Archive for Leadership Lessons from the Bible

Who’s In Charge Here? (Lessons on Leadership from Ezra, part 8)

Motivating Your Followers

For over twenty years, I lived my life in the same (over)weight range, always believing that I needed to lose some weight, but never really doing so. I tried a variety of diets and exercise regimens, but nothing ever moved me out of that range, nor did any of them ever become a long-term lifestyle. I finally convinced myself that I simply had a stocky build, and, in fact, I had developed a sense of pride about my larger size. And I believed that I was much healthier than I actually was. But then I was confronted with the realization that I was very overweight, out of shape, and unhealthy, when my doctor found it necessary to prescribe medications to treat the effects of my poor health, and a family member confronted me on my overeating. I realized that I was endangering not only my own life, but also the care and well-being of my family.

It was then that I embarked on a journey that (literally) changed me into a different person. I changed some of my eating behaviors, incorporated several tools to help me maintain a daily awareness – most helpfully, an app on my phone – and gradually implemented moderate exercise. The results shocked me – I consistently lost several pounds a week, losing a total of 50 pounds in just under four months to reach my goal weight (and I have since maintained my healthier weight and lifestyle). My greatest moment of joy came when I was able to once again wear the leather bomber jacket that my wife had given me at our wedding 26 years earlier.

There were several valuable leadership lessons that I learned from this, but one of the key questions I wrestled with was that of motivation: why had I never been able to get myself to do this before? I had tried so many times, but could never seem to light that fire enough to follow through, and I could never seem to find the motivation that would drive me to change. But something was different this time, and I finally had found the discipline and desire to do it. I discovered the right motivation that worked.

I think this is a question that we all struggle with – how to motivate others, and how to motivate ourselves. There are plenty of theories and ideas about motivation, and I won’t claim to have the corner on an exclusive motivational secret, but I do think we can learn some valuable lessons about it from Ezra. Specifically, Ezra 4:23-5:5 provides us with a scenario that teaches us two important components of motivation.

This passage begins with the halt of the construction on the temple in Jerusalem, when those opposed to the work used the authority of the king to force the Israelites to cease their building. It wasn’t until sometime later, after a new king had come into power, that circumstances led to the restart of the construction. In between, Ezra 5:1 makes the statement that two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, “prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem,” which then prompted the Israelites to begin the rebuilding again (and this time, according to verse 5, “the eye of their God was upon the elders of the Jews, so that they could not make them cease”).

It seems that whatever it was that Haggai and Zechariah said, it motivated the Israelites to begin the work again, so we need to understand what they did, in order to learn the motivational lesson from their methods. To do this, we need to look at their respective books, Haggai and Zechariah, in which the first few verses of each book introduces the prophet and gives us the context of the messages they each shared. Haggai’s message came first, in the sixth month of the second year of King Darius’ reign (Hag. 1:1), and Zechariah’s message followed two months later (Zech. 1:1). I think that this order matters, because they had different messages that served different purposes. Therefore, it is helpful for us to see what those differences are so that we can learn from their example.

Haggai 1:1-15 provides Haggai’s message, which was one of exhortation, or challenge, in view of the present circumstances and need. In his message from God, he confronted the Israelites for saying that it was not the right time for them to rebuild the temple, and then contrasted the ruin of the temple to the nice homes in which the people were living (vv. 4-5, “Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, and this temple to lie in ruins?” Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: “Consider your ways!”). When Haggai spoke, he confronted the current culture, presented the need, and challenged the people to respond. His exhortation to them was that it was time to finish the temple; therefore the temple would need to be completed before God could bless their efforts (v. 4, 8).

Zechariah 1:1-6 provides Zechariah’s message, which was one of encouragement. In his message from God, he contrasted the past failure of the previous generations with the future hope for this generation, reminding them of their future reward and hope (v. 3, Therefore say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Return to Me,” says the Lord of hosts, “and I will return to you,” says the Lord of hosts.). Zechariah encouraged the people with reminders of God’s promise and blessing, to keep the people moving forward. His encouragement was a reminder to them of Gods sovereignty, that He needed the temple, and so it would be built just as He had determined. Therefore his message reminded and focused on God’s future promise of His presence.

Understanding the messages of these two prophets provides us with two applicable lessons for our own leadership. The first is simply the steps – in this order – of exhortation, then encouragement. People first need to be confronted with the difference between where they are and where they need to be (and the implications of each of those two places; and sometimes – in Christian community – that confrontation needs to be a spiritual confrontation in response to a departure from God). Black and Gregersen talk about this same idea in the book Leading Strategic Change, when they identify the need to “create contrast” as the first step to changing people’s mental maps. Then, people need encouragement, to believe that they can do it and that it will be worth it. It is important that encouragement comes after confrontation, in order to lift spirits and inspire confidence, especially if, after the work has begun, people begin to get weary and worn (which often happens).

