Few subjects are discussed more and understood less than leadership. Everyone knows that society and the Church desperately need it. Yet it continues to be elusive. The Church has numerous leadership books and conferences available to it, yet hundreds of churches in America are closing their doors every year because their leaders cannot navigate them to a position of health. The nation continually speaks about leadership, yet it seems incapable of addressing its most fundamental problems. What does true leadership look like?
The book of Nehemiah provides a wonderful picture of godly, effective leadership. The following is a brief summary of what Nehemiah teaches us about being a godly leader.
1. Leaders arise to solve problems.
The reason there are leaders is because there are problems. Leaders mobilize people to solve problems. Leaders do not exist merely to hold a position or collect a large salary. Leaders have a unique role. Nehemiah entered center stage after he heard that Jerusalem’s walls were in ruins and God’s people were demoralized. Nehemiah had a specific goal: to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem. Beyond that, he intended to organize God’s people so they could rebuild their nation and honor God.
One of the crises of today is that people crave leadership positions for the wrong reasons. They are insecure and want to prop up their self-esteem by attaining a prominent position. Or they covet a large income so they aspire to the highest paying job. Or they enjoy exercising power. Yet when they achieve influence, they abuse it.
2. Spiritual leaders are guided by God.
Nehemiah declared, “I told no one what my God had put in my heart to do” (Neh. 2:12). Nehemiah was driven by God’s agenda, not his own. In fact, at the outset, Nehemiah was “dreadfully afraid” because if he earned the king’s displeasure it might mean his death sentence (Neh. 2:2). The reason Nehemiah left the prestigious confines of the emperor’s palace and undertook a seemingly impossible task, facing relentless enemies and working with demoralized people, was because God told him to.
The test of spiritual leaders is whose agenda they follow. Are they mobilizing people to achieve their goals? Are they asking people to make sacrifices to achieve their purposes, or God’s?
3. Leaders enhance their people, not themselves.
Nehemiah repeatedly sacrificed his own comfort and prosperity in order to help his people. He notes: “I did not demand the governor’s provisions because the bondage was heavy on this people” (Neh. 5:18). Nehemiah chastised leaders who oppressed and made oppressive demands upon their people. Nehemiah was determined that his leadership would enhance people’s lives, not impoverish them.
Too many leaders today are making a lucrative career out of exploiting the people they are paid to help. Pastors are becoming wealthy by the sacrifices of their impoverished church members. People who lead social action groups are becoming enormously wealthy while the social issues become worse. Political leaders become wealthy as career politicians while the issues they were elected to address deteriorate. When genuine leaders finish their work, their people are better off than when their leaders began.
4. Leaders are not distracted from their work.
As soon as Nehemiah began his work, opponents assailed him. People ridiculed his efforts. They threatened him. They conspired behind his back. They sought to lure him into a trap. It would have been easy for Nehemiah to descend into bitter debates or to neglect the work at hand while he focused on his critics. Instead, he responded: “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?” (Neh. 6:3).
Today, it appears that politicians spend more time attacking their opponents than they invest addressing the issues. Character assassination becomes more central than problem solving. Perhaps that is why so little is being accomplished. Genuine leaders stay riveted on their goal and refuse to be sidetracked from their mission.
5. Leaders unite people.
When Nehemiah came to Jerusalem, he found people who were demoralized and disorganized. Nehemiah united them. He inspired the top leaders to work together for a common cause (Neh. 3). People whose followers are torn by division and dissention are not leaders. Leaders inspire people to set aside their petty differences and to invest themselves in a common cause. Nehemiah astutely assigned people to repair sections of the city wall located across from their own homes (Neh. 3: 23, 29, 30). This gave them added motivation, for they could see a direct benefit to joining in the work. Nehemiah also enlisted Eliashib, the high priest, to the cause. By working with and inspiring other leaders, Nehemiah developed an unbeatable team.
Wise leaders unite people. Foolish leaders squander their time fighting petty skirmishes and alienating those who should naturally be an ally. This requires people skills on the part of leaders. It also demands that leaders forego their pride in the interest of achieving a greater mission.
6. Leaders address issues head on.
Once Nehemiah undertook his task, problems arose. People complained that the rubble was so vast it impeded their efforts (Neh. 4:10). Furthermore, their enemies threatened to attack at their weakest point (Neh. 4:11-12). In response, Nehemiah did not minimize the problems. He addressed them. He knew that to neglect these issues would demoralize the people. So he organized the people and provided adequate protection. He personally made sacrifices so they knew how seriously he was taking their concerns (Neh. 4:23).
