The Leadership of Nehemiah Part 2: Intelligence and Judgment in Action

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 second article illustrates Nehemiah’s intelligence and judgment in action.

Gardner distinguishes between merely being smart and the ability to use that attribute to do the work of a leader.  He also distinguishes between “judgment” and “judgment in action.”  Gardner defines judgment in its simple form as “the ability to combine hard data, questionable data and intuitive guesses to arrive at a conclusion that events prove to be correct.”  Judgment in action transcends this ability to also include “effective problem solving, the design of strategies, the setting of priorities and intuitive as well as rational judgments” (Gardner, 49).

In a fashion similar to Gardner’s linkage of intelligence and judgment, the United States

Army links initiative and judgment.  Initiative is “the ability to be a self-starter—to act when there are no clear instructions, to act when the situation changes or when plans fall apart.”  As critical to leadership and organizational growth as initiative is, however, it must be combined with good judgment to be productive.  The goal then is not mere impulsive or ill-advised action, but initiative balanced with sound judgment to produce “disciplined initiative” (FM 100-5, Army Leadership, 2-12).

Disciplined initiative requires opportunity, ability, action, and risk management.  It

strikes the balance between “judging too soon and deciding too late,” while reflecting a leaning toward action.  Judging too soon is often the result of “knowing the answer before considering the question.”  Deciding too late is often the result of an unrealistic demand for complete certainty.  Leaders must be able to reflect while withholding judgment until sufficient facts are in, but then be able to make a decision and act while it is still meaningful to do so (Bob Johansen, Leaders Make the Future, 55).  It is this enlightened action that separates leaders from the mere intelligent.

Nehemiah demonstrated this disciplined initiative in his preparation to rebuild the wall.  Having obtained King Artaxerxes’s authorization, Nehemiah might well have jumped into the project headlong, without the necessary judgment in action.  Instead he describes in Nehemiah 2: 13-16 how he made a clandestine inspection of the wall.  Only after he had gained a full appreciation of the task at hand did Nehemiah confide in the Jewish officials and others who would be doing the work.

It is interesting that Gardner claims that, “most important, perhaps,” is that judgment in action “includes the capacity to appraise the personalities of coworkers and opponents” (Gardner, 49).  Nehemiah purposely did his reconnaissance alone, having “not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem.”  The implication is that Nehemiah wanted to have the facts before he took his case to his coworkers; that perhaps they were not quite ready to see for themselves the things he would see.  His course proved a wise one because after he told them what he had seen, Nehemiah 2: 18 records that “They replied, ‘Let us start rebuilding.’”  Nehemiah’s deliberate approach also allowed him to appraise Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem—the opponents of the project.  These three mocked and ridiculed Nehemiah, but he readily answered them in Nehemiah 2: 20 that “The God of heaven will give us success.  We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it.”

While leaders must be studious and thoughtful, they must also translate this mental preparation into action.  Timing is critical as they progress from one stage to the next.  As they make such decisions, they must also be circumspect of the impact on those around them.  Nehemiah offers an excellent example of Gardner’s demand for intelligence and judgment in action in a leader.

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