The second lesson for us is the clear reminder of God’ timing and plan. The context of Ezra 4:23-5:5 paints a picture of God allowing circumstances to carry out His ordained timing, in that the work was stopped until the specific time that God determined He was ready to start it up again. When that happened, nothing could get in the way or prevent it. And on top of that, Haggai 1:14 shows us that God intentionally moved in the hearts of the leaders and the followers at this point in time to begin the work again. Notice, however, that even though God was the one directing the timing, He chose to use men of God to share His message.

So for us, the example of these prophets can remind us that we are instruments in God’s plan; therefore, as we live out His purpose in our lives, we can trust His providence. We still have people to lead and a message to communicate, and we need to make sure that we are communicating His message and not our own, but if we are doing so, we can leave the results in His hands. In that message, we need to confront people with the need for change by providing contrast, but we also need to encourage them with the view of the future that creates a belief in its value. So, do you need motivation? Do you need to motivate others? Start with exhortation, follow it with encouragement, and keep your plan aligned with God’s.

This is the eighth installment in an ongoing series on leadership lessons that can be learned from the book of Ezra.

Who’s In Charge Here? (Lessons on Leadership from Ezra, part 7)

Let People Have a Voice

If you have been following this series, by now you realize that I have found that the book of Ezra is chock full of lessons and illustrations on leadership. I have already written about topics like understanding God’s sovereignty in my plans, preparing myself for leadership, team leadership, the work of leadership, and seeing the big picture. In my study of the book, I have also found application to many other leadership principles and concepts, like strategic planning, overcoming obstacles, building motivation, and more. Another of those lessons, which is illustrated in the events that take place in chapter 10, verses 7 through the end of the chapter, I believe specifically provides an example of the value of giving people a voice.

There was a time when leadership was viewed as an authoritative role that looked something like this: I am in charge, I know what needs to be done, I tell you what to do, and you do it. The assumption was that the leader was the one who really knew what was best, so he talked and the followers listened. Classrooms used to operate the same way, when teachers would lecture and students would listen and take notes; but it was a very one-sided dialogue. Studies of leadership now recognize that this is not effective leadership, and that now we need to be willing to give people a voice in the process. Heifetz and Laurie, in their Harvard Business Review article “The Work of Leadership,” included in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership (2011), found that “giving a voice to all people is the foundation of an organization that is willing to experiment and learn” (p. 69). However, that doesn’t mean that it’s no longer a struggle for us to do, and so it is still something that we need to intentionally cultivate in ourselves and in our leadership.

A couple of important concepts have personally helped me to recognize this truth. One was the realization that many people know much more than I do about many things, and there are many things that others can do better than I. I don’t know everything, and I am not the most skilled at everything. Therefore, I can be more effective when I tap into the knowledge and skills of others, but that, in turn, means giving them an opportunity to contribute. A second was the realization that those who are closest to a situation – those on the ground floor – generally have the greatest understanding of what is taking place. The people actually doing the job often have the best understanding of what works and what does not. The result, then, is that I have learned that I need to give people a voice, especially in the process of implementing change. If people are given the ability to speak into the process, they will in turn take more ownership of it and will be more involved and more committed. And this is where a look at Ezra 10:7-17 gives us some great insight. If we walk through the passage verse by verse, what we see is a great picture of the importance and value of leaders giving people a voice in the process.

Verses 7 and 8 set the stage, describing how Ezra gathers everyone together. A proclamation is sent throughout the area instructing people to come to a central location for what will be an important meeting. They are given three days to arrive and gather, and the proclamation includes a rather severe ultimatum to ensure that people come. The important components that are immediately evident for our understanding of leadership are these: 1) make sure to include those who will be affected, so that the ones who will be impacted have an opportunity to have a voice; 2) provide a time and place for the dialogue to take place, making sure that the availability of those invited is taken into consideration; and 3) provide a motivation that underscores the importance of the meeting, increasing the likelihood of the right people being there.

Once gathered together (v. 9) – and notice that the attendees recognized the importance of this discussion – Ezra stood in front of everyone present and briefly explained the basic issue and the needed outcome (vv. 10-11). In their case, it was the sin of unfaithfulness to God, requiring confession, repentance, obedience, and separation. The example it provides helps us to see that people need to have a clear and understandable idea of what the issue is and what the outcomes need to be. Before people can give input, it is the responsibility of the leader to communicate and summarize so that everyone involved can understand and engage. Everyone needs to see the picture clearly and be on the same page from the start. And clearly, Ezra did this well, because the response of the people (v. 12) was a resounding “Yes! We are on board and we will do it!”

