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Do You Really Understand Influence? Try Learning From Google

I’m not an expert on Google or anything. I’ve never studied their corporate culture, read any books about them or even met anyone who works there. But I’ve been fascinated by them, ever since my friend Greg told me in 1998 that there was an unusually good new search engine available and that it was likely to take over.

And my very, very cheap-seat view of this extraordinarily successful company has given me a few leadership lessons.

Here are three of them, with a bit of application to church leadership thrown in.

1. Worldwide influence requires world-class intelligence.

The reason Google went from nobodies in an online world stuffed full of new ideas to dominant market leaders in five years, and a globally recognized verb within 10 years, is because their algorithm was better than everyone else’s.

It wasn’t because they spent millions on advertising or got particularly high-profile endorsements (when did you last see a TV ad for Google?), but because their search engine found a way of returning the results you wanted, rather than—as used to be the case with its competitors—a random smorgasbord of words and concepts vaguely related to what you typed in.

The reason their algorithm was better than everyone else’s was because they figured out how to do something that nobody else had worked out how to do. And the reason they figured it out is because they were founded by, and then started recruiting, extremely intelligent people. To this day, they continue to hire the best and the brightest, paying them huge salaries, to keep ahead of the game.

Being known and followed by everyone else is much easier if you’re cleverer than everyone else.

Personally, I think the significance of this, which is obviously not something that we needed Google to prove, is not always grasped by those seeking to reach people with the gospel. Make a list of Christian leaders in previous centuries whose influence touched the known world—Jesus, Paul, Justin Martyr, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Basil, Athanasius, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Edwards, Carey, Spurgeon, Barth, Bonhoeffer and so on—and you’ll notice that they were all extremely intelligent people (whether they had the equivalent of University degrees, as most of them did, or not).

The speed at which information flows around the world today has made this even more important because the known world is bigger, and the geographical constraints that applied to intellectual influence in previous generations have been virtually eliminated. Clearly, this does not for a moment imply that any moral or spiritual superiority is conferred by having a quick mind (and there are plenty of biblical texts that would seem to pull in the opposite direction!).

It does imply, though, that global influence—which for better or worse is something that many churches and denominations aspire to—requires global thinkers. Ideas travel top-down, not bottom-up.

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Andrew Wilson is an elder at Kings Church in Eastbourne, runs training courses within the Newfrontiers family of churches, and is studying for a PhD in Theology at King’s College London. He has written several books, including most recently If God Then What?