40,000 College Students and One Great Reminder


This past New Year’s was a first for me. It wasn’t the first time I fell asleep before midnight on New Year’s Eve. (That’s the norm since children became a part of our family.) It wasn’t the first time I’ve been out of town over New Year’s Eve. But it was the first time I spent New Year’s Eve asleep before midnight, out of town, and prepping to spend the next four days as a volunteer. In late 2015, my wife and I decided that we’d kick off the new year by volunteering at Passion 2016. Passion Conferences are gatherings of 18 to 25 year olds (aka college students) specifically for the purpose of their spiritual development. Attendance at this year’s Passion Conference: 40,000. A small army of more than 1,000 volunteers was utilized to pull off the multi-day event. As a member of that army, I had the opportunity to observe some of Passion 2016’s behind-the-scenes leadership. As I did, I was reminded of an important leadership practice that is often neglected when the pressure and pace of leadership increases.

Why Time

It was t-minus 10 hours before the arena would be full of excited college students. Less than half a day until over a year’s worth of planning would come to fruition. Having led some events with long-lead times, I know the feeling of that moment well. There are a thousand details racing through your mind and no time for chit chat. It is last-minute, all-hands-on-deck, “just get it done” time. In spite of that, Passion 2016’s leaders paused. Instead of sending their volunteers as quickly as possible into the teams in which they would be serving, they invested 30 minutes to remind everyone why the event existed in the first place. Their emphasis wasn’t on the need for precision and detail or for lock-step adherence to instructions. Instead they painted a picture of the potential impact the event could have within the lives of those who would attend.

Think about not only the timing of that meeting — just 600 minutes before open doors — but the magnitude of it. With more than 1,000 volunteers in attendance, their 30-minute vision-casting meeting consumed more than 500 hours of volunteer time. Instead of investing that time in to do’s, the leaders of Passion 2016 prioritized focusing on a vision that nearly every volunteer had previously heard. I can say from personal experience, that 30 minutes shaped how I thought about and conducted myself as a volunteer.

Later that evening, a mere 45 minutes before go-live, I sat in the back of the dining area listening to the Production Manager address his team. There were about 25 people in the room. As the doors occasionally swung open, you could feel the activity in the hallway picking up. The energy in the arena was rising. Our venue, the Toyota Center in Houston, was beginning to fill with college students.

At this point, it’s important to understand a bit about the technical side of the event. Passion 2016 was attempting to do something rare. The event was taking place simultaneously at three different venues connected to each other through fiber optic cable. They weren’t going to simply broadcast a signal to all three locations; they were going to have people on stage at each venue interacting with each other in real-time. (In fact, in what I’m guessing was their most technically ambitious endeavor of the entire event, a song on the second day was performed simultaneously by three rappers, each of whom was at a different venue.) This was a technically difficult production. But our Production Manager didn’t send his team out with last minute reminders about the idiosyncrasies of fiber optics or a request for top notch performance. Instead, he focused on the potential life-changing impact of the messages they were about to broadcast. He reminded the production team that they would be using light (fiber optics) to broadcast light (the content of event’s messages) into the lives of those in attendance.

If You Want Optimal Results...Pause

In the end, Passion 2016 was a supreme success. It raised over $780,000 to build a hospital and buy medical supplies for displaced Syrians. It also created a unique experience and delivered meaningful messages of hope and redemption that its attendees won’t soon forget. And it wouldn’t have accomplished what it did without the full engagement of its volunteers.

It is understandable that, in moments of intense execution, we are tempted to bypass the time and effort required to remind those we lead of the why’s behind what we are doing. It makes sense that the pressure and urgency of getting things done often feels more important than taking the time to review the big picture. But just because something is understandable and makes sense doesn’t mean its the best leadership move.

The concept of pausing doesn’t come naturally to many leaders. Prioritizing the time to talk about something that we’ve (hopefully) already covered may feel unnecessary and even wasteful to some. But when you consider the value of engagement, motivation, and clarity of purpose within your followers, it isn’t.

Nothing we lead, no matter how big or small, can reach its maximum potential without the full engagement of those we lead. Pausing to communicate the big picture why's of our endeavors is a great practice for those who wish to lead well and accomplish much.

Stay tuned next week for another leadership lesson from inner workings of Houston’s Toyota Center at Passion 2016.

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