“Those who will not be moved from doing right will live, but those who pursue evil will bring about their own death” – Proverbs 11:19
*What is a leader’s greatest fear? Failure? Mutiny? Criticism? All are possibilities, but I would suggest that the leader’s greatest fear is, or ought to be, not something that we do, which is recoverable, but something that can happen inside us. Let me explain.
Jim Collins in his monumental book, “Good to Great,” describes several characteristics of CEO’s who took their companies to the highest level of excellence. He calls these rare individuals “Level 5 Leaders.” Collins’ research revealed that Level 5 leaders “are ambitious, to be sure, but ambitious first and foremost for the company, not themselves…Level 5 leaders display a compelling modesty, are self-effacing and understated…” We might well conclude that exhibiting these qualities is a leader’s true mission.
But we’ve seen enough “Bernie” Madoffs and Lance Armstrongs to know that if a leader does not embrace a mission of humility and sacrifice, it’s very easy for his life to deteriorate into something self-centered and dark – a “shadow mission.” The ancient Hebrew Scriptures tell us that this kind of thing has been going on since Adam and Eve (“Eat from the tree, and you will be like God”). My contention is that we all face the temptation daily to let our life center around something unworthy and dark.
The Bible book of “Esther” offers insights into this choice leaders make between true and shadow missions. The principal players in the story are the Persian king, Xerxes; Haman, Xerxes’ chief of staff; Esther, a beautiful Jewish orphan girl; and Esther’s cousin Mordecai, who adopted and raised her.
As the curtain on this drama rises, Esther becomes Xerxes’ queen by winning a beauty contest. Her shadow mission is to be eye candy for the king. All goes well until Haman, driven by his shadow mission to destroy Mordecai, the one man who will not bow down and give him worship, offers the king a bribe to decree the destruction of Mordecai and all the Jews. Xerxes, preoccupied with his own shadow mission to show off his greatness and unaware, as Haman is, that Esther is Jewish, grants Haman’s request.
When word of this reaches Mordecai, realizing that only Esther is in a position to save Israel, he charges her to go to the king and plead for their lives. She balks. It’s a capital offense to approach the king unsummoned, unless he extends the golden scepter. And Xerxes hasn’t summoned Esther for thirty days.
But Mordecai presses (paraphrase): “You have not been brought to this point for some shadow mission of selfishly enjoying fame and security. Your true mission is to work for justice and to spare your people great suffering.”
Facing one of the great challenges of leadership, Esther calls on Mordecai to arrange for their people to join her in three days of fasting and prayer. To try to achieve this mission she will not rely on her beauty and cleverness alone. On the third day, she tells Mordecai, “I will go to the king, and if I perish, I perish.”
Because Esther courageously says no to the shadow mission of luxury and security and yes to her true mission, Haman ends up hanging from the noose he intended for Mordecai, Mordecai becomes Xerxes’ chief of staff in Haman’s place and writes a new edict that saves Israel, and the people who marked the Jews for death are themselves destroyed.
What is a leader’s greatest fear? I believe it ought to be that instead of sacrificing and serving we might go after a selfish shadow mission and squander our opportunity to benefit both the organization and the people. A couple insights from “Esther”: One, although courage in going after the true mission is indispensible, in partnership with God we’ll be able to go much farther beyond self than otherwise. Two, it’s a good idea to have a Mordecai around to encourage us to the task.
*Adapted from remarks by John Ortberg titled “A Leader’s Greatest Fear”
Dr. Jim Furr