John Maxwell has been quoted as saying, “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way.” Warren Bennis defines leadership as “the capacity to translate a vision into reality.” And it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said about leadership, “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
Out of all the many books I have read, classes I’ve taken, and seminars I’ve attended on leadership and sometimes I still wonder if we make it more complicated than it is. After 20 years of pastoral ministry and over 18 years of law enforcement, I sometimes find myself wondering what kind of a leader I am.
But as I read the pages of scripture I can’t help but be reminded of the many men and women of the Bible who did not have all the resources we have today and yet God used them in leadership roles to accomplish some great things. I believe wholeheartedly that we should take advantage of the many resources we have today but as we all know reading a book or taking a seminar on leadership does not make one a good leader. And there is one particular individual in the Old Testament that we can learn a lot about what is to be a leader. His name is Nehemiah. Maybe you already know the Biblical account of Nehemiah and the vision that God gave him to see the walls of Jerusalem restored. If not, here is a very brief history lesson.
His story begins way before he comes on the scene. After Israel was divided into two kingdoms, they both eventually fell into captivity. The Israelites of the Northern Kingdom, who had been taken into captivity by the Assyrians, were eventually absorbed into Assyria and eventually into other cultures. The Southern kingdom had fallen into captivity under the Babylonians but remained intact as a people. After the power of Babylon was broken, many of the people returned to their homeland. Over a period of some 80 years, under the leadership of Zerrubabel, the Israelites rebuilt the temple, but when Ezra came on the scene in 458 B.C., the people were in a state of spiritual decline and degradation. It took strong leadership on his part through a faithful teaching ministry to bring the people back to God. And now some 14 years later, Nehemiah enters the picture of the history of God’s people to lead them in rebuilding the walls that had been destroyed by the Babylonians.
Nehemiah teaches us some very simple and fundamental lessons about being the kind of leader that God can use. So come with me as we begin to learn from the life of Nehemiah what it means to be a leader.
- A Leader Will Know Exactly What Needs to Be Done (1:1-4)
Nehemiah was a man who was driven by a God-given vision and that vision was born out of a great need and a heart-felt burden for a city that was so dear to him. The people and the city of Jerusalem were in “great trouble and disgrace.” With the walls of Jerusalem being broken down and the gates being burned the city was left defenseless against enemy attacks. It also literally created a sense of disgrace for the people of God. And something needed to be done about that. So this was not just a whim or the manifestation of some “pie in the sky” idea Nehemiah had come up with. It wasn’t a preference or a “better idea” of doing something. This was a great and dire need. And if it didn’t get done there would be life-altering consequences for God’s people. So God gave Nehemiah a vision and raised him up as a leader to rebuild and restore the walls of Jerusalem.
I believe Nehemiah teaches us that a vision any leader claims to have should be need-driven rather than desire-driven. In other words, it is not always about what I want unless what I want is genuinely in the best interest of everyone else. This can sometimes be kind of tricky because it can often be open for interpretation. So before we start making those changes or launching that new plan we have to make sure it is something that is needed at the time and not something we would “just like to see happen.” But once this is nailed down it will be the one thing that drives you to make the decisions you will be making.
I’m sure we have all had a new “man or woman at the helm” who had a vision for the organization that just seemed to raise red flags and set off all kinds of bells and alarms. It might have been one of those “visions” that was based on that new leader’s agenda rather than what was in the best interest of the organization. I believe it is very possible to have a vision for something that goes against all that is right and true.
But a leader like Nehemiah will know exactly what needs to be done. For someone like him, it will be a no-brainer. And the more you study this man’s life you will see that he made no apologies for what he believed needed to be done. You have to understand – this had to be done. There was no getting around it.
- A Genuine Leader Will Always Want to Get it Right (2:11-18)
Even though Nehemiah knew exactly what needed to be done he didn’t just jump into this project without doing some pretty extensive homework. Before he lifted a finger to start this massive undertaking, and this is important, he took the time to get a good understanding of the intricate details of how all this was going to be accomplished. That was the best way to get it right. Maybe he knew that axiom that says how we start will determine how we finish. You might know what needs to be done but you might need to know how you’re going to do it. And that often takes time.
Once he was given permission by his king (and that is a whole other story that I hope to focus on later), Nehemiah took great care in examining the walls by taking the time to look at the entire situation before he even attempted to put something into action. So by the time the project began, he knew exactly what this would require.
Over the years, I have seen so many pastors, law enforcement officials, and leaders of certain organizations take up a new assignment and start like gang-busters without ever really considering all the ramifications of what programs and policies that needed to be implemented. And there will be ramifications for just about everything we do – some good and some not-so-good. I believe Nehemiah had a pretty good idea of all of that before he ever started this project because he wanted to get it right.
