Leadership in times of crisis
Lessons from Nehemiah
Translated from the Spanish by Catherine Shepherd
According to Colombian newspaper Semana, “half of the recent presidents and former presidents of Latin America are involved in major corruption scandals. Lula is simply the latest one to come out.” It mentions at least three cases in Brazil, as well as cases in Peru, Panama, Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, El Salvador and, of course, Colombia. The article clarifies that although only the most notorious cases are mentioned, there are many others across the continent. The conclusion about the situation in Colombia is that “the country is facing an ethical crisis and there is no point in denying it. The fact that it is not as bad as in other countries is no consolation.”
In view of this situation, talking about leadership is complicated these days. The great failures of so many leaders today have given people a negative impression of the institution of leadership. People question motives, strategies, personalities, leaders’ lifestyles, what they like and dislike. Not even leaders’ families are safe from criticism. The media gorge themselves on these stories. As Semana points out, presidents that are elected democratically manage to make their bank accounts grow, extend their terms and refuse to let go of their position. A large number of politicians, congresspeople, senators, ministers, and other government employees are on trial after making millions illegally. Meanwhile, the people fight to survive and are defenceless against the greed and hunger for power of their leaders. Unfortunately, the situation in the church, ministries, NGOs, and mission organisations does not appear to be any different. It seems like the salt has lost its flavour. Instead it has been contaminated by the corruption of society in general.
Many readers may say, and rightly so, that this is not new, that it has always been like this since the dawn of time. History is full of despots, dictators, megalomaniac rulers, corrupt leaders and their followers. But for every leader who falls, there are hundreds of other leaders who have remained faithful, but who have been systematically ignored by those who write history. Shocking stories sell more, and that is what the media looks for nowadays.
This is why the example of Nehemiah in the Bible is like an oasis in the middle of the desert. In the midst of a painful exile, mainly caused by the depraved and corrupt monarchy, while going through a transition process in the middle of a spiritual and existential crisis, Israel needed a different leader, someone who would help the people as they tried to settle back in their own land.
The situation was critical. Those in exile were returning to a city in ruins, with financial problems and no food security, and they ended up being exploited by greedy speculators. Even slavery in Babylon seemed better than the situation in Palestine. In this context, Nehemiah made a difference and we can learn important lessons from his leadership. As the cupbearer to the king, Nehemiah knew all about what went on in the empire’s government. He was no stranger to the benefits that came with power. He was used to the luxury and glitter of the palace. Because of all this, the fact that he took part in the process to rebuild the city is even more noteworthy. As he said himself,
Moreover, from the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, until his thirty-second year — twelve years — neither I nor my brothers ate the food allotted to the governor. But the earlier governors — those preceding me — placed a heavy burden on the people and took forty shekels of silver from them in addition to food and wine. Their assistants also lorded it over the people. But out of reverence for God I did not act like that. Instead, I devoted myself to the work on this wall. All my men were assembled there for the work; we did not acquire any land. Furthermore, a hundred and fifty Jews and officials ate at my table, as well as those who came to us from the surrounding nations. Each day one ox, six choice sheep and some poultry were prepared for me, and every ten days an abundant supply of wine of all kinds. In spite of all this, I never demanded the food allotted to the governor, because the demands were heavy on these people. (5:14–18)
Something stands out in this description: Nehemiah put the needs of the people he was governing before his own. There was not enough money for him and his entourage to charge impoverished citizens interest, like the governors preceding him had done. Furthermore, Nehemiah rolled his sleeves up and worked shoulder to shoulder with the people. He could have simply supervised and managed the project from the governor’s chair. But instead of that, he got his hands and clothes dirty, like everyone else. “We did not acquire any land” can be understood if we look at 5:1–5:
Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their fellow Jews. Some were saying, “We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain.” Others were saying, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine.” Still others were saying, “We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our fellow Jews and though our children are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others.”
