Four Leadership Lessons from Nehemiah (Part 1)

The Book of Nehemiah is often used as a case study for visionary leadership, and for good reason. His leadership was formed by a God-induced burden for his city and the people within it (Neh. 1:4). He increased urgency by creating dissatisfaction with the status quo (2:17), rallied people around a shared vision of rebuilding the walls (2:18), and kept people focused until the task was complete (6:3).

Many people close Nehemiah’s leadership case study when the walls are complete, but there are some great leadership lessons in the final chapters. When Nehemiah returns, he finds that the people have failed to live up to their vows. As I shared earlier, ultimately the Book of Nehemiah concludes with us painfully realizing our need for Jesus. But from a leadership vantage point, we can learn some lessons from Nehemiah’s response to a massive disconnect between the stated vision for the culture and the actual behavior within the culture.

Leading the organization, ministry, or church to actually live the vision and values is a chief responsibility of leaders. Aligning the people and systems to the overarching mission is essential. Jim Collins once wrote, “Leaders spend too much time drafting, wordsmithing, and redrafting vision statements, mission statements, values statements, purpose statements, aspiration statements, and so on. They spend nowhere near enough time trying to align their organizations with the values and visions already in place.”

Nehemiah’s response to the disconnect (chap. 13) reveals four key actions leaders must continually take in aligning action with vision.

1 – Inspect the culture of the organization.

Nehemiah did not merely assume that the vows the people made publicly (protecting the purity of the temple, honoring the Sabbath, and not intermarrying) would be embraced in practice. He knew our proclivity to wander. He did not presume that he could simply “speak a culture into existence.” Instead, he listened and looked for misalignment. His listening revealed that Tobiah was given a room in the temple, the offerings were not being given to the Levites, and men were giving their children away in marriages outside of the Hebrew faith.

Leaders must be careful not to be removed from reality. The old adage is true: “You must inspect what you expect.” Leaders must be engaged in their organizations or ministries to ensure that what is said to be important is actually being embraced and lived out.

2 – Continually herald the “why.”

When Nehemiah discovered the disconnect between vision and action, he quickly reminded the people of the beliefs beneath the desired behavior. He passionately spoke about the neglect of the temple and the disaster of abandoning the Sabbath. In other words, he did not merely address the behavior, he reminded the people of the deeper vision.

C. S. Lewis once stated, “People need to be reminded more than instructed.” Leaders must continually remind people of the “why” behind the direction, the beliefs that undergird the activities, and the philosophy that impacts the practice. Sadly, the words on the vision and values statements lose their intended meaning if leaders don’t continually remind people of the heartbeat behind them. Without the voice of leadership, the words will start to mean different things to different people.

Tomorrow I will share two more leadership lessons from Nehemiah 13…