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.