At this point, the people are given the opportunity to speak into the situation (vv. 13), and the discussion that ensues is a wonderful representation of the importance of giving people a voice. They have heard the issue and the needed outcomes, they have expressed absolute support, but they also recognized that there are some factors that need to be considered in the process, because those factors will affect their ability to accomplish the goal. In their situation, they identified the problem of volume – how many and how much (“there are many people,” and “there are many of us who have transgressed”) – and the problem of physical circumstances (“it is the season for heavy rain”). Very often, it is those who are on the ground floor and in the trenches who are best able to understand what is being faced and how it will impact those involved. The leader may be the one who is best able to “zoom out” and see the big picture, but once you “zoom in,” the people who are carrying out the work of the tasks may be best able to see the details and provide input. They will see things that you miss, and so if they are not given the opportunity to speak, you may be creating obstacles that can greatly hinder the likelihood of accomplishing the goals.

But it didn’t end there. The people knew the obstacles that would increase the challenge, and they were able to offer ideas to solve those issues (v. 14). They proposed a solution that addressed their problem of volume and allowed for the disruption caused by their physical circumstances. Then, because they were empowered to speak, they got behind the leadership and took ownership of the issue and the solution. Their solution, based on their first-hand knowledge of the circumstances, included identifying representative leaders, arranging a schedule and time frame, establishing a process, and clearly communicating the purpose. This provides a great example of the result and benefit of giving people a voice. When they have the opportunity to participate and contribute, they buy in and take ownership. When that happens, you will have their support and involvement and have a much higher probability of accomplishing the tasks. And keep in mind, because they may have the best picture of the details, they can provide valuable input into a workable solution.

Verses 16 through the end of the chapter reveal that the leaders listened to the people and took their input into consideration when determining the action steps. They then followed that established process, completed the plan, and achieved the goals. But before that happened, verse 15 points out an interesting side note: the proposed solution did not have unanimous support. Several leaders of the people opposed the idea, including at least one spiritual leader. One of them, Meshullam, is also mentioned in Nehemiah 3:4 as someone who was helping to repair the wall in Jerusalem, so I don’t think these individuals were opposed to the goal, just to the process that was proposed. This gives us a good picture of how the process operates in organizations (and how the body of Christ operates): there will likely never be full agreement on anything, but giving the people a voice will bring the best ideas, and it is then the responsibility of the leadership to filter the responses, seek God, and determine the direction. As Seth Godin says in Tribes, “Listen, really listen. Then decide and move on” (2008, p. 128).

Ezra’s leadership shows us the value of giving people a voice. If we don’t do the same, we only make our job more difficult. So I say, “Let the people speak.”

Godin, S. (2008). Tribes: We Need You To Lead Us. Portfolio: New York, NY.

Heifetz, R. A., and Laurie, D. L. (2011). “The Work of Leadership,” in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership. Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, MA.

 

This is the seventh installment in an ongoing series on leadership lessons that can be learned from the book of Ezra.

 

Who’s In Charge Here? (Lessons on Leadership from Ezra, part 6)

Seeing the Big Picture from God’s Point of View

            I enjoy puzzles. I enjoy all kinds of puzzles – word puzzles, number puzzles, brain games, etc. – but in this instance I am specifically referring to jigsaw puzzles, the ones that are pictures cut into hundreds of little pieces that need to be assembled. And I have a preferred method of assembly: first turn all of the pieces face-up, setting aside those that have a straight edge (the outside frame); then assemble the outside frame; finally, begin to assemble the rest of the pieces, looking first for pieces that more obviously fit in the same section together. In the process of putting the puzzle together, however, one of the most important components is not the puzzle itself, but rather, the picture on the box.

It is the picture on the box that provides the perspective and the vision of what is being assembled. It provides a visual landscape that helps in determining the general context or place where an individual piece belongs. It’s a map that lets you see where you want to go. I once used the picture on the puzzle box to illustrate a lesson, by giving a puzzle to each of several small groups of people. Some of the groups had the puzzle box, so they could see their picture, but some of the groups did not (and some had all the correct pieces, but some had the wrong pieces or were missing pieces; that served to make a different point). Part of the purpose of the lesson was to illustrate the importance of “the big picture,” or the master plan, for managing a process, a task, or life itself.

The implication of this illustration is simply that a good leader needs to be able to see the big picture. Like puzzle pieces, each piece of the context, the environment, the organization, or the situation fits into a larger context, and a leader can best see how it fits when viewing the whole picture. In order to see the whole picture, that leader must be able to get on the balcony, zoom out, and get above the forest to be able to see clearly. Being able to do this will keep him from getting lost among the trees, and will provide the perspective necessary to implement changes and adjustments.

However, for a Christian leader, there is an even bigger picture and a more important lesson: seeing the big picture from God’s perspective. In an earlier post, God Has a Plan, I discussed the fact that God has a sovereign plan and purpose, and it is against this backdrop (of the clear evidence of God’s sovereignty) that we learn from Ezra how to see the big picture from God’s perspective, and even how that affects motivation and purpose.

