Willow Creek Community Church's 20th annual Global Leadership Summit begins in South Barrington Thursday -- an event which has evolved and expanded immensely since its relatively humble start in 1995.
Among the summit's "faculty" this year will be filmmaker, actor and philanthropist Tyler Perry; General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt; and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.
Steve Bell, executive vice president of Willow Creek Association, was there from the beginning, and has been a key organizer of the now truly worldwide summit.
While the first summit attracted 2,200 people, this year's will have more than 9,300 visitors and 7,000 volunteers at the church's South Barrington campus. Satellite broadcasts will be held in 108 countries, 450 cities, and translated into 50 different languages.
It all began with the vision of Willow Creek Senior Pastor Bill Hybels, who's an annual speaker at the event, Bell said.
"When Bill Hybels first had the idea in the mid-'90s, he realized leadership development isn't something that's often talked about in local churches," Bell said. "Bill Hybels has said, 'If a leader gets better, everyone wins.'"
Though Willow Creek Church and the summit it hosts are unapologetically Christian, not every speaker has been Christian or pitched his or her presentation on leadership for a churchgoing audience. An overarching theme for each year's summit also is avoided.
"We don't want leaders to force their area of expertise through a grid," Bell said.
About 15 months of planning and preparation go into each year's event. Because the summit has a large percentage of returning visitors each year, new content is always promised.
Organizers aim for diversity of age, gender and ethnicity when seeking speakers. They open up the summit to those who've led in government, sports, media, the church, academics or any other area.
The summit mostly highlights people who've actually led, though sometimes there are academics who've done research on leadership, Bell said.
Just about the only leaders that aren't included are those who don't know how to analyze or speak about how they lead. And even some of the best leaders in the world can fall into that category, Bell said.
"We're always trying to find leaders who are remarkable and can talk about it," he added.
Having hosted leaders such as former President Bill Clinton and former U.S. secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, the reputation of the summit is making it easier to explain what it's about to potential speakers.
Perry, for instance, was convinced of the summit's legitimacy and impact by former speaker T.D. Jakes, bishop of The Potter's House, another nondenominational megachurch.
"This thing matters," Bell said. "It has a wide reach."
He and other organizers have been surprised by how wide a reach the summit is attaining overseas. There are now satellite locations in even past and present communist nations such as Russia and Cuba.
"We've never forced our way into anyplace worldwide," Bell said. "We're responding to invitations."
About the best thing Bell has heard about the summit is how motivating it's been for many of its visitors. He's heard from leaders who attended out of a sense of desperation, feeling like they were at the end of their missions, but who walked out inspired with a new fire inside themselves.
Attending the event as a team has always seemed to carry the greatest benefit, Bell said. People who regularly work together -- like the Willow Creek staff -- have adopted the phrases and terminology of summit speakers as a verbal shorthand to communicate ideas more effectively.
And it really all comes back to Hybels' original idea -- that if leaders are getting better, everyone is getting better, Bell said. The summit runs through Friday afternoon.