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Colin Powell inspires with leadership speech at global summit in South Barrington

Retired Army Gen. ColPowell former Secretary State speaks during Global Leadership Summit Willow Creek Community Church South BarringtThursday. Aug. 8.

Retired Army Gen. Colin Powell, former Secretary of State, speaks during the Global Leadership Summit at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington on Thursday. Aug. 8. | John Konstantaras~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 8, 2013 2:39AM

The most effective leaders are the ones who never forget the followers.

That was a key theme in former U.S. Secretary of State and retired Army General Colin Powell’s message Thursday, Aug. 8, at the Willow Creek Association’s Global Leadership Summit 2013.

The summit, which continues Friday at the South Barrington church campus, reaches 8,000 attendees at the church and another 75,000 each day at satellite locations, church officials said.

Additionally, it is being recorded, and ultimately will reach people in more than 100 countries and in 45 languages.

Powell grew up in the South Bronx and attended public schools in New York City, including the City College of New York.

He attended basic training at Fort Benning in the early 1950s, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended the unequal application of voter registrations that had effectively barred many African-Americans from voting.

Powell said he learned early that leaders who fail to inspire — and who fail to grasp the importance of cultivating excellence in their followers — won’t succeed.

“Even though I may be the leader, I’m not the one getting it done,” Powell said. “You get nowhere without followers who want to follow you.

“In the military, it’s the soldiers who go up the hill after we’ve prepared them for battle.”

After addressing the audience solo, Powell sat on the stage of the church’s vast arena with Senior Pastor and Willow Creek founder Bill Hybels, who opened the summit Thursday morning with his own address. Hybels talked with Powell about race, about leadership styles and about proverbs that Powell has employed in his career. Powell said the military was progressive in terms of race issues before civilian life was.

“Fort Benning was great,” he said. “But Columbus then was a segregated city.”

He noted that when he became a brigade commander, some questioned whether it was because of affirmative action rather than on account of ability.

“I told them that if I’m a good brigade commander, I don’t care how I got it,” Powell said. “My job is to take advantage of the opportunity. I think America has changed dramatically ... but we still have a long way to go.”

He called education the great equalizer.

“A city or a state has nothing more important to do in the world than to educate the next generation of youngsters,” Powell said.

Among the axioms Hybels touched on that have been important to Powell was “It’ll look different in the morning.”

“It’s not necessarily a prediction,” Powell said. “It’s an attitude. It’s an aspiration. When my troops are looking at me, or when my staff is looking at me and they’re saying ‘Oh my God,’ I say ‘Hey, it’s going to be better. You know why it’s going to be better? Because we’re going to make it better.’”

In his address, Hybels urged the audience to follow Joshua’s prayer: to be strong and courageous, and not to be stymied by fear because God would be with them.

Fear of failure must be overcome, he said, lest life-changing, life-saving ideas and visions never come to fruition.

Putting off tough decisions, such as assessing an organization’s employment culture or terminating employees when necessary, only prolongs the agony. It also weakens a leader’s standing among his or her followers, Hybels said.

“People join organizations,” he said. “They leave managers.”

Bryan Kidd, an employee at Hoffman Estates-based Sears, said Hybels’ messages always strike a chord.

“He’s encountered a lot of challenges and circumstances and he’s able to bring that to fellow leaders and impart his wisdom and help them in their journey,” said Kidd, a Willow Creek parishioner from Lake Zurich.

Crystal Lake resident Mary Cave and her daughter, Liz, also attended.

“I have a passion and a heart for leadership,” said Liz, 23. “I knew this would be the fire I needed to get me going in life.”

Hoffman Estates resident John Chiong said he found Powell’s message to be exceptional.

Chiong, a Chinese-American, said he is impressed by Powell’s career and charisma. He said Powell’s focus on education was on point.

“I think most important is that he’s trying to make sure everyone has a good education,” Chiong said. “Especially if you’re a minority and you want to raise yourself up in our society, you have to get a good education.”

Other scheduled speakers at the summit include Mark Burnett, executive producer of “Survivor,” “The Voice,” “The Apprentice,” “Shark Tank,” and the Emmy-nominated “The Bible” mini-series; Patrick Lencioni, founder and president of the Table Group and best-selling author; and Brené Brown, University of Houston research professor.

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