Leadership tends to define itself better in person than on a page. In recent decades leadership has vaulted to the forefront of organizational discussion, classroom research and publishing houses across the world. Books on the topic abound. In their work, “Classical Leadership,” Michelle Doyle and Mark Smith write, “What is leadership? It seems to be one of those qualities that you know when you see it, but is difficult to describe. There are almost as many definitions as there are commentators.”
Even so, both the professor and layperson can readily identify great leadership and great leaders. Leaders attract followers. They move them toward a common cause or vision. People respond to leadership. But how this happens can look many ways, leaving us with a host of questions. Are leaders born? Are leaders molded by the moment? Are leadership traits universal? How does the leader’s context impact his or her methods? What is the difference between leading and managing?
There are no simple answers to these questions. But looking at the life of someone who led with excellence can help us draw a few conclusions.
Nehemiah, the great biblical leader, offers four key lessons in leadership for any believer looking for guidance.
1) Leadership Is Providential
God raised up Nehemiah to accomplish an important mission. God is the active agent leading and directing. This is evident in how He moves in the king’s heart and elevates people to do his bidding. This is seen in both the lives of Nehemiah and his contemporary, Ezra. The book of Nehemiah demonstrates the indisputable role of Providence in leadership. This is still true today.
Leader, yield to the unseen hand guiding the way and humbly walk in such recognition.
2) Leadership is Spiritual Hard Work
Nehemiah exemplifies the interplay between prayer, planning, and hard work. These work in tandem. Andy Stanley sums this up well in his book, Visoneering: “This [Nehemiah] is a tale of hard work, prayer and (behind the scenes) divine intervention. Nothing out of the ordinary here.” There are no shortcuts in leadership.
Admittedly, there is a grind to leadership- a continual pressing forward in planning, preparing, navigating conflict, executing and finishing. The meteoric rise of leadership studies and the attention that many leaders attract may cause some to miss this simple fact: Leadership is challenging.
Leader, be prepared to work hard at leading.
3) Leaders Use Projects to Build People
People cannot become a means to an end. Although Nehemiah faced a daunting project of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, this project was secondary to the plight of the people. Stephen Dempster writes on the subtext of Nehemiah’s work:
Nehemiah is regarded as the wall builder in Jerusalem, and this is the theme that resonates in the book. But his story is not only about building the physical walls of Jerusalem for physical protection, it is also a story of building spiritual walls around the people with the Word of God and thus building up the people as well.
Leader, fight to keep your priorities straight: God, people, project.
4) Leaders Persevere
Finally, as Mark Dever notes, “A godly leader keeps leading.” Projects end. Tasks get accomplished. But a leader continues to lead. Certainly Nehemiah faced adversity and conflict in the midst of building the wall, a task that required fortitude to see to completion. When the wall was built, he continued to lead through political means as a governor. New leadership challenges emerged, but the call was the same: Remain steadfast and faithful.
Leader, persevere through the changing seasons of leadership, remembering the call to long-term faithfulness.
The book of Nehemiah concludes with a prayer regarding the leader’s legacy: “Remember me, O my God, for good” (Neh. 13.31). Nehemiah’s heart bled for legacy, namely, a legacy of covenant faithfulness. Godly leaders recognize their time of leadership will certainly come to an end, so they lead with a view to the generation coming behind them and work to develop new leaders. May it be so among the great leaders of our day as well.