Be Careful What You Wish For

On Sunday mornings at my church, I’m currently teaching a class called “The Story of the Church” where we look each week at what our brothers and sisters in Christ have been doing since the close of the New Testament.

We’ve seen some good days and some not so good days and we’ve definitely seen a whole host of leaders march across the stage of Christian history in the process.

Last week, we took a look at the Crusades. While I won’t go into all the (bloody) details, I will mention just a few of the disasters left in the wake of the Crusades:

  • The massacre of Jews in the Rhineland
  • The wholesale slaughter of men, women, and children as the Christians entered Jerusalem
  • Intensification of the split between the Eastern and Western church

And it all started with a sermon.

Well, perhaps that is a bit of an understatement.  The history leading up to the Crusades is nearly as messy as the Crusades themselves.  But Pope Urban II’s sermon seems to have been a tipping point.

Christianity Today reports his words as follows: “A horrible tale has gone forth. An accursed race utterly alienated from God … has invaded the lands of the Christians and depopulated them by the sword, plundering, and fire.” In his “altar call” he plead, “Tear that land from the wicked race and subject it to yourselves.”

And his listeners set out to do just that…for several hundred years.

Was that what Pope Urban II had intended? I suppose we cannot read his mind from our viewpoint and I’m not even sure that with hindsight we can see with 20/20 vision in this case.

But I think as leaders, Pope Urban II’s story leaves us with a heavy burden.  We must be careful what we ask our followers to do. It can be easy to underestimate the influence of mere words when our title, position, actions, or character have granted us the trust of followers, listeners, or employees.

We have the power to shape the culture of our organizations, businesses, and teams.  Research from Edgar Schein says that a leader has several (embedding and structural) mechanisms for shaping culture among those mechanisms:
•    Attention
•    Reaction to crises
•    Role modeling
•    Criteria for allocating rewards
•    Criteria for selection & dismissal
•    Stories, statements, and rituals

Our stories and statements help to shape the culture where we serve. And as leaders, we must carefully consider all of the implications of an action we ask our followers to take. We carry a heavy responsibility as we call people to action.

As Schein has pointed out, sometimes we don’t even need words to call people to action.  The ideas that gain our attention or our rewards, the things we measure and evaluate, the things we model for others.  All of these actions send a signal that these are the things we want people to do. We are calling people to action. Even if we never open our mouths.

And the results can be long-lasting.

So be careful what you wish for.

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Emily Row Prevost

Director of Leadership Development at East Texas Baptist University

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