February 5, 2024 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Nehemiah 2:17-18 (NRSV)
Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace.” I told them that the hand of my God had been gracious upon me, and also the words that the king had spoken to me. Then they said, “Let us start building!” So they committed themselves to the common good.
The book of Nehemiah shows that Nehemiah’s effectiveness as a leader wasn’t just a matter of skill or charisma. It was a result of the prayerful inner work he had done at the beginning of the story and continued to do as he was leading the people. There was something about Nehemiah that called forth a positive response from those who chose to follow him. Yes, it had to do with his vision and plan. But it also had to do with his character as a leader people wanted to follow.
Today’s devotion is part of the series: A Biblical Guide to Inner Work.
In yesterday’s Life for Leaders devotion, we began to examine the inner work of leadership as exemplified by Nehemiah in the Old Testament. We saw how, when faced with an overwhelming crisis, Nehemiah spent many days reflecting, weeping, and praying (1:4). His prayers demonstrated the deep inner work he had been doing, especially as they featured his confession of personal and familial sin (1:6). Nehemiah wasn’t simply functioning as a leader. He was engaged with his heart and soul, honestly confronting his failures as well as stirring up his hopes.
After his extended time of prayerful inner work, Nehemiah overcame his fear and asked his boss, King Artaxerxes, if he might be assigned to oversee the rebuilding of Jerusalem (2:5). When the king consented, Nehemiah asked for royal letters that would enable him to do the necessary work. Again, the king consented. Nehemiah took this to be proof that “the gracious hand” of God was upon him (2:8).
When he arrived in Jerusalem, Nehemiah led a small scouting party to survey the damage to the wall around the city. The majority of the people in Jerusalem, including the local leaders, were unaware of Nehemiah’s secret inspection of the wall. But there was no way for the rebuilding project to happen apart from the involvement of the people of Jerusalem. So, when the time was right, Nehemiah made known his plans to “the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials, and the rest that were to do the work” (2:16).
Nehemiah pointed to the problem of the destroyed wall and the disgrace it engendered (2:17). He explained his plan to rebuild, his experience of God’s blessing, and the fact of the king’s approval (2:17). The people responded enthusiastically, saying, “Let us start building!” (2:18). Nehemiah describes the result of his recruitment effort in this way: “So they committed themselves to the common good” (2:18).
This is the first occasion in the book of Nehemiah when we see how effective Nehemiah was in his leadership of people. The narrative implies that his effectiveness wasn’t just a matter of skill or charisma. It was a result of the prayerful inner work he had done at the beginning of the story and continued to do as he was leading the people. There was something about Nehemiah that called forth a positive response from those who chose to follow him. Yes, it had to do with his vision and plan. But it also had to do with his character as a leader people wanted to follow.
Those of us who lead teams of people would do well to follow Nehemiah’s example of leadership shaped by inner work. This encouragement comes, not only from Scripture, but also from a recent article in Harvard Business Review. In “To Improve Your Team, First Work on Yourself,” Jennifer Porter writes,
If a team is not working well together, it’s highly likely that each person is contributing to the difficulty in some way. The odds of improving the team dynamic in a meaningful and sustainable will be higher if everyone — including the leader — learns to master three foundational capabilities: internal self-awareness, external self-awareness, and personal accountability. Internal self-awareness involves understanding your feelings, beliefs, and values, and how they impact your reactions.
Internal self-awareness is the result of intentional, ongoing inner work. And this sort of inner work enables us to lead people both graciously and effectively. As Michaela O’Donnell writes in “How to Be a Better Boss,”
[If] we want to be the kind of leaders who seek the best for others, the kind that others want to work for and with, we have to bravely and lovingly face that which lies within. By taking loving responsibility for the shadowy parts of ourselves, and by welcoming God into our deepest challenges, crises, and crucibles we grow in love and capacity to care for others (1 John 4:18, NRSV).
I have had the privilege of working for bosses who did the inner work that enabled them to be leaders I wanted to follow. I think of one-on-one conversations I had with my first “big boss,” Dr. Lloyd Ogilvie. He shared openly with me how his desire for approval sometimes made it hard for him to lead if it led to criticism. More recently, I served under the leadership of Howard E. Butt, Jr., of Laity Lodge, who openly talked about his struggle with depression and all that he learned about himself as he dealt with this challenge. Both Lloyd and Howard encouraged me by their example to look inside myself—not to get stuck in navel-gazing, but so that I might be a more caring and constructive leader of others.
In tomorrow’s devotion, I’ll share an example of how my own inner work affected my leadership. Today, you may wish to reflect on the following questions.
Have you ever served on a team led by someone with wise self-awareness? If so, what was that like?
If you are a leader of people, whether at work, in church, in your family, in volunteering, or wherever, how self-aware are you? How aware are you of your feelings, beliefs, and values, and how they impact your leadership?
Can you think of something you know about yourself that helps you to be a better leader?
Talk with a friend or your small group about experiences you’ve had of wise, self-aware leadership.
Gracious God, thank you once again for the example of Nehemiah. Thank you for how he was able to lead people effectively, inspiring them with his vision and character so that they wanted to follow him.
Help me, Lord, to develop wise self-awareness that will help me in my leadership. Show me what I need to see in myself, including that which is good, that which is not-so-good, and everything in between. Help me, I pray, to be a leader that people want to follow. Amen.
Banner image by Merakist on Unsplash.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Does Trusting God Mean Turning to Prayer, Taking “Practical” Action, or Both? (Nehemiah 1:11-4:23).
Subscribe to Life for Leaders
Sign up to receive a Life for Leaders devotional each day in your inbox. It’s free to subscribe and you can unsubscribe at any time.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.