Nehemiah shows us that wanting to get it right requires brutal honesty (2:17-18). After three days of carefully inspecting the wall, he knew what kind of shape it was in. He could have said that the situation wasn’t all that bad but that would have not been true. He was honest enough to admit that the situation was the exact opposite. He had to be very realistic about the situation so he could get a clear picture of the extent of what needed to be done to fix the problem. He didn’t start pointing out how this or that wasn’t done right, other than how the people had failed God. He didn’t start talking about how if things had been handled differently they wouldn’t be in this mess, even though that was true. But he did use words that we tend to avoid like, “Jerusalem lies in ruins; its gates have been burned, and as such they ‘were in disgrace’.” I don’t believe he dwelt on the mistakes of the past but he did acknowledge how the past had played a part in what needed to be fixed. And the more you read about his whole approach to the situation you can see how he includes himself in the problem because that’s what a true leader does. (1:5-7)
As a leader, it is so important that we find a way to identify how we got to where we are which has to include the good and the bad. So Nehemiah had to look at things realistically to come to that conclusion. He didn’t minimize the situation but he didn’t convey a sense of hopelessness and defeat either. But he wanted to get it right so he had to be able to say that this is how WE got here and this is what WE need to do to make it right.
We will never be one who is flawless but we must do everything we can to get it right, whatever the “it” might be.
- A Genuine Leader Will Be Determined to Accomplish the Task – 2:17-18
It has been said that some people do not know what is happening; others watch what is happening; a few wish things would happen; some hinder things from happening; and a few make things happen. Nehemiah was one of those few. He had already identified the need – the walls of Jerusalem needed to be rebuilt. This wasn’t just his idea it was God’s plan so he knew just exactly what needed to be accomplished and why. Now it was just a matter of getting started and he wasn’t going to stop until it was done and by God (literally) he was determined to do it.
By the way, I wonder if Nehemiah had the realization that rebuilding sometimes means a little bit of demolition is needed. Sometimes to build something right, you need to do away with something else and start from scratch. Maybe that is what a lot of the fast food restaurants like Wendy’s and McDonald’s had in mind. The ones in our community literally tore down the old building and built a brand-new one. I guess they wanted to get it right too.
For Nehemiah, setting out to accomplish the task meant at least two things.
He had to decide who would be involved in this operation. Initially, it would be a few. Eventually, it would involve everyone (2:20) so this meant that everyone had to be on board and I believe that was the case by the time they got started. It took the strong leadership of one man to launch such an endeavor but it took the full cooperation of the people who caught his vision to see it through to the end. And sometimes all it takes is that one person to stand up and say, “Let’s do this because it has to be done.”
But without the full cooperation of everyone, without their trust in the leadership, the project might have taken twice as long as it did if it got completed at all. From the looks of things he had sold everyone on the idea that the walls needed to be repaired, he had earned the trust of the people, and before it was all said and done, except for a few, they all worked side by side each completing the section of the wall to which they had been assigned.
A good leader will never give the impression that what he is trying to accomplish is a one-man job so that when it’s all said and done he can’t, or won’t, take all the credit.
Furthermore, Nehemiah decided that he would not let those who opposed the operation get in the way of what he was trying to accomplish. That opposition came in the form of a protagonist by the name of Sanballat the Horonite who enlisted a “co-tagonist” by the name of Tobiah the Ammonite. The opposition became so threatening that Nehemiah had to take some extreme measures.
- He led the people in prayer to God and posted a guard day and night to meet the threats.
- He stationed some of the people behind the lowest points of the wall at the exposed places, posting them by families, with their swords, spears, and bows.
- He had half of his men doing the work, while the other half were equipped with weapons of warfare.
- He had each of the builders wear their swords at their side as they worked.
And these guys made at least 7 attempts to stop the work from being completed.
We may not experience the degree of opposition that would call for such extreme measures, but you can bet there will be some who are just not with the program. You will hear it in such comments as,
“That is not going to work around here”
“I just don’t agree with what you are doing.”
“That is going to offend a lot of people.”
“We tried that once and it didn’t work.”
“It’s just too risky and it will cost too much.”
“The powers that be will never go for it.”
This will be a topic for another time but for now it goes without saying that a true leader will, to the best of his or her ability, not be swayed by these kinds of attitudes especially if he or she is confident in the vision and what is in the best interest of the people. He or she will never be swayed by public opinion when it goes against what is best for those who are under his or her charge.
There is so much more to learn from Nehemiah about what it means to be a leader. But what we can say for now is that he knew what needed to be done and he knew he wanted to get it right. And that should be the case in our professional and personal lives.