The lesson emerges in chapter 7, a pivotal chapter in understanding Ezra’s leadership (I touched on this also in another post, Prepare Yourself to Lead). The chapter details how Ezra had been granted permission by King Artaxerxes to return to Jerusalem (with another reminder of God’s hand in that circumstance in 7:6 – “and the king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was on him”). But then the king went beyond granting permission, and wrote a letter that provided authority, protection, and significant resources for Ezra (7:11-26). After the proclamation of the letter, Ezra’s initial response is recorded in verse 27: “Blessed be the Lord God of our fathers, who has put such a thing as this in the king’s heart.” His response clearly reveals that Ezra saw God’s hand in all that had happened. He was able to look beyond his own finite, human scope of vision and see the events from God’s perspective. He recognized that God’s purpose was over and through the circumstances.

As a result, he understood the real importance of what was happening, which in turn shaped his purpose and drive, and his communication to his team, which we see in 8:28: “And I said to them, ‘You are holy to the Lord; the articles are holy also; and the silver and the gold are a freewill offering to the Lord God of your fathers.” Ezra helped his team to understand that God had a sovereign purpose, and therefore the tasks that they were carrying out were being used by God to fulfill that purpose; therefore, their work was holy. Ultimately, an understanding of the holiness of their task (and of themselves) impacted their drive, their commitment, and their performance.

This story from the life of Ezra provides a great lesson for our leadership: while it is important – and even necessary – for a leader to be able to see the big picture, the Christian leader must take it a step further and see the big picture from God’s perspective. Then, when our understanding and determination of purpose are filtered through recognition of God’s purpose, it affects how we answer two important questions: Where are we going, and why are we going there?

It is always important for a leader to determine and define the necessary and intended direction (where we are going), but part of understanding this comes from seeing the bigger picture of context from God’s perspective. When you are able to do that – to see the big picture from God’s perspective – you have an understanding of destination that goes beyond the visible and immediate future. You recognize a purpose that is bigger than you, that is bigger than your big picture, and which has an eternal impact.

What follows is an impact on motivation (why we’re going there). For people to respond, there must be a clearly established and communicated purpose and motive, one that makes sense to and resonates with people, and helps them to understand and believe in why they are doing what they are doing. When they can see that they are fulfilling a role in God’s plan, then the work they are doing is elevated to a new level of importance; more than that, it is elevated to an act of holiness. For the follower of Jesus, this provides true motivation.

So, seeing the big picture is important, but seeing it from God’s perspective is more important. The challenge for you and me is to learn to open our eyes to God’s presence and intentional involvement, not just in the history recorded in Scripture, but in our lives today. It is to see the events and circumstances that are taking place in our daily experiences from His perspective. And when our eyes have been opened, and we recognize His sovereign purpose and see the big picture from God’s perspective, then our responses, our purpose, our motives, and our motivation rise to whole new level.

 

This is the sixth installment in an ongoing series on leadership lessons that can be learned from the book of Ezra.

 

Who’s In Charge Here? (Lessons on Leadership from Ezra, part 5)

The Work of Leadership

In my first year as the head of a school, I was enthusiastic and organized, with big dreams and a plan that I was developing and implementing. At first, though, I kept finding myself getting frustrated, because I would have seemingly constant interruptions that kept me from getting to the tasks that I need to do in order to carry out my plans. I know now how foolish this sounds, but I was getting frustrated because people were getting in the way of the tasks. Eventually it dawned on me that people were part of the job, so to alleviate the frustration, I began to allot specific time periods each day for people. And of course, people couldn’t seem to keep their interruptions confined to the times I had designated (you can read sarcasm into this). Finally, God smacked me over the head by reminding me of a former pastor’s sermon in which the message had repeatedly emphasized that people matter to God. I realized that the work of ministry is primarily about people, because people matter to God (and therefore they should matter to me), even though tasks are a necessary part of the work of effective leadership. I finally understood that leadership is about both people and tasks, and that the real challenge is in undertaking the work of leadership in a way that accomplishes tasks well while also meeting the needs of people in a way that draws them toward God.

Years of research and study on leadership by many researchers have concluded that the work of leadership does indeed boil down to these two things: tasks and people. At it’s core, effective leadership must be able to manage and direct the tasks appropriate to the circumstances, and at the same time manage and direct the people involved in a relational way that develops them individually. Very simply, it means getting the job done well, while working well with people and making them better in the process.

