The Leadership of Nehemiah Part 4: Task Competence

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 fourth article illustrates Nehemiah’s task competence.

Leaders must have enough situational awareness to understand the work they superintend, but this does not mean that they must be experts on every job in the organization.  Certainly at the lowest levels, leaders must have intimate knowledge of the task at hand, but as a leader’s span of control expands, he cannot be reasonably expected to have mastery of more than a few of the matters under his jurisdiction.  Instead, his “task competence” means having knowledge of the whole system, its mission, and the environment in which it functions (Gardner, 50).

In Nehemiah 1: 11, Nehemiah describes himself as “cupbearer to the king.”  This position of trust and access no doubt marks Nehemiah as a man of capability, but there is nothing to suggest that Nehemiah was trained as an engineer, project manager, architect, mason, carpenter, or any of the other skills that might well serve a man embarking on an endeavor to rebuild a wall.  We know from Chapter 4 that Nehemiah was actively involved in the actual work, but there is no reference to any particular construction competence he may have had as an individual.  What is readily apparent, however, is Nehemiah’s ability to delegate and divide up work efficiently and effectively.  Chapter 3 chronicles how Eliashib and his fellow priests rebuilt the Sheep Gate, the sons of Hassenaah rebuilt the Fish Gate, Joiada and Meshullam repaired the Jeshanah Gate, Malkijah repaired the Dung Gate, and many others did their share of the task.

Nehemiah showed he understood the nature of the work when, in Nehemiah 2: 8, he requests King Artaxerxes make provisions for the timber needed for the project, but the task for Nehemiah was not to himself use that timber to make the beams.  There were others who had that skill and could do it well.  The task competence required of Nehemiah was to superintend the project and to organize it so that all involved could put their own task competence to good use.  This he did well, and we learn in Nehemiah 6: 15 that the wall was completed in just fifty-two days.

Lower level, direct leadership usually requires a fair amount of technical skill in the task at hand.  Higher level, more indirect leadership usually requires more interpersonal and conceptual skills.  As the organizational and strategic leader, Nehemiah drew heavily on these skills to not so much accomplish technical tasks himself, but to create conditions that allowed others to do so.  Among these conditions was the effective division of labor chronicled in Chapter 3.  Especially at the organizational and strategic levels, Nehemiah offers an excellent example of Gardner’s demand for task competence as a leader.

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