Leadership & Ministry Lessons from a World War One German Officer (Part 5)

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When you lead people into battle, there are going to be times of intense stress and anxiety. One of the things Captain Von Schell was good at was finding ways to put his soldiers at ease when their lives were on the line,

“I noticed that my men were uneasy; they were now waiting for the shell that would fall in the middle of the house…We waited together. This waiting and this uncertainty made us nervous. We sat int he house and listened for every shell. We could tell exactly whether it was too short or too long, whether it would fall to our right or to our left. Finally the following thought came to me: ‘The walls of this house are very thick, in fact about a yard. If a shell bursts outside the house and we are in it, nothing can happen to us. If, however, a shell bursts in the house, then it would be better to be outside. Therefore, the best thing toi do is to sit in the door and watch the shells. We can tell where they are going and we will be in a position to go either into the house or out of it.’ So I sat down on a chair in the door and was soon perfectly satisfied-so satisfied, in fact, that I went to sleep. This action on my part calmed my men to such an extent that they began to play cards. After a few hours the firing ceased.

You may laugh at my action in this case I too am ready to laugh at it. My conviction at that time was nonsense. One cannot decide whether a shell will land three or four yards to the right or to the left. I have only mentioned the point to illustrate that it makes no difference whether or not the security is real; it is simply a question of feeling that it is.” (p.15)

He couldn’t tell if a shell was going to land in the house or outside the house and yet the very fact that his men knew he was “on it” was enough for them to relax. Here is another example of putting his men at ease,

“The shells continued to fall around our shed. No one said a word. I noticed that my men were highly nervous…Suddenly a shell came down right in the middle of the company, but it failed to burst. Nerves were frayed almost to the breaking point…In order to obtain a feeling of security somebody had to act. Then I had a good thought; I called the company barber, sat down with my back to the front and told him to cut my hair. I must say, that in my whole life, no haircut has ever been so unpleasant. Every time a shell whistled over our heads, I jerked my head down and the barber would tear out a few hairs instead of cutting them. But the effect was splendid; the soldiers evidently felt that if the company commander could sit quietly and let his hair be cut that the situation was not so bad, and that they were probably safer than they thought. Conversation began; a few jokes were played; several men began to play cards; someone began to sing; no one paid any more attention to the shells.

Two points stand out in this incident: Instill a sense of security in the men; by doing so you will help them overcome their fears. Do something to induce action among them.” (p.16-17)

I feel a tension here because it seems like a lot of Christianity today plays it safe. We don’t get on the front line that often. We shelter people from it. We professionalize it so much so that it seems only the high ranking officers are involved in the war. We don’t want to put people at risk. We don’t want to do anything dangerous. We don’t want people to get hurt. So we stay far from the battle lines. There is no anxiety to alleviate other than if we sing songs don’t like or we pass communion wrong. Where are we leading people? Are we in the fight? Are they in the fight? Before we have to worry about how to relieve the battlefield anxiety, we first have to be taking people on the battlefield!

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