Enrolling in a seminar to learn how to be a leader is as unfeasible as taking a seminar to learn how to teach . . . Teaching elementary piano lessons, for example, requires a different set of skills than teaching calculus . . . If leading covers the categories of everything from playground monitor and supermarket produce manager to president and pope, then there is no effective way to teach leadership . . . training for leadership is mostly a waste of time. (Leadership Reconsidered, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008, 38.)
And a waste of money. But leadership training is big business. Just look at the number of books, magazines, seminars, courses, institutions, etc., committed to leadership training both in the church and in the marketplace. But as Robert Banks observes, commenting on the ever growing number of books on leadership:
While most of these books discuss the nature, forms, and styles of leadership, they pay little attention to the popularity of such discussions. It is simply assumed that the interest in leadership is the result of its importance rather than particular cultural factors. Little attention is also given to a theological evaluation of current views on leadership . . . (Reviewing Leadership, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004, 11)
Here, I need to confess that I will also be teaching a course on leadership. (See https://bgst.edu.sg/mainsite/). As I struggled to put the course together, I realised that the key leaders I encountered in the bible were not very conscious of their leadership, or indeed, of themselves. I came to see that the key leaders in the bible were motivated by their love for God and for people.
Like many others, I use Nehemiah as my main case study on leadership. Here is the account of the beginning of his journey of overseeing the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem:
These are the memoirs of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah. In late autumn, in the month of Kislev, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes’ reign, I was at the fortress of Susa. Hanani, one of my brothers, came to visit me with some other men who had just arrived from Judah. I asked them about the Jews who had returned there from captivity and about how things were going in Jerusalem. They said to me, “Things are not going well for those who returned to the province of Judah. They are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem has been torn down, and the gates have been destroyed by fire.” When I heard this, I sat down and wept. In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven. (Nehemiah 1:1-4 NLT)
From the above account, we see that Nehemiah was not thinking about himself or about leadership. Instead he was deeply concerned for the welfare of God’s people and for the name of God.
We speculate, of necessity, on the exact historical circumstances. What is clear is that the people is “in great trouble and shame”, and that this shame reflects upon God in the eyes of the world. (J. G. McConville, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, Philadelphia, PA: Westminister Press, 1985, 75.)
Nehemiah was someone who was living out this part of the Lord’s model prayer: “. . . may your name be kept holy. May your Kingdom come soon. May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:9b-10 NLT)
There is much we can learn from Nehemiah about the practice of leadership. But as Robert Banks hints, perhaps we have put too much emphasis on leadership itself to the neglect of other more fundamental concerns.
Few will dispute that the chaotic times we live in calls for good leadership. However, should our first concern be to raise as many effective leaders as possible, or at least do as much leadership training as possible? Perhaps Nehemiah’s story is giving us another lesson. Perhaps our first duty is to help nurture our people to be people who are sold out on the twin loves, the love of God and the love of neighbour (Mark 12:28-34).
When someone lives his or her life by the twin loves, he or she will look out at the world, and be deeply disturbed by the state of affairs. Such people, like Nehemiah, will then be moved to prayer and to do what is necessary for the glory of God and for the welfare of the people. Usually they will find that they cannot do it alone and will then seek to enlist others in the process. But at all times, their horizon is the will of God and His glory. Leadership is what happens. But note: such folks are not aiming to be successful leaders. Their first concern is for God’s will to be done and for God’s name to be glorified.
Ruth Tucker also suggests that we move our focus away from leadership to legacy:
Leadership is as fuzzy as it is shady and slippery — fuzzy in that it is so universally used without comprehension, and shady and slippery because bad so easily masks as good and often cancels out good . . . Legacy, on the other hand, is much more accessible and more easily understood. It is for everyone. All of us one day will have our legacy judged. . . As we contemplate our legacy footprint, we must honestly assess our lives. What are we living for and what will we leave behind for generations that follow? (Tucker, Leadership Reconsidered, 215 – 216.)
Nehemiah’s legacy was a wall and much more. He also took measures
. . . to increase the population of Jerusalem and to correct social, economic, and religious abuses . . (helping) to preserve the people of God, the oracles of God, and the promises of redemption against that day when God would fulfill all the old covenant yearnings and hope in the person and work of Jesus Christ. (William Sanford La Sor et al, Old Testament Survey, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982, 655.)
But Nehemiah’s legacy didn’t start with a Harvard MBA. It all started because a senior civil servant far away from home had his heart broken with the things of God. What will be your legacy? What will be mine? What does it mean for us to love God and neighbour in the stations that God has placed us? What drives us to weep and to pray? These are the leading questions.