A leader’s job, simply stated, is to influence people to engage willingly in an action or a series of actions that will create change in a desired direction. Anyone, therefore, who finds himself or herself in a situation where he/she has to make someone or a group of people do something differently has found himself or herself in the position of a leader – with a leadership challenge. Be it at home, at the office, in a group, with a friend, or anywhere else.
But how do you create significant change? How do you make people abandon their own work, decide to agree with your proposition, and then follow your directives?
How do you lead your family? How do you get the cooperation of your employees or colleagues? How do you arouse your community’s interest in a project you initiate? How do you inspire the people of a nation?
As an answer to the questions above, I’m going to introduce a man, a leader per excellence. A man who led people at an unlikely time to do an unlikely thing and to achieve an unlikely result. An unlikely man from an unlikely source, but yet a great example of leadership even for the modern world.
Did you know Nehemiah? No, it’s not your next-door neighbor; not even the guy down the street from where you live. And no, it’s definitely not that Jew that someone told you about the other day. He’s a Jew alright; but not that one.
Nehemiah is a bible character. He lived thousands of years ago and, from being a cupbearer to the king of the nation where he was held captive as a slave alongside many of his people, he went on to become the people’s governor. Let us consider his instructive lessons in leadership and creating positive change.
Lesson One: CLARITY OF PURPOSE
You can use as many expressions as you want to describe this, but it all boils down to one thing: let people know clearly, specifically what you want done and how you want it done. Be very specific about the work to be done and why it is important to achieve the desired result.
Many times – and I’m sure you have experienced this before – those who try to lead others don’t even seem to know the direction to follow. Nothing can be more frustrating. It’s the teacher trying to teach a topic he doesn’t understand; the sales person who can’t list two benefits of the health product they want you to buy; it’s the people who keep telling you to improve on your manners, and when you ask them how, they reply “just do something about your manners” – (now, parents beware).
To lead others to create change, you must be convinced of what you want and have good ideas, at least, on how to begin the work.
Nehemiah heard from someone who just returned from his hometown of Jerusalem that the walls of the city had broken down and the gates burned with fire. From that time on, Nehemiah had only one purpose: to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Just that one purpose, clearly defined in his mind, with a determination to change the situation.
So, when the king saw his sad countenance and inquired what was wrong, his reply was “…. May the king live forever! Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ tombs, lies waste, and its gates are burned with fire?” (Nehemiah 2:3). And when the king asked what he wanted, his request was “… I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ tombs, that I may rebuild it.” (Nehemiah 2:5). His other requests were those to aid the success of this mission.
Nehemiah’s clarity of purpose was once again evident when he eventually returned to Jerusalem (a city in Judah) and met with the remnant of his people. Let’s see this in the second lesson.
Lesson Two: COMMUNICATE TO THE HEART
You want to influence people to do something? Then you must learn to communicate to their hearts, and not their heads. You know, research after research have shown that the part of the human brain used to make decisions is, surprisingly, not the part that deals with logic and reasoning, but that which controls the appreciation of colours – emotions, feelings. This is why humans have been described – and rightfully so – as emotional beings, and not rational. Our actions are taken with sentiments. We act if we feel like; not necessarily because we need to.
Hear what our model Nehemiah said to his people:
“… You see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lies waste, and its gates are burned with fire. Come and let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer be a reproach.” (Nehemiah 2:17).
If you were there at the time, or if these words are spoken to you today, would you not join the work? The speaker did not call people to do what he wanted; he asked them to do what mattered to them: to rebuild their country and save themselves from reproach. He did not say ‘me’ or ‘you’ but ‘we’ – collective. He also spoke to their pride – their action would save them from the reproach of others, which they had hitherto suffered.
Notice also, that his words were focused at his purpose; he did not speak about politics or weather or economic policies of the country. He spoke about repairing the broken walls and burned gates.
So, to influence people to act, be specific and speak to their hearts. Don’t barrage them with the facts of the problems, but rather help them to see the benefits in your proposal and sell them the hopes that the benefits are possible if they take action. Help them see what is possible; the reason why they should act.
Lesson Three: Fight Till the End
There’s nothing worse than a leader who gives up. Don’t ever raise people’s hopes and then cave in to challenges when the people are ready to fight and fly.
When you lead or initiate action, you are your followers’ number one inspiration. Even when they complain sometimes, they still expect you to come through. If you come across to people as someone who might bolt when challenges arise, they will not be willing to follow you. And if they did follow you but you surrender along the way, you’ll find it impossible to convince them to act later.
All through the bible passage where his story feature, Nehemiah encountered series of difficulties, especially from three chief enemies of the country. They wanted the project to stop; they mocked, then threatened, but Nehemiah continued undaunted. And finally, the wall was built and the gates put in place.
But more than just building the walls, Nehemiah was rewarded with other benefits as the people, now with strong walls and gates, went on to build other aspects of the country’s life. And that is how you get rewarded if you have a clearly defined purpose, win the people’s hearts to follow you, and stick to the project until the very end. Until you succeed, together.