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.