“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.”
Archive for September 2016
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
“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.”
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.