The land was mortgaged to usurers who, like leeches, held on to the fields and crops. The only way the people could survive was by selling their possessions and enslaving their children. Nehemiah could have taken advantage of the situation, but he didn’t. He didn’t take away anyone’s land. Instead, as it says in verse 10, “I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain.” Instead of taking away from them, he helped them by giving them resources.
We might ask, why was Nehemiah so different to other leaders? We find the answer in verse 15, “But out of reverence for God I did not act like that.” It was his “reverence for God” that made him act that way, unlike his greedy predecessors. The meaning of “reverence for God” is not clear. Nehemiah possibly meant obeying God’s law. At least that is what he seems to be saying when he talks to the people in verse 9. Obeying God’s law was something that God’s people had to do and that set them apart from other people (verse 9). But this required them to know the law, which is an important topic in the narrative (see chapters 8 and 9, for example). What we can see is that it permeates Nehemiah’s entire life. From the beginning of the book, God and His law are central themes. He is constantly praying to God. His involvement in the rebuilding process is presented in the narrative as a direct answer from God to his prayers. The success of the project and the defeat of the enemies are entirely God’s doing. Everything Nehemiah did, his decisions, way of working and exercise of power, was all guided by the fear of God, the obedience to the law.
There is so much more we could say about this amazing leader in the Old Testament, but this is enough to bring out a few essential principles for our leadership model.
1. The common good must be above all our personal interests, even when it is not good for our finances. The accounts in foreign banks of many former politicians warn us that it is easy to give in to temptation and get rich illegally. Our work must be transparent and public, so that no one can accuse us of being corrupt. We must not see leadership as a way of growing personally at the expense of the people we are leading. We must be careful not to have questionable motivations for the exercise of power. As Mexican president Benito Juárez said in the nineteenth century, “Government employees should not earn their wages without responsibility; they should not govern following their own selfish desires, but according to the law; they should not try to improvise fortunes or live a life of idleness, but dedicate themselves to their work, deciding to live an honest life with average earnings, as established by law.” Wouldn’t it be amazing if these recommendations were followed in real life?
2. Our leadership must seriously take into account the specific context of those over whom we have authority. Previous leader models may be useful, but we must be ready to be different, especially if our predecessors left a negative legacy, as we see in Nehemiah. Sometimes we have to be reformers. Not long ago people preferred an authoritarian leader who told everyone what to do, with a big ego; someone who governed without asking anyone’s opinion. Today the paradigm has changed. Human, participating, transforming leaders who work in a team are preferred. Our group’s specific context must help us to determine the type of leaders we want to be.
3. As leaders we must listen to our subordinates, take their comments seriously and adapt the way we manage our work, so we can address them. We see this several times in Nehemiah’s story. He permanently kept an open communication line with the people and responded accordingly. His example encourages us to show empathy to the people, to put ourselves in their shoes, to share their daily concerns. The people we have the privilege of leading are not objects. It is very easy to dehumanise people and forget about their situations, and there are many examples of this in history. As well as having management skills and specialised administrative knowledge, as leaders we need to develop our human capacity. We must be willing to be assessed by the people and get feedback about our leadership. We need wisdom to understand what type of leadership the context requires. One model does not fit all.
4. We must set an example and work side by side with others. Nehemiah is an example of a leader who is present in the people’s everyday lives and shares their human progress. We must be leaders who are present in our people’s reality. Leaders who are absent or who work from the outside and avoid permanent contact with the people will inevitably fail. These leaders will be invalidated, and the people will be confused. Nehemiah identified with the desperation and fears of those who had come back from exile. He does not shy away from working with the people and getting his hands dirty. Leaders who remain on the sidelines, without “getting infected” by the germs of real life, without breathing the dirty air of the streets, discourage the people and in the end the flame of the mission is snuffed out.