In practice, though, leadership is more complex than this, because there are lots of variables in both tasks and people: different personality types, different circumstances, different strengths and weaknesses, different obstacles, different tasks, and so on. And beyond that, it takes lots of work to develop a vision, then make plans, and finally implement the vision and plans in a way that most effectively accomplishes the tasks and leads people. The reality is that the work of leadership is daunting. However, the book of Ezra can and does help with this, providing some valuable lessons that help us identify important principles that make the work of leadership more effective. In his story, we find lessons that are beneficial for our own personal spiritual growth, but that are also applicable to our role as leaders.

Ezra first shows us that there are three things that have to happen before you can begin to move forward, and these three things are illustrated in the description of the early stages of his leadership. In Ezra 7:6, we are told that Ezra had made a request of the king (which the king granted, as we see a little later in the chapter); in Ezra 7:7, we are given a list of the categories of people who went with him in the return to Jerusalem; and in Ezra 7:15-17, we are told that he was to be provided with gold, silver, and the necessary resources for the task ahead of him.

What is reflected in this information is the necessity of three things: getting permission, getting people, and getting resources, before undertaking the work of leadership in a situation, project, or organization. Getting permission can come from superiors, who give the necessary approval needed before getting a green light to go, but it also needs to come from below, by getting buy-in from followers. If they haven’t agreed to follow your lead, very little movement is going to take place. Getting people involves the task of identifying the necessary strengths needed for the task, and then assembling the best group of people to accomplish those tasks. Finally, getting resources involves gathering those things – tools, finances, or people – that must be assembled before beginning the tasks. With these three things arranged, the rest of the book of Ezra provides insight into eight components that make up the work of leadership.

 

  1. Recognition: Ezra 7:27-28 records Ezra’s response to the letter from the king that authorized the return to Jerusalem, which promised assistance. It is important to see that, in his response, the first words out his mouth were, “Blessed be the Lord God of our fathers, who has put such a thing as this in the king’s heart.” First and most importantly, he gave honor to God, acknowledged that He is ultimately sovereign and responsible, and recognized that it was His plan. He gave credit where credit was due, immediately and at the front end of the process. All Christian leaders need to do the same – recognizing God’s place in our lives and in our circumstances – but the idea can also be applied to our leadership of others. People also need to be recognized and feel valued, believing that they are important to the process and the vision, and so recognizing them early (and often) affirms their value and enhances their level of commitment.   Therefore it is important to recognize the benefactors, the idea-makers, the planners, the leaders, the contributors, and the participants.
  2. Voice: in Ezra 10, Ezra had confronted the people with a pervasive problem and the need for resolution and restoration. In verses 12-14, they approached Ezra and gave input into the solution for correcting the problem, and verse 16 reveals that they were heard; their input was incorporated into the process of resolution. They were given an opportunity to speak, and they were heard, and this reminds us of the importance of giving people a voice, and then listening to what they say. Often, those who are on the ground floor, or in the trenches, have an awareness and understanding of the obstacles, the needs, the details, etc., that the leadership does not clearly see because they are further removed from it. Therefore there is great value in intentionally soliciting input and validating concerns and viewpoints; and where appropriate, that input should be used to modify or adjust the plans. And at the risk of saying it too many times, don’t forget to first submit those plans to God for his approval, and listen to His direction.
  3. Resources: Ezra 7:11-26, the letter from the king to Ezra, details the resources that were being provided for the mission, and it included people, funds, supplies, tools, time, and talents. In Ezra’s case, God provided all that would be needed through the king’s own stores, but the lesson for us is that God will provide for His plan. That provision may come from you, or it may come from other sources, but He will do it in the way that is best. The application of this idea to leadership helps us to see the need to first identify what you have available – the people and skill sets, the funding, the supplies – and then identify and solicit any additional needed resources. Figure out the resources you have and the resources you need.
  4. Leaders: Ezra 7:25 and 10:14 point out two different capacities of leadership that needed to be filled. In the first verse, we are told that Ezra appointed magistrates and judges, and in the second verse, we are told that the people were going to identify a leader from among each group to represent them, which reflects the two purposes of oversight and representation. Those who are charged with oversight are people from among the leadership who have the task of overseeing and managing both the planning process and the implementation of the plan. Those who are charged with representation are people from among the followers who serve to represent and act on behalf of the people. Both kinds of leaders must be people submitted to God, and both are necessary for the work, therefore both need to be included in the teams you assemble
  5. Purpose: the idea of purpose is related to the two questions of “Where are we going?” and “Why are we going there?” Answering the question of “where” happens when people can see the big picture, the overall goal. Ezra 7:27 does this, when we see how Ezra pointed out that the big-picture purpose for the task and for the people was “to beautify the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem.” He clearly identified for the people their destination, before beginning to move forward with their plan. Answering the question of “why” happens when people understand motive, and it has to be a motive that resonates with them. Ezra did this in 8:28, when he reminded his team that both the task they were undertaking, as well as the people who were doing it (meaning, they themselves) were consecrated and holy to God. This shows us that in any task, the motive must be clearly established and communicated.
  6. Direction: once the purpose has been established, direction can be given, both near (in the short-term) and far (in the long-term). Ezra 8:21 illustrates this, when we are shown how Ezra took the time to humble himself before God, “to seek from Him the right way for us and for our little ones and all our possessions.” Determining the right way to go (direction) naturally follows determining purpose, because once you know where you are going and why you are going there, you can then identify the path you need to take to get there. Like mapping out a road trip, this includes determining the next step or stop, and then the one after that, and so on, as well as determining the overall route. And, as has been true for everything else, it must begin by first seeking direction from God.
  7. Process: the process is the flow, the way in which everything takes place and connects together. Ezra 7 and 8 show us that there would be a process of returning to Jerusalem, and Ezra 10 shows us that there would be a process of repentance and restoration. Understand, though, that the process of implementing a plan takes time and also brings many challenges, but also understand that there are important factors that – if communicated at the front of the process – will in turn help the process to flow well. The process of restoration described in Ezra 10:11-14 reveals these factors: boundaries, including both limits and freedoms; methods, or, how the process will happen; and timing, including a schedule, checkpoints, and completion. Establishing these factors early will serve to greatly enhance the smoothness of the process.
  8. Procedure: a procedure provides the necessary guidelines for implementing a plan, and – one last time – it begins by first seeking God. The steps that take place in Ezra 8 (the return to Jerusalem) and Ezra 10 (the repentance and restoration) reveal that the first procedural step is to meet, gathering the necessary people together to clearly communicate and initiate the plan. The last step is to celebrate (giving credit to God), and in between the first and last steps are incremental goals, or benchmarks, that need to be achieved (and should also be celebrated). Along the way, it is necessary to periodically assess progress and communicate.

