An Enduring Legacy: “Basic Leadership Skills” – Nehemiah 2

Twin TowersDo you recall exactly where you were when the World Trade Center was struck by terrorists? Can you recall that day huddling near a TV set and watching the loop, over and over again, of planes hitting buildings and those towers collapsing? The sight was horrifying, but mesmerizing. Most of us couldn’t imagine being one of the people in charge of that mess in the hours that followed. There was a man on the scene who knows today EXACTLY what that felt like. The honorable former mayor Rudolph Giuliani wrote a book called Leadership that became a New York Times bestseller following the events. The opening chapters are a gripping tale of the first hours of the events that surrounded the fall of the towers.

Did you know that NYC built a state-of-the-art command center for huge catastrophes like this one? They did – but it was on the seventh floor of tower two. Did you know they had a backup center a good distance away? They did, but the phone and data communication lines truncated under the streets surrounding the twin towers! In other words, striking those buildings effectively paralyzed command and control of the city – causing Guiliani and his team to have to quickly reinvent a center and gain control of the city functions in a matter of hours. The process he used was recorded in his book – and is a treasure trove of description of men and women under pressure in a terrible situation.

Hopefully, none of us will ever be called upon to face such devastation and hardship in our lives – but we cannot count on that. Jews in Poland had no specific training when the Nazis invaded and put people into ghettos. They took away the rabbinic voices of leadership from their communities in many cases, and the people were left to rise up without a plan or a leader and try to survive the chaos and power-filled evil surrounding them. The truth is, that wasn’t the first time Israel’s children experienced such a thing. It happened centuries before, when God planted a small number of Jews back in the land of Israel, to re-build alongside the few families that evaded capture by the Babylonians seventy years before. Two generations passed in Israel, but the place was still in shambles. They didn’t lack MANPOWER, they lacked LEADERSHIP and SANCTION BY AUTHORITIES of their day. God heard the prayers of languishing families and hungry children – and He moved on the heart of a leader. Four months after an intense burden for the kingdom and its people at Jerusalem moved Nehemiah to present a need to King Artaxerxes, Nehemiah was on his way to Jerusalem bearing the letters that his king issued for him. When he arrived, he assumed command and initiated a carefully planned project with unusual prowess. In the record of his journal, we read God-preserved marks of godly leadership. Here is the principle for this lesson…

Key Principle: God hasn’t left us to lead without a pattern, and a primer on the basic skills we need to develop.

It is worth noting that great problems require great leaders to match the size of the task. Leaders aren’t BORN, they are CONSTRUCTED. Their abilities may be part of their make-up, but their skills that make leadership function are NOT a mystery to the Bible student.

Before we look at the passage closely, let me stop right now and address an issue that will tempt some of us to “turn off” learning at this point – because we don’t define ourselves as leaders. Many men and women woke up on September 11th, 2001 and had no idea they would be called to cobble together plans and make them work. Heroism is the act of a leader under extraordinary pressure, and all of the basic skills of leadership become immediately important in a crisis. Do you KNOW that you will face no crisis in your future? No, you do not. Therefore, it is essential that we consider how to lead. Further, in our society, we CHOOSE our leaders. Knowing the skill set necessary for leadership will inform your choices. This lesson isn’t just for project managers and CEO’s – Nehemiah has words for ALL of us!

There are seven basic skills to effective leadership that God reveals through this leader:

The Prerequisite of Prayer

Even before we look at the skill sets, we need to look at the foundation of good leadership that undergirds all great works of God. Look at the opening of the passage:

Nehemiah 2:1 And it came about in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, that wine [was] before him, and I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence. 2 So the king said to me, “Why is your face sad though you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of heart.” Then I was very much afraid. 3 I said to the king, “Let the king live forever. Why should my face not be sad when the city, the place of my fathers’ tombs, lies desolate and its gates have been consumed by fire?” 4 Then the king said to me, “What would you request?” So I prayed to the God of heaven.

