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Doubt and Dispensability in Leadership

In Chapter 4 of the Book of Esther, Mordecai presents Esther with a dangerous mission: To approach King Ahasuerus uninvited and ask that he annul the decree to annihilate the Jews. Like many acts of leadership, this mission requires Esther to exceed her formal authority and to take on considerable personal risk. As Esther points out to Mordecai, the punishment for entering the King’s inner court uninvited was death. Given what is at stake for Esther, Mordecai’s words to her (Esther, 4:13-14) seem rather harsh:

Do not imagine that you can escape in the king's house [the fate] of all the Jews. For if you are silent at this time, then relief and deliverance will arise to the Jews from another place; and you and your father's house will perish; and who knows whether it was for this moment that you rose to royalty.

Mordecai’s words carry at least two important messages about leadership. First, every leader is replaceable. If those with the capacity to lead do not rise to the occasion, then others will arise to take their place. As the saying, often attributed to Charles deGaulle, has it: The graveyards are filled with indispensable men.

Second, leadership is inherently improvisational and uncertain. Mordecai’s call to Esther is full of moral certainty. And yet, even as he insists that Esther risk her own life on behalf of her people, Mordecai acknowledges that neither he nor Esther can be certain of the outcome. He does not say to Esther: “It is for this moment that you rose to royalty!” He says, “Who knows whether it is for this moment that you rose to royalty?” This note of doubt – the substitution of an exclamation mark with a question mark – expresses a deep truth about leadership.

Leadership is an improvisational art. You may be guided by an overarching vision, clear values, and a strategic plan, but what you actually do from moment to moment cannot be scripted. You must respond as events unfold. To use our metaphor, you have to move back and forth from the balcony to the dance floor, over and over again throughout the days, weeks, months, and years. While today’s plan may make sense now, tomorrow you’ll discover the unanticipated effects of today’s actions and have to adjust accordingly. Sustaining good leadership, then, requires first and foremost the capacity to see what is happening to you and your initiative as it is happening and to understand how today’s turns in the road will affect tomorrow’s plans.

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