CNLP 434: Steve Carter on Leaving Willow Creek, What Crisis Taught Him as a Millennial Leader, and Why Character Matters So Much

In 2018, Steve Carter was one of the named successors to Bill Hybels at Willow Creek. At 38, he was poised to become the senior pastor of one of the largest and most influential churches in America.

Steve talks about the devastating revelations about the ongoing abuse that had been happening under his predecessor’s leadership, leaving Willow Creek, what crisis taught him as a young leader, and why character matters so much.

Welcome to Episode 434 of the podcast. Listen and access the show notes below or search for the Carey Nieuwhof Leadership Podcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts and listen for free.

Plus, in this episode’s What I’m Thinking About segment, Carey talks about why we keep seeing so much moral failure in leaders.

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Conversation Links

The Thing Beneath the Thing by Steve Carter

The Thing Beneath the Thing Website

Didn’t See It Coming by Carey Nieuwhof

Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Pete Scazzero

Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard

Ten Signs of a Leadership Crash by Stephen Mansfield

Willow Creek Community Church

The Home Team Podcast

CNLP 230: Pete Scazzero on Why So Many Successful Leaders Are Emotionally Immature, How to Tell Whether That’s You, and How to Become Emotionally Intelligent and Spiritually Mature

Some Thoughts on Why Megachurch Pastors Keep Falling by Carey Nieuwhof

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Insights From Steve

1. It’s easy for your competency to outpace your character

Nobody wakes up one day and decides to blow up their life and leadership. But leaders end up doing it all the time. Why does this keep happening?

Carey and Steve agree that it’s too easy for your competency and your platform to outgrow your character as a leader. When that happens, you can easily begin to slide into behaviors and tendencies that lead to moral failure and burnout. To fight against this, work twice as hard on your character as you do on your competency.

2. Take the time to grieve your losses

Leadership can be a series of ungrieved losses. Steve experienced this first hand in the fall of 2018 after being named Bill Hybels’ successor, and being completely shocked when the scandal of Bill’s misconduct broke.

Steve’s natural reaction would have been to perform his way out of that difficult season, but God told him, “You can’t achieve your way out of this. You can only grieve your way through it.” Sometimes, as a leader, the only way to move forward is to grieve your losses.

3. You need to get down to the T.H.I.N.G. beneath the thing

In 2008, Steve had a very irrational overreaction to something in his life. When he admitted it to his mentor, his mentor told him that he needs to figure out what the “thing” is beneath that thing. His irrational actions were being caused by something underneath, and Steve needed to figure out what that was.

Since then, Steve has built out an acronym for finding the T.H.I.N.G. beneath the thing, and outlines it in his new book here. The acronym stands for triggers, hideouts, insecurity, narratives and grace. Through learning this framework, you’ll become better at understanding your deeper motivations and tendencies as a leader.

Quotes from Episode 434

We push competency again and again over the development of our character. @steveryancarter Click To Tweet The violation of trust is one of the single-most hardest things to restore and rebuild. @steveryancarter Click To Tweet Sometimes success can take you places that character cannot sustain you. – @DaveChappelle Click To Tweet Unless you're in the kingdom of God, power flows up. – @AndyStanley Click To Tweet No matter how hard you try, you can't escape you. Click To Tweet Grace is opposed to earning, but it's never opposed to effort. – Dallas Willard Click To Tweet Leaders have to be quicker to saying that they were wrong. @steveryancarter Click To Tweet The ability not to defend and try to preserve is really hard if you've had any modicum of success along the way. Click To Tweet Another worst spot for any young leader to ever be in is when you have all the influence, but with no actual authority. @steveryancarter Click To Tweet Unless you're able to really interrogate the decisions you make, you can gamify anything. @steveryancarter Click To Tweet And I realized, ‘If I can't do the desert well, I'll never be able to do the promised land well.’ @steveryancarter Click To Tweet Why did I do what I did? Simply because I had a value of integrity, I thought it should be handled differently, and I just wanted to actually support what I felt like the women were bravely doing. @steveryancarter Click To Tweet When crisis comes, you have to change adversity into an opportunity. It will be an opportunity for your brokenness to be more exposed, or it will be an opportunity for you to demonstrate the kind of person you truly are. @steveryancarter Click To Tweet Forget lead well, just be well. Just be well and out of being well, you will lead well. Click To Tweet Grace is what makes us whole, holy, and spiritually healthy. @steveryancarter Click To Tweet When we are well, we're better leaders, we're better followers. @steveryancarter Click To Tweet You can easily create a world, particularly when things grow, where nobody challenges you. Click To Tweet To help you win, your friends have to call out your sin, and so does your team. Click To Tweet Pedestals are about ego and adulation. Platforms are designed to be shared and used for the benefit of others Click To Tweet If you start to really sense that you're entitled to leadership, you've stayed too long. Click To Tweet Live in a way that the people closest to you become the most grateful for you. Click To Tweet

Read or Download the Transcript for Episode 434

Looking for a key quote? More of a reader?

Read or download a free PDF transcript of this episode here.

Interested to Know Where You Stand?

In difficult times it’s so easy to step into a cynical attitude (or full-on lifestyle). Are you heading that direction? Are you already there? Take the Cynicism Quiz below to see where you might be. To learn more about the antidote to cynicism, check out the chapters on cynicism in Didn’t See it Coming.

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Next Episode: Jean Twenge

Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, is a global leader in generation research.

She talks about the big spike in anxiety, depression, suicide and other mental health challenges she and other researchers noticed a decade ago, something she ties to the widespread adoption of smartphones. We explore what that means for Gen Z (or iGen) and for leaders and employers.

Subscribe for free now so you won’t miss Episode 435.

CNLP 434: Steve Carter on Leaving Willow Creek, What Crisis Taught Him as a Millennial Leader, and Why Character Matters So Much


  1. Dr. Harlyn Purdy on August 10, 2021 at 9:40 am

    Thank you, this interview was very helpful!! Words were given to a number of senses that have been muddling around in my head and heart. This will help me end well and pass the torch in a constructive and positive way.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on August 10, 2021 at 7:17 pm

      So thankful to hear that Harlyn. Our prayer is that this would be constructive and helpful.

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