As we follow the path of a leader from his journal we have to remember that the SKILLS will not make the man or woman of God successful on their own. The journal includes a KEY to the success of any believer’s leadership, tucked in places like Nehemiah 2:4b “…So I prayed to the God of heaven.” The dusty journal of this ancient leader is careful to remind us that each of these essential leadership skills must be rooted rooted in prayer and a walk with God – or they are simple flesh exercises. Maybe a story will help illustrate this:

The professor of a graduate-school class of gifted students included a HUGE amount of material on the midterm exam. Tension in the room built to fever pitch, with people sighing and gasping aloud when they realized how much material they had covered and were expected to recall. The following week, the professor tossed the graded papers on her desk and announced, “Class, after I left here last week, the Lord spoke to me.” He said, “Thanks, professor! I haven’t heard from some of those people in years!”(Sermon central illustrations).

Well, as each of these students revealed, often we realize that when our problem is bigger than us, it is time to pray. That is one of the reasons BIG PROBLEMS are often the source of GRAND BLESSINGS in our lives. That is certainly the example that Nehemiah left behind.

With prayer under girding our every effort, let’s take a look at the examples of seven leadership skills highlighted in Nehemiah 2, and then ask some penetrating question about their application in our lives as we move through the passage.

1. Negotiation: Petitioning the King (1-6).

Go back to the journal of Nehemiah and pick up your reading:

Nehemiah 2:5 I said to the king, “If it please the king, and if your servant has found favor before you, send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ tombs, that I may rebuild it.” 6 Then the king said to me, the queen sitting beside him, “How long will your journey be, and when will you return?” So it pleased the king to send me, and I gave him a definite time.

The text suggests that the art of negotiating has at least three discernible axioms:

a. Axiom 1: In an exchange with a superior, we should consider their needs and perceptions before we ask for anything.

In Nehemiah 2:5, the journal reads: “I said to the king, “If it please the king…” Note the recognition of status and position, and the absence of entitlement. This isn’t just a saying – it is a saying with important connotations. Nehemiah acknowledged the KING HAD A RIGHT TO BE PLEASED! Subordinates will never be successful hurling insults or criticisms at their boss. We move closer to earning the right to ask things when we start from a position of humility and truly grasp authority. That is at the core of our relationship with God and with each other. If we don’t respect authority, we shouldn’t expect much from authority. No one responds well to people who project entitlement.

Let me put this in very plain words: If you want to be successful working for someone, first be certain that you understand you are NOT their peer – you WORK for them. Keep it straight, even if you are friends. Nothing will ruin a working relationship between a boss and a worker faster than presumption and disrespect.

b. Axiom 2: Negotiation with a superior is only effective when it is based on the favorable reputation of the worker.

Nehemiah 2:5b continues: “…and if your servant has found favor before you…” This isn’t idle chatter – Nehemiah was making a point that many workers forget – reputation (and its Christian cousin called “testimony”) is built on the track record of positive reliability. So many people don’t seem to understand that your employer is much more likely to accede to your request if your job performance has been exemplary. Poor work leads to poor reputation. Poor reputation leads to a poor paycheck.

The single best thing you can do at work is try everything you know to become the most knowledgeable about your job, and perform at your highest possible level every day. The energy you put into the job will most often yield a solid reputation about the job – and that has the highest chance of yielding you an even better position in the company. That isn’t always true – but, like all axioms – it is usually true. Build your reputation. Build it in the work, build it in your knowledge about the work, and build it in your consistency doing the work. Apply maximum effort with a positive attitude – when you need something from the boss, you will be very glad you did!

b. Axiom 3: be precise about plan, motive and timing

Nehemiah 2:5b-6 continues:” send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ tombs, that I may rebuild it.” 6 Then the king said to me, the queen sitting beside him, “How long will your journey be, and when will you return?” So it pleased the king to send me, and I gave him a definite time.

