Leadership Lessons from Shushan

Every generation has a responsibility to plan for the future, especially during precarious and chaotic times. Looking for leadership lessons in Achashverosh’s slaphappy Shushan may seem misguided at best, but wisdom about mentoring can be found in his royal court.

Luck and chance may be perceived as playing a role in the outcome of this biblical satire, but the future then and now is secured by intentional planning and faith in others. While Achashverosh and Haman are despicable characters for myriad reasons that are not the focus of this piece, the former’s royal administration provides us with one powerful lesson about how leaders can interact with their teams.

Frustration obviously colors Haman’s view of Mordechai, the man waiting by the gate whose self-esteem and ethnic pride cannot be compromised. Towards that end, Haman, whom the rabbis in the Talmud compare to the manipulative snake in Eden, schemes of killing not just this single individual, but an entire people.

Clearly Achashverosh views loyalty and urgency through a different lens. On discovering that Mordechai helped save his life, the king seeks to thank publicly this loyal subject, who embodies these words from A Wrinkle in Time: “Nothing deters a good man from doing what is honorable.

Spotting the potential in others can be a revelation, like on Ted Lasso when the new coach notices the strategic soccer acumen of the ignored sideline “kit man.” At the same time, some leaders regard talent and potential in others as a threat to their power and influence.

Realizing that Mordechai is a mover and shaker, both Haman and Achashverosh choose to elevate Mordechai, yet in radically different ways.

Openly committed to raising Mordechai’s profile, Achashverosh parades him around Shushan on a horse cloaked in the king’s vestments. The king’s very explicit message is that when we groom others to shine, their success is teamwork’s version of a rising tide lifting all boats. Evidence shows that new leaders thrive not only when they are invited to the table and  encouraged to speak openly, but also where trust and common purpose reign supreme.

Such grace and humility are not the cornerstones of insecure and paranoid leaders, like Haman. According to Haman’s school of management, potential rivals are led up to the gallows. Consequently, myopic leaders jeopardize their own success by following the Haman paradigm etched into the Megillah.

Knowing what it takes for leaders, boards and communities to thrive, Bob Leventhal affirms Achashverosh’s approach in his new book Stepping Forward Together: “By lifting up a vision of effective leadership we can role model the changes we seek.”

Shushan is rightly associated on Purim – and for all time – with fears about the future due to xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and misogyny; “and yet,” as Elie Wiesel used to say about seeing the other side of any argument, this royal court surprisingly teaches us a timeless message about building stronger teams and purpose-driven communities.

About the Author
Rabbi Charlie Savenor works at New York's Park Avenue Synagogue as the Director of Congregational Education. A graduate of Brandeis, JTS and Columbia University's Teachers College, he blogs on parenting, education, and leadership. In addition to supporting IDF Lone Soldiers, he serves on the International boards of Leket Israel and Gesher.
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