Robin Richmond Mason: Shooting the messenger

Robin Richmond Mason

What if someone asked a question that you didn't want to consider? What if they carefully shared a message that a deeper conflict existed, and you didn't want to stop and consider that possibility?

Imagine that the messenger was questioning a top down organizational structure. He might even suggest that greater stakeholder involvement could relate to higher levels of participation.

What if an opportunity for deep growth invited honest introspection? If such a hypothetical situation arose, you or I might consider the options of real reflection, after reacting to the immediate instinct to shoot the messenger.

This dilemma is not limited to our 2021 post-COVID-19 experiences. A painfully transparent historical record presents a perfect example.

In Jeremiah 38:17 we see the message and the messenger, when Jerusalem is in imminent danger of a Chaldean invasion. We read, "Then Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, Thus says the Lord God of hosts, the God of Israel, 'If you will indeed go out to the officers of the king of Babylon, then you will live, this city will not be burned with fire, and you and your household will survive.'"

In retrospect, that message seems plain enough but it was not what the ruler wanted to hear. Second Chronicles 36 tells us that Zedekiah began his regency at the age of 21 and that he reigned for 11 years. During his term, messengers brought suggestions and counsel. Some of the messengers, like Jeremiah, were seasoned and faithful servants. It took great courage for them to speak.

Zedekiah's cabinet and cohort resisted outside input. The problem was that the messages challenged the status quo. They asked for depth instead of breadth, and invited structural analysis. Verse 16 of that chapter gives us a glimpse of the shooting range where the messengers and their messages landed. "But they (the leadership) continually mocked the messengers of God, despised his words, and scoffed at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against his people, until there was no remedy."

The consequences for Zedekiah manipulating people and variables for predetermined outcomes began as decline and ended in disaster. The economy tanked, defenses were destroyed, human trafficking shifted into overdrive and Zedekiah along with his whole family were captured by enemy forces.

Remember that Jeremiah had offered advice that promised life. Zedekiah had rallied his like-minded counselors, stiffened his resolve, blocked Jeremiah on social media and turned off the incoming mail function.

The resulting tragedy is illustrated in Jeremiah 39:6-7. I have read this narrative many times, but it was only in 2021 that I realized the age of Zedekiah when the consequences of his choice concluded. Beginning in verse 6 of chapter 39, we read, "The king of Babylon slew the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes at Riblah:" Verse 7 continues, "He then blinded Zedekiah's eyes and bound him in fetters of bronze to bring him to Babylon. The Chaldeans also burned with fire the king's palace and the houses of the people and broke down the walls of Jerusalem." Zedekiah died a short time later.

In 2021 I combined the books of Jeremiah and Chronicles to realize that Zedekiah was not a stalwart, middle-aged, military veteran. He was a young man, no more than 33, and those boys that were killed as he watched were children. The gruesome scene of their deaths was the last image that Zedekiah ever saw.

Choices have consequences, wounded messengers can be ignored but innocent people are hurt by the actions of leaders, and organizational potential is stifled.

Perhaps we need a contemporary, theoretical leadership model to analyze the dynamics of "How the messenger, Jeremiah, was shot trying to contribute."

Bruce Tuckman is credited with the Form, Storm, Norm, Perform model of Team Growth. I studied this model first, during my doctoral coursework. It has been a priceless paradigm to me for decades of servant/leadership.

In 2021 we find the classic model being applied by Greg Coker, of Greg Coker Development, right here in the Commonwealth (Kentucky). Greg maintains that the Form, Storm, Norm, Perform stages are not only predictable, but necessary and inevitable, for a team or organization to achieve peak performance.

Greg testifies to the fact that he has used this model in a variety of settings and continues to be amazed at its far-reaching applications. The following is his brief explanation of each stage.

Stage 1: Form

Individual behavior is typically driven by a desire to be accepted by others and avoid controversy or conflict. Individuals gather information and make initial impressions about each other. The form stage is important as team members have a chance to get to know each other, exchange personal information and establish relationships.

Leadership focus: High task, high relationship.

Stage 2: Storm

Most teams will eventually encounter conflict where personal agendas are revealed and interpersonal hostility is generated. If successfully managed, this period of storming leads to a new and more realistic setting of objectives, procedures and norms.

The storm stage is necessary to the growth of the team. It can be contentious, unpleasant and even painful to members of the team who are averse to conflict. Tolerance of each team member and the appreciation of differences should be encouraged.

Leadership focus: High task, low relationship.

Stage 3: Norm

At this stage, team norms, common practices, policies and procedures start to emerge. How decisions are made, the degree of openness, trust and confidence are established. Team commitment builds during this key transitional stage.

Leadership focus: High relationship, low task.

Stage 4: Perform

Only when the three previous stages have been successfully completed will the team be able to achieve true peak performance. Even the most high-performing teams can and do revert to earlier stages in certain circumstances (new leadership, introduction and/or exodus of team members, crisis situations, frequent change).

Leadership focus: Low task, low relationship.

Both mine and Greg's work agree that the greatest value of this model is simply knowing where we are, where we need to go and the potential we have in achieving the maximum outcomes for an organization.

Does that realization apply to a kingdom in ancient times as well as a modern nation and communities of faith in 2021? The COVID-19 disruption, like other transitions, offers a chance for significant growth, or in the case of Zedekiah, we can ignore the message, shoot the messenger and suffer blindness.

Robin Richmond Mason grew up in the Beaverdale community of Whitfield County. She resides with her husband and four children in Paint Lick, Kentucky, and teaches at Eastern Kentucky University. She can be reached via email to beaverdalecol

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