 

At its most basic level, the work of leadership centers around and involves both people and tasks, and it is hard work that requires an intentional plan which includes recognition, voice, resources, leaders, purpose, direction, process, and procedures. It is, however, also incredibly fulfilling to be an instrument in God’s plan in that work. As His instrument, our desire and effort should be to do this work with excellence, and understanding these eight components will help us to do so. And when you reach the destination, don’t forget to celebrate, and don’t forget to give credit to God.

 

This is the fifth installment in an ongoing series on leadership lessons that can be learned from the book of Ezra.

 

Who’s In Charge Here? (Lessons on Leadership from Ezra, part 4)

Ezra’s Model of Team Leadership

As I have studied the book of Ezra (and I’m not sure why I did, but I think it originally had something to do with being struck by a particular verse – Ezra 7:10 – which in turn piqued my interest and led to a lengthy study) I have learned many lessons that were personally valuable for my spiritual growth. Beyond that, though, I have also identified a significant number of lessons that I thought were particularly applicable to leadership, and especially to Christian leadership. One of those leadership lessons that struck me involved Ezra’s approach to team leadership.

I think it helps to revisit the entire context: The book of Ezra describes some of the events surrounding two stages of a return to Jerusalem by the Israelites. The first stage involved a group returning in order to rebuild the temple, and the second (nearly 60 years later) involved a smaller group that returned in order to rebuild the spiritual condition of the people. Ezra – considered to be the author of the whole book – is actually only specifically involved in the return of the second group, described in chapters 7 through 10. More pointedly, chapters 7 and 8 describe the preparation of Ezra for that return, the assembling of his team, and the carrying out of the mission given to his team. In application to lessons on team leadership, this points to the three components of a team that are evident in these chapters: the leader of the team, the team, and leadership of the team.

Chapter 7 introduces us to the leader of the team, Ezra, and clearly presents his preparation for leadership in verse 10, which says, “For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel” (The Holy Bible: New King James Version, 1979). As I had explained in a previous article, this verse points out a sequential, three-step process of development that I believe is essential for the development of any individual Christian leader. Step one is “learn.” In a general sense, any leader of a team needs to learn the history and context related to the organization and the strengths and characteristics of the team members, and needs to understand the issues to be faced. But at a deeper (and more important) spiritual level, the Christian must learn to know God. He needs regular, intimate time with God, because this is what gives him the capability to lead. Step two is “live.” This means that the actions of the leader must reflect what he has learned with authenticity. He must “walk the talk,” demonstrating consistency between values and actions, and this is what gives him the credibility to lead. It is only after growing deep in his relationship with God, and then applying and reflecting God’s truth in his life, that he can move on to step three, which is to lead by teaching, guiding, and showing others the way.

