Be a Whale: Leadership Lessons from the Book of Jonah

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Have you ever read the story of Jonah and the whale? Until recently, that was all I knew about it… Jonah was swallowed by a whale. Because that was all I knew, I wanted to learn more, so I am deeply studying it.

It’s a small book in the Bible, but it packs so many lessons. Jonah was a prophet in the Old Testament called to go to a place called Ninevah and spread the news about Jesus. I read in one commentary that this task was the equivalent of a Jew going into Nazi Germany during World War II to warn them of their wrong doing. Jonah, as the human that he was, fled from the task and hopped on a boat to get away from God (or so he thought). A great storm hit the seas and Jonah took the blame for it, so the sailors threw him overboard. Assuming he was dead, they keep going, but he didn’t die. Instead, he was swallowed by a great whale for three days and brought back to shore safe and sound. God gave him one more chance to carry out his duty and he did.

There is a lot of criticism surrounding this story, but you have to keep in mind that Christianity is based on faith that leads to facts, not the other way around. Take it as a good picture book story, a load of junk, or learn some lessons from it.

You can find many uses for this little four-chapter book, but I am going to show it from a business perspective. Here are a few leadership lessons I’ve taken from Jonah. What are some lessons you have learned from the story?

He was called to Ninevah: Jonah was called to a really bad place. Instead of going to Ninevah, he fled. Employees are given tasks everyday, some of which could be their weakness because they do not understand it or they just don’t like it. Your employees may not flee from projects, but they may put them off or take longer than usual to get them started. If there seems to be an unusual amount of time spent on a project or maybe a person that usually handles things head-on procrastinates. Excuse their weakness because they are human. Talk to them to find out why they wait to do certain things. They may just need an explanation on the importance of the task or something they they are not naturally good at. There are always solutions to problems. As long as you have good employees, you should invest in them.

Jonah gets thrown from the boat. He was tossed out into the water by the crew because he was blamed for the storm. When it comes to business, someone has to take responsibility when things go wrong. A good leader take responsibility for errors when it was within his or her control. I can’t tell you how many times I was “thrown under the bus” by leaders (by title only) when things went wrong. Needless to say, I didn’t stay long. Unfortunately for the company, they lost a great employee… just ask my last employer. He didn’t point fingers when there was a problem and helped to come up with solutions. His favorite phrase was there is no mistake too big that we can’t fix. That philosophy gave me a sense of security and fostered an environment of innovation and creativity.

Jonah was swallowed by a whale. This is a really pivotal part of the story. It is a designated time when Jonah is able to think about his choices and grow from them. As a business owner, you should be a coach and mentor. Instead of leaving your employees out to fend for themselves, protect them and stand up for them. They will make mistakes and they need to know that they are not going to lose their job over an error. You need to be their “whale”.

Jonah was given a second chance. So your employee messed up. Maybe it’s a doosey. Is it so big that it cannot be corrected? If it cannot be cleared, counseling or termination may be in order. But most of the time, things can be corrected. Give second chances freely when you can.

Good leaders produce good employees. You may be get burned by some of them that take advantage of you, but that should not stop you from being the best you can be. Be a whale to your employees. Encourage and allow them to come to you when they need help, training, or coaching.

Never Lose Hope,

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