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
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 third article illustrates Nehemiah’s willingness (eagerness) to accept responsibilities.
Gardner requires leaders to possess “the impulse to exercise initiative in social situations, to bear the burden of making the decision, to step forward when no one else will,” and to do so with willingness and eagerness (Gardner, On Leadership, 49). Gardner implies action and intention, but Joseph Badaracco is even more direct in contrasting the somewhat passive “accepting” of responsibilities with leaders who “take” responsibility by wresting it “from a hard, recalcitrant worl.” (Joseph Badaracco, Questions of Character, 102). In so doing, they demonstrate that they have “not only the skills but also the determination and personal strength to be a leader” (Badaracco, 113). As Badaracco describes it, “taking” responsibility implies a greater emotion, assertiveness, energy, and psychological commitment than does merely “accepting” responsibility (Badaracco, 102). Leaders take responsibility not when they merely know a job and its requirements, but “when they feel it is theirs” (Badaracco, 114). This sense of ownership and personal attachment builds the perseverance a leader needs to see a task through to completion; not just grudgingly, but with eagerness.
Nehemiah learns of the sad state of affairs in Jerusalem from Hanani and some other men who tell him in Nehemiah 1: 3 that the inhabitants are “in great trouble and disgrace” and that the wall “is broken down, and its gates burned with fire.” At the time, Nehemiah was comfortably in Susa, the cupbearer to the king. He could have easily ignored the plight in Jerusalem or perhaps bemoaned it as unfortunate, but none of his concern. Instead he accepted responsibility. After praying, he went to King Artaxerxes and in Nehemiah 2: 5 asked to be sent to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall. No one thrust this responsibility on Nehemiah. He did not enter into it with reservation or half-heartedly. Instead, with great commitment, eagerness, and purpose, he took ownership of the task.
An eagerness to accept responsibilities contributes to the leader’s sense of ownership, and a good leader transmits this attitude toward his followers. Indeed after Nehemiah explained the situation to the potential workers, they too caught the eagerness. In Nehemiah 2: 19 they heartedly tell Nehemiah, “Let us start rebuilding” and Nehemiah reports, “So they began this good work.”
It is unreasonable to expect leaders to have the exact same excitement about each responsibility laid before them. Some tasks the leader will find extremely self-actualizing and others will be very mundane. Nonetheless, the effective leader must be willing—even eager– to accept each responsibility on its own merits and to own it in full measure. Certainly anything less than this robust commitment on the part of the leader will be quickly noted by followers and become detrimental to success. On the other hand, a leader’s eagerness can also be infectiously salubrious. Nehemiah offers an excellent example of Gardner’s demand for willingness (eagerness) to accept responsibilities as a leader.