Chapter 8 introduces us to the team, specifically in verses 15 through 18. Here we see that Ezra, before beginning any tasks or moving forward, took time to look at the people around him and gather his team together. The first thing he noticed is what he was missing on his team: spiritual leaders (“I looked among the people and the priests, and found none of the sons of Levi there.”) The rest of the team was made up of two different groups: 1) those he described as “leaders,” the ones who had previously demonstrated effective leadership ability and experience, and 2) those he described as “men of understanding,” or those with a gift of insight and understanding who would be advisors and counselors (the term “understanding” is the same one used to describe the wisdom and discernment granted to Solomon in I Kings 3:9-12). With these two segments of the team in place, Ezra selected a spiritual leader, and specifically one with discretion, before setting up the plan for the mission. Ezra knew that he had to have, as Peter Northouse explains in Leadership: Theory and Practice (2013), the right number and mix to have an effective team. Therefore he was very intentional about putting together a combination of people who would meet the specific needs of the mission, reflecting the idea that “the most cohesive and successful teams possess broader groupings of strengths.” (Rath & Conchie, 2008, p. 22) He didn’t move forward until he had the right team in place, a team that was willing to submit to God and follow Ezra’s leadership. In the words of Jim Collins, he “got the right people on the bus, moved the wrong people off, ushered the right people to the right seats – and then [he] figured out where to drive it.” (2011, p. 124)

This takes us to the final piece of this puzzle: leadership of the team, which is presented in chapter 8, verses 21 through 31. Ezra had prepared himself and assembled the right people for his team, and now they had a mission to accomplish. While the task was to be carried out by the team, not an individual, he as the leader of this team knew it was his responsibility to make sure they effectively accomplished the goal, and there were four components that he incorporated into that leadership. First, he set the example – specifically, a spiritual example – in attitude and humility, recognizing God’s sovereignty in their task (vv. 21-23). Then he assigned responsibility, by dividing up the resources that were to be carried by his team, and giving them their instructions (vv. 24-30). Third, he provided motivation, reminded them of who they were and of the magnitude of their task (v. 28). Finally, he maintained unity in the group, as they undertook the mission together (v. 31).

As a Christian leader, these are significant and important lessons for your leadership development. First and foremost, intentionally recognize and submit to God’s sovereign activity, purpose, and process in your life, in the team, and in the task. Make sure – and this one is absolutely critical – you are aggressively pursuing an intimate relationship with God, and living a life consistent with God’s truth. Intentionally gather the right people around you, including those with leadership ability and those with wisdom, but especially include spiritual leaders who are humble and committed to God. Then, and only then, lead your team.

 

Collins, J. (2011). Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership (pp. 115-136). Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

The Holy Bible: New King James Version. (1979). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Rath, T., & Conchie, B. (2008). Strengths-Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow. New York, NY: Gallup Press.

 

This is the fourth installment in an ongoing series on leadership lessons that can be learned from the book of Ezra.

 

Who’s In Charge Here? (Lessons on Leadership from Ezra, part 3)

Prepare Yourself to Lead

            Do you remember your first opportunity to serve in a leadership capacity? I do. I remember feeling like I was not ready, but putting on a front to convey the opposite. I was young, and had accepted a position as the head of small Christian school. I knew how to teach, because I had been doing so for a number of years. I even knew some things about school administration, because I also had experience in the role of assistant, and had developed academic programs. But this time I would be the senior person in charge, fully responsible for the operation of the school. And as excited as I was about the opportunity, when I began the job I felt great uncertainty, unsure of whether or not I was ready to lead well. I was questioning myself, wondering if I had enough knowledge and experience to be prepared.

The book of Ezra provides us with a lesson on leadership preparation, through the illustration of two particular experiences, which paint a picture of what an effective Christian leader can do to become prepared. The first is in Ezra 7:6-10, and it informs us that Ezra had requested and would be receiving permission and resources from the King, in order to return to Jerusalem. In this context, we are provided a glimpse of Ezra’s personal preparation for the role he would play (pay attention to the last verse):

6 this Ezra came up from Babylon; and he was a skilled scribe in the Law of Moses, which the Lord God of Israel had given. The king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the Lord his God upon him. 7 Some of the children of Israel, the priests, the Levites, the singers, the gatekeepers, and the Nethinim came up to Jerusalem in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes. 8 And Ezra came to Jerusalem in the fifth month, which was in the seventh year of the king. 9 On the first day of the first month he began his journey from Babylon, and on the first day of the fifth month he came to Jerusalem, according to the good hand of his God upon him. 10 For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel.

The second experience is shared in Ezra 8:21-24, and it describes specifically the preparation for the journey they would take. Ezra had gathered his team together, and would soon be traveling to Jerusalem with the supplies for the temple. However, before leaving, there was something that had to be done:

21 Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from Him the right way for us and our little ones and all our possessions. 22 For I was ashamed to request of the king an escort of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy on the road, because we had spoken to the king, saying, “The hand of our God is upon all those for good who seek Him, but His power and His wrath are against all those who forsake Him.” 23 So we fasted and entreated our God for this, and He answered our prayer. 24 And I separated twelve of the leaders of the priests.

