3 habits of great leaders

The biblical book of Nehemiah contains examples of leadership done right. Countless books have been written about Nehemiah’s leadership as people have tried to mine essential truths from the Old Testament book that bears his name. Here is what the text of the early verses of Nehemiah chapter 2 record:

“During the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was set before him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had never been sad in his presence, so the king said to me, “Why are you sad, when you aren’t sick? This is nothing but depression.”

I was overwhelmed with fear and replied to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should I not be sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins and its gates have been destroyed by fire?”

Then the king asked me, “What is your request?”

So I prayed to the God of heaven and answered the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor with you, send me to Judah and to the city where my ancestors are buried, so that I may rebuild it.” (HCSB)

Habit 1:  Great leaders pray – Did you notice that when Nehemiah was asked by his king to disclose the nature of his request, he prayed? This was a quick prayer, possibly even one spoken silently in Nehemiah’s heart. He was standing in front of the world’s mightiest king of the day, and he had to give an answer, but before he did that, he prayed a quick prayer. What made it possible for Nehemiah to call out to God spontaneously? I believe it is because he was a “prayed up” leader. Look at the account in chapter 1: Nehemiah learned that his people, the Jews, who lived in Israel lived in a city with broken down walls and burned gates; they lived in despair, and Nehemiah’s response to that sad news was that he sat for days, mourned their condition, and prayed. Several months elapse between the events of chapters 1 and 2, and by the time Nehemiah stood before his king in chapter 2, he’d had plenty of time to pray about the problems back home in Israel. As it turned out, Nehemiah was the answer to his own prayer! He was the one who would go home and see that the city of his ancestors was rebuilt and repaired. But that answer came after months of prayer. Great leaders pray. How’s your prayer life as a group leader? Are you “prayed up”? Are you continually lifting up the needs of the people in your Bible study group?

Habit 2: Great leaders choose words carefully – Nehemiah was absolutely brilliant when it came to choosing his words. Notice that when he answered his king, he didn’t say, “I want to go home to Jerusalem.” He carefully chose the right words and said, “send me to the city where my ancestors are buried” and he left out the word Jerusalem. Why? Because decades before Jerusalem rebelled and was destroyed, and people were carried away into captivity. There was no need to remind his king about that kind of past. Nehemiah needed the king’s permission to change the future, and reminding him that the Jewish people were rebels wouldn’t help him accomplish that goal. Great leaders choose words carefully – the ones they speak and the ones they write. Great leaders self-edit and make sure their words fit the occasion. I love the B&H motto – “Every word matters.” Great leaders would do well to adopt that as their own motto!

Habit 3:  Great leaders know when to keep their mouth shut – Nehemiah chapter 2 goes on to record another incident in Nehemiah’s life that came on the heels of his request to the king. Upon returning to Jerusalem with his king’s blessing, the Bible records that Nehemiah got up at night to survey the city (v.12). Nehemiah is recorded to have said, “I didn’t tell anyone what my God had laid on my heart to do for Jerusalem” (v.12). This may be my favorite part of the story! My tendency is to tell what I know; I like to make sure that the people around me whom I lead know what I know – I like to share information. But truly great leaders like Nehemiah know there are some things that cannot be shared, no matter how important or great the news may be, there are times to remain silent and keep things to yourself as a leader. How are you doing in this area? Do you tell all you know to the people you lead, or are you able to keep secrets and release information only at the right time? Information that you share too soon can come back to haunt you, and telling too much can bring about the truth of the phrase, “Loose lips sink ships.” Do you know when it’s time to keep your mouth shut and experience the loneliness that is often associated with leading people? As a leader, you won’t be able to tell all you know. Some things are going to have to go unsaid until just the right moment.


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