The Leadership of Nehemiah: Physical Vitality and Stamina

By Dr. Kevin Dougherty –

In 458 B. C., the Persian King Artaxerxes authorized Ezra to lead some 1,500 Jewish exiles back to Palestine from Babylon.  The group encountered numerous problems in rebuilding and improving Jerusalem, and the city’s wall was in particular disrepair.  When word of this situation reached Nehemiah in Susa in 445 B. C., he appealed to Artaxerxes to appoint him as temporary governor and allow him to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall.  The story of Nehemiah is a strong testament to obedience to God and faith in action.

Nehemiah is also an excellent example of a good leader.  Numerous theorists have sought to identify the skills and capabilities that make effective leadership possible.  One respected list of such attributes derived by John Gardner is:

Physical vitality and stamina

Intelligence and judgment in action

Willingness (eagerness) to accept responsibilities

Task competence

Understanding followers/constituents and their needs

Skill in dealing with people

Need to achieve

Capacity to motivate

Courage, resolution, and steadiness

Capacity to win and hold trust

Capacity to manage, decide, and set priorities


Ascendance, dominance, and assertiveness

Adaptability and flexibility of approach (John Gardner, On Leadership, 48-53).

What follows is a series of articles that highlight Nehemiah’s demonstration of each of the attributes on Gardner’s list.  The articles do not retell the story of Nehemiah and are recommended either for a reader already familiar with the basic narrative or as a supplement to a study of the book.  This first article illustrates Nehemiah’s physical vitality and stamina.         Leadership is certainly not for the faint of heart, and physical vitality and stamina is needed to live what Joseph Badaracco describes as the “managerial life”:

Every day brings another over-full schedule, with scores of messages needing answers, big and little projects requiring shoves forward, tough conversations, and crises of all sizes.  Most days end with a pile of work left undone.  Most of these tasks require energy, care, attention to nuance, and some creativity—because people usually come through a manager’s door with problems rather than solutions.  And this stream of tasks continues for months and years (Joseph Badaracco, Questions of Character, 76).

Badaracco concludes that leadership oftentimes resembles more of “a long, hard slog and not a stirring adventure” (Badaracco, 70).  It is, note James Kouzes and Barry Posner, more often found “in the daily moments” than in majestic and awe-inspiring sweeping gestures James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge, 342-343).  At times, it can seem like “an unending stream of problems and challenges” (Badaracco, 70). But caring leaders don’t simply endure these adversities with a grudging stoicism.  They embrace them in the belief that they make their lives deeper and fuller (Badaracco, 76 and 82).  To do so requires physical vitality and stamina.

Nehemiah was called upon to display physical vitality and stamina on many occasions during the rebuilding of the wall.  When the work was threatened by Sanballat, Tobiah, and the other enemies of the Jews, Nehemiah had to both continue construction and provide security.  In Nehemiah 4: 21-23, Nehemiah describes how “we continued the work with half the men holding spears, from the first light of dawn till the stars came out.  At that time I also said to the people, ‘Have every man and his helper stay inside Jerusalem at night so they can serve us as guards by night and workmen by day.’  Neither I nor my brothers nor my men nor the guards with me took off our clothes; each had his weapon, even when he went for water.”

Leaders are not always required to engage in such physical labor as was Nehemiah in the rebuilding of the wall, but the relentless demands of being responsible for others and the completion of a collective task always necessitates leaders have a formidable constitution.  Physical fitness, resiliency, and endurance are necessary for a leader to sustain the effort over time.  Nehemiah offers an excellent example of Gardner’s demand for physical vitality and stamina in a leader.



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