5. Leaders must be willing to fight against abuse and injustice, whenever necessary and wherever it comes from. Rebuilding the wall wasn’t enough — it was more important to rebuild the people, following the principles of God’s law. The former would have been enough for Nehemiah to fulfil his task, but he had set higher goals. Nehemiah realised that, although the city’s safety was important, he needed to address the problems of social injustice, exploitation and disobedience to God’s law. The urgent matters did not limit the important ones. Leaders must keep the organisation’s vision and mission clear, so they don’t get distracted by tangential problems and forget the essential issues. Nehemiah’s guideline was “for the sake of the Law of God” (10:28). This must be our guide too. God’s Word must be the highest authority for any changes, strategies, goals, objectives and anything else in the group. As Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Nehemiah is known especially for not remaining neutral and for taking the side of those who were suffering.
6. As leaders we must remember that we are accountable to God, before anyone else, for how we exercise our authority. The “fear of God” should make us aware of the temptations that come with power. We are accountable to God and we are ultimately responsible before him for how we carry out the leadership that he entrusts us with. We should have a close, growing relationship with God and his Word. Obedience to God’s will must be a characteristic of our lives. We can learn a lot from modern leadership theories, but the ultimate guidelines are in God’s Word. Being a leader does not exempt us from obeying God — rather, we are even more committed to doing his will. After all, the group of people we are leading belongs to God and not to us.
While the Semana article might have been right in saying that we are facing a serious ethical crisis, they do not suggest any solutions. We could also say that there is a moral, spiritual and human crisis with the corrupt leadership in Latin America. The solution is not simply to have more leaders or to get rid of the institution of leadership altogether. Our challenge is to demonstrate distinctive models of leaders who are sensitive to real life, subject to God’s Word, committed to God and his people and willing to lead while getting involved in the work, and who have an ongoing, growing relationship with God. This is the only way to solve the leadership crisis in Latin America today.
- What qualities would your ideal leader have?
- Would you like to have more leaders like Nehemiah? Which of Nehemiah’s qualities do you think are most necessary today in your group, church, family, city?
- Why is corruption so attractive, even for Christians?
- How can we help leaders in our groups to remain upright?
- Why is it more important to be a leader with “reverence for God” than a leader with amazing professional qualifications? Would this change the way new staff workers and employees are recruited in your group?
- What practical steps can you take to avoid becoming a corrupt leader? How are you going to live out the biblical leadership model?
- Acosta, Milton. El mensaje del Profeta Oseas: una teología práctica para combatir la corrupción. Lima, Peru: Ediciones Puma, 2018.
- López R., Darío. La seducción del poder: evangélicos y politíca en el Perú de los noventa. Lima, Peru: Ediciones Puma; CENIP, 2004.
- Mangalwadi, Vishal. Truth and Transformation: A Manifesto for Ailing Nations. Seattle: YWAM Publishing, 2009.
- — — — . Verdad y transformación. Seattle: Editorial JUCUM, 2010.
 “América Latina: la corrupción hace metástasis”, Semana, el 16 de julio de 2017, sec. Portada, https://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/presidentes-y-expresidentes-recientes-de-america-latina-en-grandes-escandalos-de-corrupcion/532596.
 See for example Juan Sebastián Jiménez Herrera, “Escándalos que han salpicado a las iglesias evangélicas de Colombia”, El Espectador, el 25 de enero de 2014, sec. Judicial, https://www.elespectador.com/noticias/judicial/escandalos-han-salpicado-iglesias-evangelicas-de-colomb-articulo-470881. See also the work of Israel Ortiz on the particular case of Guatemala, “Los evangélicos y la política: una revisión del camino”, Kairós 35 (2004): 81–119.
 Cited in Ignacio Pinto León, “El enriquecimiento ilícito” (Lic. en Derecho, Universidad Panamericana, 2000), 2, http://jurismex.com/TESIS%20El%20Enriquecimiento%20Ilicito.pdf.
 Gary Younge, “Interview: Desmond Tutu”, The Guardian, el 22 de mayo de 2009, sec. Books, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/may/23/interview-desmond-tutu.
Bible quotations are from the New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.