The Leadership Fear of Success
One of the most puzzling aspects of the book of Jonah is the prophet’s fear of success. It’s easy to relate to a failing leader, to a man who runs away from responsibility and, ultimately, destiny. We’ve all been there. Like Jonah, most of us have faced inadequacy, imposter syndrome, insecurity and the desire to hide when we’re needed most. And that was just yesterday.
But when Jonah was spat out on the shores of a second chance, the text offers us an odd detail: “Nineveh was an enormously large city, a three days’ walk across” (Jonah 3:3 ). In a book of only 48 verses, it’s hard to understand why such a small geographic detail would be worthy of mention. It’s not the only three-day period in the book. Jonah spent three days in a fish belly until he came to terms with his leadership and got another opportunity to make good on his calling.
Three-day waiting periods are common in Tanakh. There are dozens of examples. Among those most well-known: Abraham walking with his son to Mount Moriah for the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22. In Exodus 19, the Israelites are told to prepare for the Sinai revelation for three days. Esther asks her community to fast with her for three days before approaching the king with a special request for the salvation of her people. Three days is a time of introspection and preparation for a transformative event. This literary conceit suggests that the protagonist will be forever changed after this next momentous event. Be open. Be ready.
Jonah was indeed changed when he prayed inside his big fish, a symbol of entrapment and significant forced confrontation. But when he got to Nineveh, he only had to go one day into a three-day journey for word to travel quickly. He was, arguably, the most successful prophet in biblical history. With only five Hebrew words, he catalyzed a process that changed an entire city. And then he backed away and left. His success was paralyzing, dizzying. Instead of embracing a three-day transformation he left Nineveh one day in, afraid of what he and they would become.
Sometimes when we encounter leadership success, we don’t stay in it long enough to make it truly transformative. Don’t make Jonah’s mistake. Validate success. Celebrate. Cogitate. Marinate. Stay long enough to make an authentic difference.
Dr. Erica Brown, longtime faculty for The Wexner Foundation, runs the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership at The George Washington University. Her new book Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet (Koren/OU), is out in time for Yom Kippur, when we typically read Jonah in synagogue. Feel free to use the promo code : MAGGID25 for 25% off and free shipping.