When you read the account, what you immediately notice is that Nehemiah is a planner. He doesn’t start the discussion without thinking the project through to the end. Look at the details:

1. He is requesting to personally lead the expedition – he asked them to send HIM.
2. He knows what region and what city he wants to go to.
3. He is clear about his personal interest – it is the place of his father’s burials.
4. He is well-defined in the scope of the request – he wants to rebuild the essential city works.
5. He is clear-cut in his vision for the time needed to complete the task.

Poorly planned ventures abound in modern life – but they are seldom successful. I can’t resist offering this old story to illustrate the point:

A New York family bought a ranch out West where they intended to raise cattle. Friends visited and asked if the ranch had a name. “Well,” said the would-be cattleman, “I wanted to name it the Bar-J. My wife favored Suzy-Q, one son liked the Flying-W, and the other wanted the Lazy-Y. When they came and visited the property, Grandpa wanted “Sloping Creek”, and Grandma wanted “running stream”. Our neighbors thought that “Rolling Hill” was appropriate. Now we’re calling it the “Bar-J-Suzy-Q-Flying-W-Lazy-Y-Sloping Creek – Running Stream – Rolling Hill Ranch.” “But where are all your cattle?” the friends asked. “None survived the branding.” (Sermon central illustrations)

Nehemiah didn’t just want to fly off on a spontaneous whim and fix a problem – he spent time planning BEFORE he got to the first request stage. He didn’t believe in “signing the bill and then finding out what was in it” as our current Congress does!

A boss, and a parent for that matter, wants the detail before agreeing to the venture proposed. Your chances are MUCH HIGHER for getting a good result when your objectives are made clearer!

Before we move on, it may be a good time to mention the same things that work with a boss work in prayer.

• When we have SUPREME RESPECT for God, and don’t come with an entitlement – He is happy to help us. God resists the proud, but gives favor to the lowly.

• When we come to the Lord and ask for something while we are doing the most with what He has already given – we are far more likely to attain from His hand that which we request.

• When we ask for things that are specific and measurable, and we are prepared to take personal action and effort in them – God is more likely to give us what we are asking for – because He sees that we will use it well.

Jesus made the point that the Father not only knows our needs, but loves to grant us our desires – if they are for HIS purposes. God is not in the business of making us more important – but rather empowering us more for His purposes. We are not NEGOTIATING with God so much as you and I are learning what God will empower.

2. Administration: preparation of the plans. (7,8)

Beyond the negotiation stage, there is the administration of a project or work placed in our care:

Nehemiah 2:7 And I said to the king, “If it please the king, let letters be given me for the governors [of the provinces] beyond the River, that they may allow me to pass through until I come to Judah, 8 and a letter to Asaph the keeper of the king’s forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the fortress which is by the temple, for the wall of the city and for the house to which I will go.” And the king granted [them] to me because the good hand of my God [was] on me.

Don’t forget the key to administration is this: it is most effective when directed toward the essential needs of the task. A deckhand organizing the scrub brushes by size in the middle of a pirate attack is of little use in the effort to defend the ship. Doing something valuable to organize is only truly helpful if it is directed to the problem at hand. One of the things I have found so frustrating about leadership at times is the way that some leaders are distracted by secondary issues – unable to keep the “main thing” the “main thing”.

A few years ago I sat with a Pastor whose congregation was falling in numbers, as people left almost every week for other local churches. He was hurt and frustrated. I asked him why he thought this was happening. He didn’t know. I asked him if he got feedback from people about their choices. He said that he did not. Then he said the most astounding thing… He told me: “I really think our number one priority ought to be to get the new constitution for the church completed as soon as possible!” I was flabbergasted. I sat almost unable to respond. After a few minutes of listening to his explanation, I ask him a simple question: “How many people since you began your ministry have asked to see your constitution and bylaws before they came to the church services?” He said “None!” Then I asked: “If you had the perfect church constitution, and every bylaw when read sounded like it was written in the language of angels of Heaven, how would that get people to come to your church or stay when they did?” He said: “It wouldn’t”. Then, I answered: “If the ship is sinking, plug the holes first, paint later.” I don’t think he understood the analogy. By the way, I asked people who left why they did so, and one couple simply said: “our leaders are clueless, and our message is confused and muddled.” Based on my interactions with their leaders, I think the leaving group was on to something.

