On one hand, the good news is that everything turns out okay for us at the end of the Megillah — a fine installment of “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.” However, I cannot help but think that there is a lot more in that Megillah than a simple “Phew, we narrowly escaped that attempt at annihilation.” The personalities of the main characters seem almost caricature-like: The beautiful queen, the evil nemesis, the bumbling king, the heroic saint. It’s clear that it makes for rich fodder for dress-up, spiels, and comic relief. But what does it all mean?
The good news is that there is no shortage of interpretations and approaches to the central text of the holiday of Purim, the Megillah, a.k.a. the Book of Esther. There are numerous articles, commentaries, even complete books offering a broad range of approaches or “lenses” into this section of scripture. Some see in it a pointed Persian satire, others a sober object lesson in Machiavellian political intrigue. For still others the Megillah is a feminist treatise on finding one’s voice. Then there are those for whom the Book of Esther is a powerful lesson in Providence and Jewish destiny. All good.
Seeing as our saga centers around some critical leadership moves, let’s get practical. In this day and age of mass proliferation of how-to books, journals, and seminars on leadership, let’s do it: Let’s get in that Megillah and siphon out some hardcore leadership takeaways.
Think you’re not leader? Think again. Every one of us is a leader. Yes, that’s right. Once upon a time, I thought that was ridiculous. I scorned campaigns that would promote whole institutional leadership training. I would wonder, Who are the followers if we are all leading? Ah, then I became a Steven Covey devotee. We each lead by virtue of our actions. Picture this scenario: Walking down the street, you see litter and pick it up. Others are watching. You’re a leader. So no opting out here. There is a leader in each of us.
Where to begin? Some say the true test of a leader’s mettle is crisis management. See under: Mayor Bloomberg response to 2010 Christmas blizzard, or consider CEO Tony Hayward, BP oil spill control. Crisis can either make or break you. As luck would have it, there is no shortage of crisis in our humble scroll. So on we go to our crash course “Megillah Management Manual: Learning to Lead from Mayhem and Madness.”
As the Megillah dramatically unfurls, crisis after crisis, calamity after calamity presents itself to our central characters. From being summoned, to loss of power, to impending annihilation, Shushan becomes catastrophe central. How do our crisis-besot leaders behave?
The Vashti Chronicles: Let the carnival begin. Or not. Mikhail Bakhtin teaches that through the carnival and carnivalesque, a “world upside-down” is created, and ideas and truths are endlessly tested and contested. Our opening extravaganza fits this genre, setting the scene for resistance to authority and the place where cultural and potentially political change can take place. This was not happening for our Vashti. In her moment of crisis, her leadership mode of choice is uncompromising and proves to be self-destructive. While we applaud her pithy insubordination, her one step too far is her own undoing. She refuses to appear and the vanquished Vashti becomes history.
Achashverosh the Flamboyant Flimflammer: Frank Bruni, in his recent New York Times Op-Ed, “The Land of Binge,” makes a perceptive connection between excessive indulgences and extreme political stances. He writes, “America these days is an immoderate land of fixed opinions and outsized fixations.” Gluttony is all-pervasive, as is extremism. Welcome to Shushan:
The king made a feast unto all the people that were present in Shushan the castle, both great and small, seven days, in the court of the garden of the king’s palace; there were hangings of white, fine cotton, and blue, bordered with cords of fine linen and purple, upon silver rods and pillars of marble; the couches were of gold and silver, upon a pavement of green, and white, and shell, and onyx marble. And they gave them drink in vessels of gold — the vessels being diverse one from another — and royal wine in abundance, according to the bounty of the king.
This extreme excess is soon matched with extreme evil. And our king flimflams his way through the crises. The Achashverosh leadership legacy? Buffoonery.
This leads us to Haman, the archetypal tyrant, familiar to many and loved by none. Megalomaniacal, autocratic, power hungry, diabolical — you name it. These traits are driven by self-advancement disguised as idealism for the masses. These are the leaders who capitalize on racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and nationalistic insecurities solely for their own promotion. Who can count of all history’s leaders who fall into this category? Let us not forget even those close by, on the smaller scale of leadership who embody these Haman characteristics — watch out!
Which brings us to Mordechai. He is the unyielding archetype of civil disobedience, the ancient model of the modern community organizer, our up-stander par excellence. He refuses to bow. He demonstrates at the gate of the palace in sackcloth and ashes. Rosa Parks, Gandhi, Natan Sharansky, Mohamed Bouazizi. They lead by passionate resistance. To be a success, John Bell in his piece “Crisis Management: The Ultimate Test of a Leader” suggests that a leader must have these five traits in place: The right values and beliefs, inherent courage, preparedness, good communication skills, and absolute dedication to “company” culture. Mordechai scores on all points.
Esther, the star of our story, is the accidental leader par excellence. She is reluctant and cautious to act, never having imagined herself as a leader. It takes Mordechai’s nudging to get her going. Yet she rises to the occasion, embodying the rabbinic notion “in a place where there is no leader, strive to be one.” As Emmanuel Levinas would have it, she is in the throes of responsibility prior to ever choosing to be. In this way, she is perhaps the most relatable of all the Megillah’s leadership models as the reluctant leader. Though we have five to pick from, there’s a reason it’s called Megillat Esther.