The first passage above provides a picture of the preparation of the person, and the second provides a picture of the preparation for the task. Together, they provide an overall picture of the preparation for leadership, which involves both spiritual preparation and personal preparation. Ultimately, this preparation is applicable to both who we are and to what we do.

The spiritual preparation for effective Christian leadership begins with an understanding of the all-encompassing context of God’s sovereignty and presence. Throughout Ezra, there are examples of God’s intentional activity, and that includes both of these passages. Verses 6 and 9 in chapter 7 both point out that God’s hand was involved in those circumstances, and clearly Ezra realized that concept, because verse 22 in chapter 8 reveals that Ezra had shared that very same truth with the king. The implication that we can draw is clear: spiritual preparation arises out of recognition of God’s sovereignty. By learning to do this, we can begin to see His purpose in all circumstance

Therefore, the first step you must take in preparing yourself to lead, before doing anything else, is to acknowledge God’s sovereign activity, and then submit to Him and to His plans and purpose. Prepare your heart by seeking God (through prayer and through Scripture, as Ezra did in chapter 8), submitting your plans to His grand design, and recognizing His role in your circumstances. Submit to Him for His direction, His blessing, and His instructions. By doing this, you move yourself into the right frame of mind to allow His involvement to shape and filter your actions and your responses.

Once you have done this, the next step is your response to God with your ensuing actions, because stepping follows seeing. Having oriented your thinking to God, now it is time to move forward in obedience and start the tasks that you have been given, and that’s where the work of leadership will start. Remember, even with the recognition of God’s role, leadership is not a passive process. It requires intentional planning and action, carried out with skillful practice, but it still must take place within the acknowledged context of God’s activity.

Ezra showed us a picture of this in both passages referenced above. Ezra 7:10 begins with an important preposition – “For” – that tells us the content of verse 10 took place before the previous verses. That means, before he began working on the task to which God had called him, he first prepared his heart. Ezra 8:21-24 describes how he humbled himself before God, seeking the right way to go about the task, before undertaking the task in verse 24, when he started dividing up responsibilities. Even the people of Israel followed this process, as can be seen in chapter 3. The remnant of Israelites who had returned in order to rebuild the temple first took time to worship and acknowledge God (vv. 1-6), even before the foundation for the temple was laid (v. 6). Then they prepared their supplies and resources (v. 7), and finally they began the work (v. 8).

In essence, the spiritual process of preparing for leadership is one that is first inward and then outward: first, seeking God and preparing your heart, recognizing His sovereign purpose and involvement, and then second, responding to God’s direction with steps of obedience and action.

The personal preparation for effective leadership is modeled by Ezra and spelled out in 7:10, which states that his preparation had been “to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel.” This statement describes a simple, yet profound, three-step process of learning, living, and leading,

Learning, or “to seek the law of the Lord,” requires spending time with God, in His Word. It means investing yourself in study of Scripture to learn who God is and what he says. It also means cultivating an intimate, personal relationship with God. For Ezra, it was this knowledge that stemmed from his relationship with God that gave him the capability to lead effectively, because he had taken the time to first spiritually prepare himself. As a result of this, he was able to see and trust God’s involvement, and could therefore act with boldness and confidence.

Living, or “to do it,” requires putting the Word of God into practice in your life. This means consistently and willingly obeying God’s commands, observing and following the truths of His Word. In doing so, you follow God in obedience with your practice, by what you do, and you provide an example of obedience in who you are. For Ezra, his practice and his example gave him the credibility to lead effectively, because he demonstrated consistency and authenticity in his leadership. His walk matched his talk, his life matched his words, so the people believed him and were willing to follow.

Leading, or “to teach statues and ordinances,” means that Ezra was now prepared to lead because he was able to teach and explain God’s Word and God’s direction out of his knowledge and relationship with God, and his teaching and direction was believable because of his own life of obedience. He had prepared himself first, and by doing so, had made himself an effective and believable messenger of God, ready to teach, ready to lead, ready to motivate and influence.

The personal preparation for leadership can be as important as leadership itself. Ezra showed us what it looks like, and the outcome for him was a high level of competence and effectiveness. The methods and process of his personal preparation therefore provides us with valuable tools for our own leadership. And the order that he prescribed for the process is also important. You have to do before you can lead, but you have to know before you can do. So first you have to know it, then you have to do it, then you can teach and lead others.

Ultimately, preparing for leadership involves both spiritual preparation and personal preparation. Effective Christian leadership, therefore, sees God in circumstances, submits humbly to Him, builds a depth of knowledge and relationship, and lives those values consistently, resulting in the preparation to lead well.

 

This is the third installment in an ongoing series on leadership lessons that can be learned from the book of Ezra.