I don’t want to be unduly harsh on anyone, and I certainly have my own level of obtuseness – ask those who know me well. At the same time, I get the feel at times we are answering the wrong questions when trying to solve problems. Nehemiah needed two things to pull off the vision he planned with God’s burden on him:

First, he needed to arrive alive and well – he needed safe passage. He didn’t assume that everyone would CARE about what God laid on HIS HEART, but rather obtained the necessary paperwork to validate the King’s protective cover on his entourage. He is the first rule of administration – MAKE SURE ORGANIZATION IS AIMED AT THE REAL PROBLEMS. Judah wasn’t in shambles because it didn’t have builders – it was in shambles because it wasn’t a POLITICAL PRIORITY – and that was about to change in Nehemiah’s arrival. When there will be shifts that threaten to BUMP against people in power – it is necessary to organize carefully the paperwork and make sure your posterior is completely protected.

Second, he needed supplies to complete the work – particularly timber for building. Plans are great, but without SUPPLIES they are useless. Assets make things possible, but PEOPLE make them happen. Administration is about the stewardship of BOTH assets and people. Here is the second rule of administration – PLANS KEEP LIFE FROM HAPPENING TO US. Those who drift through days and weeks of life accomplish far less than they could, and their licensed un-discipline can easily be led astray.

Someone once said in a seminar I attended: “pin the tail on the donkey” can be a fun party game – but it’s a terrible way to run your life, your marriage, your bank accounts or raise your children. Administration is about setting right priorities and taking control of life with God’s principles. Don’t let the internet take your day away, or your TV, or the “problem du jour”. Make plans and work plans.

3. Perception: Consideration of the probable opposition. (9.10)

The third skill of leadership is no less important. In Nehemiah 2:9 the journal continued: “Then I came to the governors [of the provinces] beyond the River and gave them the king’s letters. Now the king had sent with me officers of the army and horsemen. 10 When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard [about it], it was very displeasing to them that someone had come to seek the welfare of the sons of Israel.”

Did you notice the two rules of perception in the verses?

First, Nehemiah aimed his perception skills at ASSESSING THREATENING SITUATIONS that could keep him from completing the work in the window of time given him. He quickly and proactively got a copy of the protective notice under the eyes of others who COULD be a problem, and protected himself in every way possible. Only a fool thinks himself a leader without assessing the direction of attacks against his work.

For the man buffing wax on your car, a single grain of sand allowed on the buffing pad can tear up paint. For the accountant, a single misdirected entry can cause hours of searching for a balance in the account. For a leader, it is essential he look in any direction that can slow or cripple the work, and find a way to close the breach.

Second, Nehemiah measured specifically WHO the opponents were as they reacted to the letter. Remember the old worldly management saying: “The breakfast of champions is not cereal, it’s the opposition.” Nehemiah had a deadline, and he wanted to know where opposition would come from.

It is important to know who the opponents are, and how strong they are – if you want to manage a situation successfully. Perceiving accurately will keep you encouraged when they false FLUFF THEIR NUMBERS. When someone says: “Lots of people are upset!” you should not get ruffled – you ned information on who and how many before you know how to respond. Often people think their cause is better supported than it truly is.

4. Inspection: Expect only what you consistently inspect!(11-15).

As we keep reading in the journal, Nehemiah 2:11 offers: “So I came to Jerusalem and was there three days. 12 And I arose in the night, I and a few men with me. I did not tell anyone what my God was putting into my mind to do for Jerusalem and there was no animal with me except the animal on which I was riding. 13 So I went out at night by the Valley Gate in the direction of the Dragon’s Well and [on] to the Refuse Gate, inspecting the walls of Jerusalem which were broken down and its gates which were consumed by fire. 14 Then I passed on to the Fountain Gate and the King’s Pool, but there was no place for my mount to pass. 15 So I went up at night by the ravine and inspected the wall. Then I entered the Valley Gate again and returned.

