Waste no time

In this blog, I’ve unpacked the stories of a number of leaders in the Bible, but as I reflect back, they’ve been overwhelmingly male. In my unwitting focus, I’ve missed one of the most fascinating leaders in the Bible: Abigail. She’s featured heavily in only one chapter. After 1 Samuel 25, she only makes bit appearances. But chapter 25 describes an amazing woman.

Who is Abigail? She’s a sensible and beautiful woman married to a rich, crude, mean, ill-tempered and foolish man. I have trouble with her choice of husband until I realize she probably didn’t have any. (I can imagine a sensible young lady hearing from her parents that they’ve arranged a marriage with a guy named “Fool.” I bet that didn’t go over well! Her father probably retorted, “But he’s rich!”)

Observing Nabal’s behavior and hearing Abigail’s own description of her husband in verse 25, it’s hard to imagine where his riches come from. I can only conclude either he inherited it or his wife manages it for him. Judging by her actions, the last part is likely true.

With that, let me hit the highlights of the story. King-in-waiting David and his men spend some time near Carmel, all the while providing protection for the local shepherds. After some time, they head to town in time for the sheepshearing festival and ask for some provisions from the flock’s owner, Nabal. He insults David and turns them away. As David and 400 men strap on their swords to avenge the insult, Nabal’s wife appears with the very provisions Nabal refused, successfully averting David’s anger and violence.

Here are some of the advanced leadership abilities I see in Abigail:

1. She understands the times. I’ve blogged before about how leaders either need this trait themselves or need to staff for someone who understands the times and knows what to do (I Chronicles 12:32) Abigail has this ability in spades. When Nabal turns David’s men away, one of his servants goes straight to Abigail, explains the situation and says, “You need to know this and figure out what to do.” Sure enough, she hatches a plan on the spot.

2. She knows the power of owning a problem. Abigail didn’t even see David’s men. She had no opportunity to intervene in Nabal’s rude behavior. But, like any good leader, she takes full responsibility. “I accept all blame in this matter.” “Please forgive me if I have offended you in any way.” In Calgary in May I stayed at a hotel where a guest forgot to spray the waffle maker before pouring in the batter. The waffle was stuck fast to the iron. The Asian kitchen manager immediately took over, spending a good 15 minutes getting it clean, to the guest’s chagrin. I overheard a guest walk by and make a comment, and the kitchen manager sheepishly took credit for burning the waffle. In my experience, that may well be a typical thing for an Asian to do. In my experience, that’s not a typical thing for a manager to do.

3. She knows the power of apology. It’s amazing how seldom many leaders use this tool. They regret, they explain, they excuse, they dodge. But a straight-up apology goes a long way toward building trust. For some reason, apologies are a head game. It’s difficult to say you’re sorry, because it puts you in a position of weakness. It feels like you’ll be taken advantage of. But appropriate vulnerability always builds credibility. Abigail’s actions give her huge credibility with David. Her willingness to lower herself saves her entire family.

4. She knows the power of timing. With David, “Abigail wasted no time.” With Nabal, she chooses a different path. Rather than tell him of her actions – which will appear as betrayal to him – while he’s drunk and partying, she waits until the morning. The news isn’t good for his heart, and within ten days, he’s dead.

David knows the power of timing, too. The moment Abigail becomes a free agent, he asks her to marry him. A woman like that won’t be available for long.

Who can find a virtuous and capable wife?

She is worth more than rubies. (Proverbs 31:10)

“How much time do I have?”

Sample’s second rule for decision-making:

2. Never make a decision today that can reasonably be put off to tomorrow.

But isn’t that procrastination? First, let me say that our western, negative view of that word is not necessarily universal. Procrastination is negative when it stems from a lack of courage. Instead, Sample espouses conscious and even courageous “artful procrastination.” Certainly, postponing a decision has its consequences: in our busy workplaces, with full inboxes, a strategy to leave more on your plate for tomorrow is contrarian.

I borrowed the question above from president Harry Truman, who always sought clarity on the timing for a decision as his first response. To misunderstand the timing required for a decision is to choose the wrong method of decision-making. For instance, a snap decision in a case that should have involved consultation with experts could be disastrous. A collaborative process in a fight or flight scenario could be deadly. It might be worthwhile researching how Truman applied this methodology to as grave a decision as dropping atomic bombs on another sovereign nation, but that’s another topic for another day. Sample’s point is that “the timing of a decision could be just as important as the decision itself.”

Now, Sample isn’t talking about simply putting things off or failing to make a decision. A non-decision is a decision (and leaders have consciously used that method to great success in a variety of arenas). Knowing the timing allows a leader to wait strategically. It can often open up more options for a leader, providing a beautiful solution that wasn’t available at the time the question was posed. However, it comes with a risk: it can slam the door on decent solutions. Simply put, circumstances will often make a decision for you, and there’s a fine line between a wise leader who reads the timing well and a foolish one who misses an opportunity. The point is to make a decision “and get on with it” when the time is appropriate to choose, whether the conditions improved or not.

I’ve heard CEOs say before that they pretty much expect to be 50% right on their decisions. That’s not comforting! But leadership and decision-making are arts, not sciences. Experience teaches when to listen and when to make a judgment, when to wait and when to conclude a matter. This question is a great place to start, because it puts a leader in position to follow the best road to a decision. Whether she’s right or wrong, perhaps the real question is what she does next, after the decision is made.

Sample’s final thought on the matter:

It is one thing for a leader to delegate a decision to a lieutenant, but an entirely different (and unacceptable) thing for him to surrender a decision to fate or to his adversaries. Therein lies the difference between artful and cowardly procrastination.

Agree? Disagree? Does this spur a question or reaction? Give me your thoughts!