, it’s a great book for a long drive. Lots of great principles to stew over.

        • Robert Ewoldt

          I’ve heard this recommendation over and over, Joe. I’ll have to go out and get this book. I’ve read others by Seth, but not this one.

          • Joe Lalonde

            Hope you like it Robert. I got the audiobook and enjoyed listening to it on my commute time. Seth made quite a few interesting points regarding the work your doing and how to become extremely valuable in your workplace.

  • Brandon

    This is a great post! Thanks for sharing!

  • @kylereed

    Starting a new role very shortly where it is heavy on communication. 

    So some new ideas that are being embedded is how we communicate and how we rally behind that communication. Making it clear and effective. 

    The biggest thing that I have seen in this area is making it communal and solo. We are looking to involve others in the process. Love point number 3 of assigning ownership. Makes it way more of a community experience. 

  • James Pinnick

    Wow Bill.

    Great post! Nice job. I couldn’t have said it any better. “The ultimate objective is that all of the ideas have to find their way into the DNA of your organization.”

    I run a national charity organization that helps young adult cancer patients. I want our volunteers and Board of Directors to have my DNA of “never quit, always look forward, and trust there are better days ahead”. Hopefully each day we all can get better at what we do.

    James Pinnick
    Author-The Last Seven Pages

  • Travis Dommert

    I hope many people benefit from Bill’s sage advice…to read voraciously, filter innovative ideas, delegate them for implementation, and hard-wire them to stick.  

    In our business, we find that the last step is the toughest.  

    If we can hard-wire behaviors, the outcome is certain.  As Andy Stanley says in The Principle of the Path, our attention determines our direction and our direction determines our destination…SO LONG AS WE STAY ON THE PATH, it’s just a matter of time before we reach the destination.

    Here are ideas for hard-wiring behaviors and staying on track: 

    1. SPELL IT OUT.  Articulate the new behaviors (not just the new concept or goal)…what will it look like when people have hard-wired the new innovation into their culture and lives.

    2. MEASURE.  In God we trust.  In people we trust, but verify.  Cliche but true…what we measure, we can manage.  What gets measured, gets done.

    3. ESTABLISH ACCOUNTABILITY.  Whether thru a system like ours, a white board, or an email…establish a mechanism to hold each other accountable for the new behaviors and encourage each other to keep getting back on the wagon when we fall off (which we always do).

    Great post today.  Great leader to feature!!  Best, Travis

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the ideas, Travis. Our team has done something similar to #3 by reading a book together that speaks into a particular initiative and putting the new learning directly to use. Our planning meetings are so much more engaging and alive when we have the common language from an expert in the field to guide conversations and bring us back to key values when we got off track.

    • Uma Maheswaran S

      ” In God we trust.  In people we trust, but verify.”- I like it.

  • Caitlin Muir

    Read + Discern. Those seem to be vital habits to develop in a leader. And in anyone who works in media!

    • Uma Maheswaran S

      And, in auditing profession too, Muir.

  • Joe Lalonde

    You’ve presented some great ideas Bill!

    As for what new ideas are we implementing… We’re pushing hard for the youth leaders to take up a mantel of mentorship with 2-3 teens this year. The payoff could be huge if we properly implement this.

  • R. Irwin

    I have difficulty agreeing with your statement “But for it to reach its redemptive potential, it must be well-led. This means that those of us with leadership gifts have to step up and step it up.”  

    First, because my experience is that a posture of service is what “leads” the body.  The most well-directed and effective church bodies are those who’s leaders say “thank you for letting me serve” rather than this is the way to go, now follow.
    Second, because in my observation the greater challenge is not developing leaders, but finding people who are willing to make a commitment.  A role that requires commitment to lead seems to be viewed as confinement rather than a privilege.

  • Mary

    I would love to learn more about how one can actually change the culture of an organization; we were the youngest “old” couple at a church for nearly 10 years but finally left because we were so sick of the complaining, backbiting, etc.  I feel like we failed as my husband often led classes teaching the Bible.  It felt “wrong” to correct older people (and a lot of the worst offenders were much older).  As the weeks go by in a new church (an Andy Stanley strategic partner church) we are energized and growing.  But part of me feels like we should have stepped up to lead and effect change where we were.  I’m not sure how and I don’t want to be somewhere where I cluck my tongue and wag my finger at people.  I KNOW that’s not it!!

  • Ngina Otiende

    Thank you Bill.

    I am currently learning principle #2; not to take on much  too much too soon. Not just in tasks but also information! There is something like “over-saturation”.  I am learning to go for niche, calculated, focused information and try as much as possible to leave out the rabbit trails. I am making more progress that way!  

    thanks once again!

  • John Lambert

    I love to read.  I take in information from books, blogs, web sites, and podcasts.  Whatever I find useful I highlight in my Kindle for Mac or clip it into Evernote. 

    • Uma Maheswaran S

      I too have found highlighting very useful for future reference.

    • Jeff Randleman

      I agree.  I’m creating quite the file of quotes in Evernote.

  • Juan

    Some ideas are:
    – You own your destiny – Accountability.
    – You own your numbers/performance – Responsibility
    – Your customers are your customers – Leadership
    All good things come to those that decide to challenge the status QUO, that always look for the good and the better of things.

  • HDFlanagan

    The main idea I’m trying to embed right now is “Constantly question”. I think too many groups get off track or are unsuccessful because they’re not always questioning things like what is working and what isn’t, what do our logos say about us, what do our links convey, etc.

  • Jeff Randleman

    I know it’s cliche, and probably has already been mentioned, but leaders are readers…

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  • Ken Schulz

    I find that people for the most part are born as natural leaders. The find themselves in charge of the T-ball team or community group. What separates the trained and untrained leader starts with an understanding ot people; starting with themselves. Once that is figured out then a host of leadership skills can be built with a high degree of accuracy.

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  • Toronto Leadership Training

    The capacity of permanently absorbing ideas is a sign of an outstanding leader. Every company needs a strong and well versed leader to guide it on the steps of success. A better leader is always open to new ideas, because you don’t know when something revolutionary can be discovered. The steps you’ve mentioned can really help any good leader to become a great one.

  • Mi Muba

    The most relevant post for those bloggers who really want to rule the blogsphere by learning blogging and leadership simultanously so that no body can challenge them in their field and they may excel beyond the limits. Thanks for sharing

  • Soren Sjogren

    In my leadership I have always strived to gather information on new and other ways of doing things. Doing things right is a lot easier than continuously asking question on wether we are doing the right things. 

    Information is gathered from books, blogs and podcasts and the best ideas usually comes from other branches than my own (military). I always carry a notebook to catch the ideas as they occur. Nothing fancy; just pen and paper.