Nehemiah didn’t get his information second hand – he looked to see for himself. He went on an inspection tour. Notice carefully the WAY he did it! Inspections are most effective when:

They are completely unexpected (11). If you want to see it the way it truly is, don’t let them dress it up first!

The plan is completely undisclosed (12). People will ‘COLOR’ the plan with their own shading if they know the whole thing. Many leaders are too quick to take a work God is developing within them and place it in the path of traffic.

They are un-paraded (12b). Absalom traveled with an entourage of 50 men of Judah running before his chariot – just to make a statement. He lasted as leader for a few weeks and ended up caught under a tree (hanging by his hair) and stuck through with a spear like a skewered piece of pork on a barbeque. If you want a SHOW, then you don’t want to effectively lead. On the other hand, Nehemiah went with no fanfare on a night inspection because the SUBSTANCE OF THE PLAN was more important that the SHOW. Leaders can polish their buttons and admire themselves in the mirror – or they can get dirty and get the work done.

5. Discretion: Telling your plans when you are sure of what they are. (16).

I mentioned the fact that his journal makes clear that Nehemiah did not share things quickly – and that is a good trait in leadership. Look at Nehemiah 2:16 The officials did not know where I had gone or what I had done; nor had I as yet told the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials or the rest who did the work.

Bill McCartney retired as the head coach of the Colorado football team several years ago. His reason for retirement was not because he was unsuccessful as a coach. His teams had won the national championship. They had been in the top 10 many times. McCartney said that he was retiring because he wanted to reevaluate his priorities. He said, “I’m leaving coaching, & I’m going to take a whole year to re-evaluate my priorities. Is God first? Is my family second? Is my work third?” And when that year was over, Bill McCartney had dedicated his life & talents to Christ, & threw his efforts into founding the great men’s renewal gatherings that we know today as “Promise Keepers.” He could have announced his next move, but he wanted to take the time to evaluate, and share when he was SURE he knew what he would do. That’s discretion!

6. Presentation: Packaging the idea properly is essential to successful management. (17-18).

Many leaders drop the ball of presentation of the plan. We presented plans are INSPIRING. Nehemiah 2:17 Then I said to them, “You see the bad situation we are in, that Jerusalem is desolate and its gates burned by fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem so that we will no longer be a reproach.” 18 I told them how the hand of my God had been favorable to me and also about the king’s words which he had spoken to me. Then they said, “Let us arise and build.” So they put their hands to the good [work].

Note it was not just WHAT he said, but HOW that made the difference: Nehemiah “personalized the problems” of the people – and made himself ONE OF THEM. Remember, if people feel respected, cared about, and see their leaders personally involved in the things they feel are important, much conflict can be avoided.

I have one thing to say to my brothers in Christ in church leadership: Stop worrying about how to get more people into the church in which you are serving. Rather, turn your full heart and attention into relentless passion to follow the Savior in each pursuit of the day ahead. Before you are even fully awake begin to address God about the schedule of the day, and deliberately request your spiritual armor bearer to clasp each piece to its assigned place. Go through the day with the vigor of a prince who serves the greatest King ever! Wear a smile and speak with confidence about the days ahead! Cast off the gloom of the world – it isn’t your lot. Look to those who hurt, and lend a loving hand. If we work at lifting up the Savior, He will work at doing the drawing of men. The church needs the presentation of a call to greatness. It is NOT a call to exalt US – but to exalt the SAVIOR.

7. Conflict Management: Opposition will always follow a leader (19,20). What differentiates the good leaders is how they handle it!

Finally, the journal ends with Nehemiah 2:19 But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard [it], they mocked us and despised us and said, “What is this thing you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?” 20 So I answered them and said to them, “The God of heaven will give us success; therefore we His servants will arise and build, but you have no portion, right or memorial in Jerusalem.”