One of the worst leadership mistakes is being slow to respond to problems. There are many reasons for this. Sometimes leaders do not take problems seriously enough. Some leaders hope problems will eventually go away. Others are too disorganized or bewildered to properly address the issue. And some are just too lazy or indifferent to do anything. This typically spells disaster.
7. Leaders demonstrate courage.
It takes courage to be a leader. Leaders have enemies. Leaders also deal with problems, some of which have existed for a long time. In fact, some problems leaders face are the result of earlier leaders being too afraid to address the problem on their watch. Nehemiah was not immune to fear, but he did not let that stop him from doing what was right. He noted of his enemies, “For they were trying to make us afraid . . .” (Neh. 6:9). However, Nehemiah was committed to the task and he refused to allow others to intimidate him from doing what was right.
Leadership is not for the fainthearted! Often the level of leadership greatness attained is directly proportional to the level of courage a leader is willing to demonstrate.
8. Leaders are astute.
Leadership is a complicated undertaking. People are not always what they appear. Despite the good Nehemiah was attempting to do, there were those within his own ranks who sought to undermine his efforts (Neh. 6:7-19). They were pursuing their own selfish interests instead of the cause of the people. Nehemiah could easily have been sabotaged had he not been wise in dealing with people. He sensed when people were lying to him. As a result, even though Nehemiah was surrounded by conspirators and double agents, his enemies were never able to trap him or trip him up.
At times perfectly honorable leaders have had their noble cause flounder because they failed to be wise as serpents (Matt. 10:16). At times godly leaders can be naïve about the evil that drives others. Because they are without guile themselves, they fail to recognize it in others. Many good pastors have been fired from their churches because they failed to discern the evil machinations taking place right under their nose. Nehemiah dealt astutely with people, and as a result, his enemies could not defeat him.
9. Leaders confront ungodly behavior.
Nehemiah knew how to utilize people skills in working with others. Nevertheless, he refused to tolerate ungodliness among his people and especially his leaders (Neh. 13:4-31). When he saw improper behavior, he confronted those involved saying, “What you are doing is not good. Should you not walk in the fear of our God” (Neh. 4:9). Nehemiah might have reasoned that, since the wall had been built, he should look the other way when his leaders practiced morally or ethically questionable behavior. But Nehemiah did not. In fact, he directly confronted wrongdoers. Nehemiah knew that the survival of his people depended upon far more than merely building a wall. God’s people needed God’s favor. For that they had to honor God with their behavior. Nehemiah had the courage and integrity to challenge people, regardless of their leadership role, if they were not acting with integrity. Of course, to do so effectively, Nehemiah had to demonstrate integrity himself.
Some leaders are tempted to compromise standards as long as people achieve results. Why alienate high-performers? But wise leaders know that they are responsible for the culture of their organization. If they tolerate bad attitudes or ungodly behavior, those behaviors will soon permeate the organization just like leaven. By challenging ungodly behavior, they send a message to everyone that such activity will not be tolerated. People tend to respond to challenges. When leaders set the bar high, people will strive to meet the challenge. When leaders are inconsistent in what they expect, people will end up doing what is right in their own eyes.
10. Leaders accomplish their goal.
Nehemiah had a very specific goal: rebuild the wall around Jerusalem. Fifty-two days after he arrived, the wall was built (Neh. 6:15). The best way to measure leaders’ success is to determine if they did what they said they would do. Nehemiah kept his goal continually before him. He refused to be sidetracked. As a result, the seemingly impossible task was successfully accomplished in an amazingly short amount of time.
Society today is inundated with unfulfilled promises. Politicians promise the moon with no real intention of delivering it. Yet society rarely holds people accountable for following through on their promises. Such leaders often blame the economy or their subordinates or bad weather for their failure. But true leaders do not hide behind excuses. They keep their promises. Society longs for leaders who will do what they say and say what they will do.
At times, biblical examples can appear almost naïvely straightforward. People try to argue that today’s circumstances are more complex and difficult. But the truth is that leadership has not changed. The same principles that guided Nehemiah can just as effectively motivate today’s leaders, if they have the resolve to do what Nehemiah did. Certainly our society is fragmented and demoralized. The walls have come crumbling down in cities across the land. People are desperately looking for leaders who will face the problems head on, will stay focused on the goal, and will refuse to excuse failure. These types of leaders never grow out of date. We need them today more than ever.