The first dimension of thought leadership is vision. This is the ability to see what others cannot, observing opportunities that lie ahead and articulating them for those who are prepared to follow and take action.
One individual who exemplifies the power of the visionary view is Rick Warren, author of the
best-selling book, The Purpose-Driven Life. His 23,000-member Saddleback Church, based in Lake Forest, Calif., has grown tremendously over the past quarter century. But it's the growth of Warren's personal influence that is particularly interesting.
The power of this influence was most clearly on display during the recent presidential election when both John McCain and Barack Obama agreed to sit down with Warren during a "civil forum." Both candidates were questioned by Warren for an hour apiece — an unprecedented format that reflected the candidates' desire to appeal to the vast evangelical Christian following that Warren has attracted.
Warren first demonstrated his power as a thought leader in the mid 1990s. His Purpose-Driven Ministries non-profit was attracting pastors who wanted to hear his insights for growing successful churches and congregations.
Having been influenced by the work of business thinkers such as Peter Drucker, Tom Peters and Jim Collins, Warren had unique and compelling views about organizing, promoting and building churches. His conferences were attracting 3,000 or 4,000 ministers at a time and his 1995 manual The Purpose Driven Church sold more than one million units.
His following rose to a whole other level with the release of The Purpose-Driven Life in 2002, a book that has sold nearly 30 million copies. As Time Magazine recently put it, he is "unquestionably the U.S.'s most influential and highest-profile churchman. He is a natural leader, a pathological schmoozer, insatiably curious and often the smartest person in the room."
Warren's influence, quite clearly, has been built on an array of communications media that have global reach in our networked era. Saddleback Church has a web-site, PurposeDriven.com, to help instruct individuals in Warren's principles, provide curriculum and to communicate and coordinate the community. In fact, the church has trained over
400,000 ministers and priests worldwide in his
theology and practical methods. Saddleback's weekly newsletter, Ministry Toolbox, has a subscribership of 189,000 church leaders.
Warren's vision now is directed at an extraordinarily ambitious project to mobilize Christians to fight poverty, illiteracy and AIDS worldwide. Five years ago, he devised what he calls the PEACE plan, "a bid to turn every single Christian church on earth into a provider of local health care, literacy and economic development, leadership training and spiritual growth," states Time.
But none of this happened overnight. It was Warren's long-term vision
that drove his ministry's growth and has attracted so many disciples. "Most people make two common mistakes," he told Fortune Magazine a few years ago. "We set our goals too low, and we try to accomplish them too quickly."
Warren explains that he is 25 years into a 40 year commitment to lead his ministry. He's thinking big picture and he's thinking big ideas, but his time horizon stretches out deep into the future. While he's not done serving his purpose, Warren shows how powerful ideas — effectively communicated — can turn a noble vision into a striking reality.