This account makes me smile. Nehemiah did TWO THINGS that I wish I could do as well and as consistently.

First, he listened carefully for their motivation not just their words. He knew the words were a cover for a deep seated set of fears and negative feelings.

Second he answered them. He was brief, polite and clear. He did not placate them with falsehoods, nor did he waste hours on their empty accusations. He answered simply: “God is at work – and He won’t be stopped by you or anyone else. We will do this building. Your participation was not requested, and you have nothing to do with this issue at all. Thanks for your concern! Your neighbor, Nehemiah”

You’d be surprised at what can happen if you will look right into the face of the ones who threaten the work of God and don’t get rude, but also DON’T FLINCH. I remember this old story…

There were two old geezers living in the backwoods of the Ozarks: Rufus and Clarence. They lived on opposite sides of the river and they hated each other. Every morning, just after sunup, Rufus and Clarence would go down to their respective sides of the river and yell at each other. “Rufus!” Clarence would shout, “You better thank your lucky stars that I can’t swim, er I’d swim this river and whup you!” “Clarence!” Rufus would holler back, “You better thank YOUR lucky stars that I can’t swim, er I’d swim this river and whup YOU!” Every morning. Every day. For 20 years. One day the Army Corps of Engineers came along and built a bridge. But the insults went on every morning. Every day. Another five years. Finally, Mr. Rufus’ wife had had enough. “Rufus!” she squallered one day, “I can’t take no more! Every day for 25 years you’ve been threatenin’ to whup Clarence. Well, thar’s the bridge! Have at it!” Rufus thought for a moment. Chewed his bottom lip for another moment. “Woman!” he declared, snapping his suspenders into place. “I’m gonna whup Clarence!” He walked out the door, down to the river, along the river bank, came to the bridge, stepped up onto the bridge, walked about halfway over the bridge, then turned tail and ran screaming back to the house, slammed the door, bolted the windows, grabbed the shotgun and dove under the bed. “Rufus!” cried the missus. “I thought you was gonna whup Clarence!” “I was, woman, I was!” he whispered. “What in tarnation is the matter?” “Well,” whispered the terror-stricken Rufus, “I walked halfway over the bridge and saw a sign that said, “’Clearance, 13 feet, 6 inches.’ He ain’t never looked that big from the other side of the river!” (author unknown).

God hasn’t left us to lead without a pattern, and a primer on the basic skills we need to develop.

We are facing a different set of problems than we think we are. I believe many of our children are being subtly trained by the world to think differently that we do. Let me illustrate:

A few years before he died, Chuck Colson wrote: “Over recent months, I’ve taught worldview to groups of bright young students. With each group, I had the same distressing experience. When I presented a classic example of a self-refuting moral proposition, they just didn’t get it.

An example: The late Christopher Reeve, in his wheelchair with a breathing tube, was testifying before a Senate committee. Reeve dismissed moral objections to embryonic stem-cell research, claiming that the purpose of government is “to serve the greatest good for the greatest number.” I then asked the students, “What’s wrong with this picture?” When I got no answers I dropped heavy hints.

Only one student gave the correct answer: If what Reeve advocated actually were our governing philosophy, he would not have been there to testify. Who would spend millions to keep him alive when that money could help thousands? I don’t know whether the students lacked analytical skills or were just confused, but when I explained the inherent contradiction, the lights went on. When I discussed the concept of absolute truth, and the fact that it is knowable, there was an occasional nod of understanding, but it was clear I was breaking new ground. These students, mind you, were products of Christian homes and schools. This lack of worldview awareness is appalling—but it’s exactly what George Barna has found in his recent polls: Just 9 percent of evangelical students believe in anything called absolute truth. What does this say about the job our schools, our families, and our churches are doing?”

I want to respond simply. It means we aren’t LEADING THEM, we are letting others do it – and that is our chief problem.