I can’t think of a better model of leadership than Nehemiah. I once sat down and looked over Nehemiah’s shoulder for a couple of hours, reviewing the things this ancient Jewish leader recorded while rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem. As I read, it dawned on me that his journal is a storehouse of leadership insights. The first six chapters of Nehemiah ought to be required reading each year for all leaders as well as those who wish to be.
In his book, I found seven essential skills that today’s Christian leaders can use as stones on which to build their own strategy for leadership.
The first foundation stone is a passion for the project. Passion includes vision, enthusiasm, drive, determination, creative dreams, and innovative ideas. Leaders with passion can grasp the big picture without becoming enmeshed in or preoccupied with all the details. Nehemiah could hardly sleep as he imagined himself accomplishing God’s objective. His passion was off the chart.
The second building block is the ability to motivate others. Getting along well with others is a crucial part of leadership. This would include such skills as verbalizing ideas, dreams, and concerns; articulating goals succinctly and simply; and demonstrating organizational strength and boundless energy. Leaders who motivate inspire others to do their best. They quickly affirm and remember to give credit where credit is due. Nehemiah was strong at all those points.
The third stone is an unswerving confidence in God. Nehemiah’s journal is filled with prayers—silent ones, short ones, specific ones. He never failed to remind the people of the Lord’s presence and protection. Leaders who are genuinely Christian consistently turn others’ attention to the Source of strength—the One who can accomplish the impossible, the awesome Provider. Confidence in Him does not waver. Their faith is contagious. While they may occasionally doubt their own ability, they do not doubt God’s invincible commitment to His work.
Resilience and patience through opposition mark the fourth piece. Nehemiah endured it all: sarcasm, suspicion, gossip, mockery, threats, anonymous notes, open letters, false accusations—you name it. None of it moved him. No leader can survive if he or she cannot stay patient and resilient through criticism. It is important to be firm in purpose without becoming cranky, vengeful, or mean-spirited. Anger expressed for the right reason and at the right time is appropriate and healthy, but holding a grudge is neither.
The fifth stone to lock in place is a practical, balanced grip on reality. While the good leader may have dreams and ideas, he or she doesn’t live in a dreamworld with a fixation on the ideal. The actual facts—the hard pieces of evidence—are in clear focus. As Nehemiah began his opening speech, it was obvious to all that he was no air-headed cheerleader: “You see the bad situation we are in” (Nehemiah 2:17). He told the workers to stay at their jobs, but he wisely stationed others to protect the wall from attack. Smart. Discerning. Tough. He acted without overreacting. He remained gracious yet unbendingly firm. Good leaders maintain that needed balance between being positive and being aware of the negative.
Number six is a willingness to work hard and remain unselfish. All Christian leaders have at least one thing in common: diligence. They also know the value of calling it a day (diligence and workaholism are not synonyms). Because of his hard work, Nehemiah was “appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah” (Nehemiah 5:14) even before the wall was done. He accepted his appointment humbly, refusing special treatment and willingly sacrificing for the good of the people. Nehemiah led a clinic on servant leadership.
Finally, leaders must have the discipline to finish the job. Good leaders are finishers. They know how to concentrate on essentials without allowing perfectionistic details to block the path. I am certain that some of Nehemiah’s stones were a tad crooked and a few of the joints may have been loose. Perhaps a gate or two wasn’t perfectly level and maybe no doubt a hinge or two squeaked . . . but that baby got done. Mission accomplished. The end. Done!
And when the task is finished, good leaders celebrate . . . they have fun! In Nehemiah’s case, they had a blast walking on the wall, marching and dancing, shouting and singing—they even invited two choirs whose “songs of praise and hymns of thanksgiving to God” (Nehemiah 12:46) could be heard from afar. What a grand party!
Christian leaders with character continue to be in demand. Ezekiel recorded God’s plea for leaders who would “stand in the gap before Me for the land,” but, tragically, He “found no one” (Ezekiel 22:30). His search continues today. Let’s determine to be the men and women for whom God is searching to close the gap. Let’s be the Nehemiahs of this generation—leaders who get things done for God’s glory, standing strong on the building blocks of leadership.