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 fifth article illustrates Nehemiah’s understanding of followers/constituents and their needs.
The traditional yardstick for interacting with others is the Golden Rule’s admonition to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. Marshall Goldsmith notes that a better standard might be to treat others as they would like to be treated. His logic is that we all have different levels of tolerance for life’s inconsistencies, annoyances, and difficulties. If it is within our ability to absorb some circumstance, we sometimes have a hard time understanding why other people can’t also just suck it up and deal with it. Real understanding of others requires us to see things not from our point of view but from the other person’s. Leaders must remember that they are leading other people; not themselves (Marshall Goldsmith, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, 207-208).
People’s basic needs can be met by transactional leadership, but to lead their followers to excellence, leaders must understand what truly matters to and self-actualizes people. The old adage that “what gets rewarded gets done,” will only take subordinates so far. James Kouzes and Barry Posner note that to achieve their highest level of performance, people have to be intrinsically motivated based on what they personally care about. In such cases, the leader must realize that “what is rewarding gets done” (James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge, 170). The leader must understand what intrinsically motivates his followers in order to provide them opportunities to act on what matters to them.
When the wall was more than halfway rebuilt, Nehemiah becomes aware of a series of complaints some of the workers have. In Nehemiah 5: 2 some tell him that “We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain.” In Nehemiah 5: 3, others say, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine.” In Nehemiah 5: 4-5, others report having to “borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards” and having to “subject our sons and daughters to slavery.”
Nehemiah learned that these sufferings were being caused by nobles and officials charging the people usury. He called the offenders together in a large meeting and admonished them. He demanded that they give back the property and usury they had taken. The offenders agreed and in Nehemiah 5:12 promised to take no more.
Nehemiah not only compelled others to be sensitive to the people’s needs, he set the example by his own actions. Governors before Nehemiah had placed heavy taxes on the people, but Nehemiah did not. Even though Nehemiah was responsible for feeding over 150 people, in Nehemiah 5: 18 he reports that “I never demanded the food allotted to the governor, because the demands were heavy on these people.” Nehemiah had great empathy for the situations of his followers and showed sincere consideration of their needs.
Servant leadership is a leadership approach in which the leader meets the subordinate’s legitimate needs—which might include such concerns as training, encouragement, resources, or help with personal issues—in order to allow the subordinate to better focus on and accomplish the organizational mission (James Hunter, The Servant, 125). Obviously the workers could not focus on rebuilding the wall when their legitimate needs of food, shelter, and the security of their children were not being met. While the traditional authoritarian leader asks, “What can the organization do for me?,” the servant leader asks, “What can I do for the organization?” Nehemiah demonstrated such servant leadership in his excellent example of Gardner’s demand for understanding followers/constituents and their needs as a leader.