When Nehemiah rode into ancient Jerusalem, he found a broken down, dispirited ruin. For years, the refuges had lived in the crumbled mess without much hope of seeing any improvement. This was, they assumed, “Just the way things are.” They had no vision or plan to turn the city around.
The people needed an uncommon leader, called by God, who could see more than broken walls and shattered structures. They needed to believe that something could come from all this nothing, that splendor could rise from squalor. And that’s just what God gave them.
What allowed Nehemiah to accomplish God’s purpose is that he understood five things that most people never do—whether they’re leaders or not. This cupbearer brought revitalization because he never lost sight of these principles of great leadership:
Nehemiah had been training for his job as rebuilder in Jerusalem for years, though he didn’t realize it at first. When his brother Hanani came with a report about the condition of the city, that calling became apparent:
They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. (Nehemiah 1:3–4)
Great leaders work from the passion God has given them. They see a need that tugs at them or they experience an injustice, and they know they have to do something. Even when they aren’t sure what that passion is just yet, leaders like Nehemiah prepare themselves by making the most of whatever situation they’re in. They grow by learning from other leaders, by reading God’s Word, by prayer, and by doing the best work they can.
When the calling hits, they’re ready.
As much as the struggles in his homeland bothered Nehemiah, he didn’t immediately jump into the work. Instead, he took some time to study the situation for himself and to learn:
I set out during the night with a few men. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem. There were no mounts with me except the one I was riding on. By night I went out through the Valley Gate toward the Jackal Well and the Dung Gate, examining the walls of Jerusalem, which had been broken down, and its gates, which had been destroyed by fire. (Nehemiah 2:12–13)
His first course of action involved inspecting the walls and listening to the “few men” who went with him. He needed to know the problem first-hand, to see how bad the damage was from one end of the city to the other.
Great leaders know that you can’t start “fixing” the problem until you truly understand it. You may have plenty of training to tackle even the most complicated projects. But bringing your expertise alone doesn’t have the same impact and inspire the same confidence as does showing that you truly know what’s happening. You’ve been there; you’ve seen it; you’ve listened to the concerns.
Many managers like to put the “gold ring in the pig’s nose.” They want to make everything seem better than it really is so that no one worries. But your workers most likely already know how bad something is, and making it seem better will only come across as hollow. You’ll lose credibility.
In contrast, Nehemiah simply pointed out the truth:
Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire.” (Nehemiah 2:17a)
The city is in shambles; it’s a big mess. That may seem like a demoralizing message, but great leaders know that honesty helps people see the problem for what it is. Making it seem less urgent could actually lead to apathy and distrust. Nehemiah faced it head on first before painting a vision for the future.
While Nehemiah pointed out the difficulty faced by those in Jerusalem, he did something that truly sets him apart as a great leader. He started the work:
“Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.” (Nehemiah 2:17b)
This job looked immense and foreboding. Rallying the workers and painting a vision for the future wasn’t enough. Nehemiah needed to take the lead and do something about it. A leader who isn’t willing to do something first shouldn’t expect to see positive results. Great leaders know they have to make the first sacrifice to get things moving.
Nehemiah worked shoulder to shoulder in the city to make sure the wall got built. His dedication and commitment to God inspired those around him.
Nearly as soon as the project got off the ground, opponents jumped in to stop it through discouragement and even threats. But Nehemiah had no intention of letting them win:
I answered them by saying, “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it.” (Nehemiah 2:20)
The greater the opposition, the greater his response:
So we continued the work with half the men holding spears, from the first light of dawn till the stars came out. (Nehemiah 4:21)
That’s exactly what great leaders do. They know that challenges will pop up, and they know that critics will weigh in. Instead of letting those roadblocks stop them, they trust God and inspire others to work around whatever may come. They may get discouraged, but they don’t stop heading toward the vision they have.