Perhaps the most definitive business book on leading an organization to change is John Kotter’s book Leading Change. When ministry leaders speak or write about leadership, they often look to the wisdom found in the Book of Nehemiah, as it chronicles Nehemiah’s leadership in rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem. Nehemiah led wide-scale change.
Nehemiah never read Kotter’s book, and he led well without it. The Lord well equipped Nehemiah for the task of leading God’s people. But it is fascinating to see how Nehemiah’s actions mirror much of what Kotter has observed in leaders who successfully lead change. Here are the eight steps for leading change, according to Kotter, and how one can see them in Nehemiah’s leadership.
Establish a sense of urgency.
Leaders must create dissatisfaction with an ineffective status quo. They must help others develop a sense of angst over the brokenness around them. Nehemiah heard a negative report from Jerusalem, and it crushed him to the point of weeping, fasting, and prayer (Nehemiah 1:3-4). Sadly, the horrible situation in Jerusalem had become the status quo. The disgrace did not bother the people in the same way that it frustrated Nehemiah. After he arrived in Jerusalem, he walked around and observed the destruction. Before he launched the vision of rebuilding the wall, Nehemiah pointed out to the people that they were in trouble and ruins (2:17). He started with urgency, not vision. Kotter has counseled leaders that without urgency, vision and strategy do not work.
Form a guiding coalition.
Effectively leading change requires a community of people, a group aligned on mission and values and committed to the future of the organization. Nehemiah enlisted the wisdom and help of others. He invited others to participate in leading the effort to rebuild the wall (2:17).
Develop a vision and strategy.
Vision attracts people and drives action. Without owning and articulating a compelling vision for the future, leaders are not leading. The vision Nehemiah articulated to the people was simple and compelling: “Let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace” (2:17). Nehemiah wisely rooted the action (building the wall) with visionary language (“We are the people of God and should not be in disgrace.”)
Communicate the vision.
Possessing a vision for change is not sufficient; the vision must be communicated effectively. Without great communication, a vision is a mere dream. Nehemiah communicated the vision personally through behavior and to others through his words. Besides his communication, Nehemiah embodied the vision. His commitment to it was clear to all. He traveled many miles and risked much to be in Jerusalem instigating change. He continued to press on toward the completion of the vision despite ridicule (6:3). Vision is stifled when the leader preaches something different than he lives. Kotter is right—“Behavior from important people that is inconsistent with the vision overwhelms other forms of communication.”
Empower others to act.
Leaders seek to empower others and deploy them for action. They seek to remove obstacles that hamper action that is in line with the vision. The rebuilding of the wall was a monumental task that took many people; therefore, it required broadening the base of those committed to the vision. Nehemiah involved many people in the project. He placed people in areas about which they were passionate. For example, several worked on the wall in front of their homes (3:23), likely most burdened for that particular area of the wall.
Generate short-term wins.
Change theorist William Bridges stated, “Quick successes reassure the believers, convince the doubters, and confound the critics.” So a leader is wise to secure some early wins to leverage momentum. Nehemiah and those rebuilding the wall faced immediate and constant ridicule and opposition; therefore, it was necessary for Nehemiah to utilize short-term wins to maintain momentum. After the initial wave of criticism, Nehemiah noted that the wall was halfway complete (4:6). The reality of the progress created enough energy to overcome the onslaught of negativity.
Consolidate improvements and produce more change.
Effective change gives leaders freedom and credibility for more change. The reconstruction of the wall was one aspect of the change that Nehemiah implemented. The overriding problem was the disgrace and destruction of the people. After their return from exile, the people did not initially reinstate the worship of God and observance of the law. Furthermore, there were numerous social injustices that were tolerated and led by the officials and nobles. The completion of the wall was, in itself, a huge short-term win. It only took 52 days to complete, but its impact was enormous, as surrounding nations knew it was “accomplished by our God” (6:15-16). The success of the reconstruction allowed Nehemiah to lead bolder changes under the banner of eliminating the disgrace and destruction of the people.
Anchor new approaches in the culture.
Leaders do not create a new culture in order to make changes; instead, they make changes to create a new culture. Kotter stated: “Culture is not something you manipulate easily. Culture changes only after people’s actions have been changed.” Nehemiah inherited a culture of mediocrity, indifference, and oppression. The walls were in ruin, which made the people susceptible to attack at any time. The people were out of fellowship with God. They had lost their sense of identity as God’s chosen people. Nehemiah altered the culture of the people by changing the behavior of the people. Every change led to the realization by the people that they were God’s possession, that God was their protector and strength. Every aspect of the change movement was integrated into the unified whole of being the people of God.
Leadership is often about change. And change is never easy. Without urgency, a community of committed people, and a compelling direction, change initiatives are doomed to fail.