Leadership Lessons from the Disastrous Children’s Crusade

Jake Wilder
3 min readNov 3, 2022

Vision without Strategy is a Recipe for Failure

Photo: iStock

“Charisma is the result of effective leadership, not the other way around,” wrote Warren Bennis. Yet too often we confuse these traits. We’re trained to see people and organizations in terms of their charm. We idolize leaders who offer bold visions and instinctively seem to follow the most dominant person in the room, even though there’s no correlation between being a good talker and having good ideas.

To see the disastrous effects of this, and of having bold visions with no means of accomplishing them, consider the infamous Children’s Crusade.

It began in 1212 when a young French shepherd, Stephen of Cloyes, had a vision of a group of children traveling to Jerusalem to win back the Holy Land. He began preaching his vision to crowds of people, telling everyone that Jesus had called on him for this divine mission. Word of Stephen’s vision also inspired a twelve-year-old German boy named Nicholas. Encouraged by his father, Nicholas similarly recruited German children for the crusade. People were impressed with their passion, eloquence, and the strength of the vision. Soon, they gathered tens of thousands of supporters, emptied village after village of children, and set off on their journey in high spirits, chanting hymns, and confident of their eventual victory.

Unfortunately, none would make it to Jerusalem and only a few would survive to return home.

Stephen’s group believed that when they reached the Mediterranean, the sea would part for them as it did for Moses. When this failed to happen, they found some merchants to ferry them across. Two ships wrecked, killing Stephen and everyone on board. The merchants took the remaining ships to Egypt, instead of Palestine, and sold all of the children into slavery.

Of Nicholas’s group, thousands died of hunger and exposure on their trek across the Alps. Of the few that reached Rome, most decided to return home. Even less made it back. When the parents of the dead children eventually learned their fate, they dragged Nicholas’s father out of his house and hanged him.

It’s important to have a compelling vision and to effectively communicate it if you want to lead change. It’s a critical…

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Jake Wilder

I don’t know where I’m going. But at least I know how to get there.