Learning from Nehemiah and Team Leadership

By Chad Hershberger

About 20 years ago, I regularly attended a home Bible Study with a friend of mine. The teacher, who went to my friend’s church, was very knowledgeable on scripture. I learned so much from him. This man lived and breathed his faith and felt it was a calling to share God’s Word with others. A few years back, he died, and I grieved that his knowledge also went with him.

Fortunately, we did tape many of his studies. And when I say tape, I do mean on a cassette tape. I’ve wanted to digitize those tapes for years, so that I could hear his voice again and learn from his words.

Fast-forward (pun indented) to the day my dad retired from pastoral parish ministry. Before he left his congregation, he told me to look at his books in his office and see if I wanted any of them. He was leaving most of his theological library at church upon his retirement. I found a few gems I wanted to keep. One was a commentary that included the Old Testament book of Nehemiah.

Nehemiah was my favorite Bible study that was done by the first man I introduced you to. I learned a lot about the context of the book as well as the characters and symbolism. Now, in this commentary that was my dad’s, I see that they used the book of Nehemiah to look at leadership lessons we can learn from the namesake of this scripture book. So, I thought, “I can use this for my series of articles on leadership.”  So, I dug out the book and got the tapes digitized on my computer and started to study this interesting book of the Bible.

In Nehemiah 1, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary reminds us that leaders have a sense of mission. Nehemiah knows that Jerusalem needs to be rebuilt. He determined that he would be the one to see that it was accomplished. It was not just a mission dreamt up by one’s own agenda or self-interest. It was a response after tears, prayer, fasting, humility, and seeking God’s will.

Nehemiah shows us, too, that leaders need to make their interests secondary. When his brother, Hanani, came to visit, he wanted to know how things were in Jerusalem. He was told the wall was broken down and the gates were destroyed by fire. Nehemiah weeps, fasts, and prays for four months. He didn’t turn his back on the problem because of his own interests.  He put others first, which is a good leadership trait.

A third leadership lesson in this first chapter of Nehemiah is that he does not find fault with others; but takes responsibility for the part of failure. He puts himself right in the middle of his prayer. “We’ve sinned,” he says. He doesn’t point fingers.

Nehemiah decided what needed to be done. He knew he was the man to do it. Next, he had to go to the king to set his plan in motion. But that isn’t always easy.

In my working life, at one of my prior jobs, I learned of some changes that were about to be made that would greatly affect me. When I found out about them, I cornered my boss and found out that indeed changes were coming, and they would impact my relationship with the employer.

What bothered me about what was coming was that my boss, the leader, did not seem to be working with us (and there were others that were affected) as a team. “The coach” was making unilateral decisions and not working with the players to get us on board nor listen to us for input on the direction of our organization.

I was reminded of this scenario when I read the second chapter of the Old Testament book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah was a man of compassion. He was unselfish and distressed over other people’s problems. And, when we saw those problems, he took them on as his own.

He uses a “we” attitude. Despite not being involved in the destruction of the wall of Jerusalem, he takes on the rebuilding of the wall as his own. He is a leader who gets busy with his own hands and works with others to get the job done.

He meets with the king to tell him of his plan. He is not sure how the king will react. Isn’t this also leadership courage? As leaders, we are not always sure how people will react to our plans. If we work for someone, we are not sure how they will respond to a new idea we have to make the workplace better. But often, those conversations go even better than we expected. Nehemiah prayed a lot before he went to the king. How often do we use prayer to help us as leaders?

That prayer may just be what enables leaders to bind together with their followers. Prayer often gives us guidance and clarity in what to do. And prayer can bind us together as a team. It can help us have a team attitude to work together to accomplish goals. It helps us to involve the ultimate coach, God, as well.

Nehemiah spent time in prayer and contemplation to see the tasks that lied ahead. And with the help of God, he then went on to get his followers on board, working together with them to work his vision. Having a team mindset was an effect way for Nehemiah to lead, especially with making sure God was on that team!