What makes a great leader? Leadership guru John C. Maxwell lists 21 qualities. Forbes magazine presents 22. Other writers list 10, or even boil it down to five essential qualities.
Like beauty, what makes a great leader is often in the eye of the beholder.
One unique character study on leadership can be found in the Old Testament book of Nehemiah. It takes place about 150 years after Jerusalem has been destroyed by the Babylonians, but it was now under control of the Persians. Nehemiah, a descendant of the Jews captured by the Babylonian army, served as cup bearer to King Artaxerxes (meaning he tasted all of the king’s drinks to make sure they weren’t poisoned). Nehemiah decided that the walls around Jerusalem should be rebuilt to make it livable again for his fellow Jews.
Although his position seemed an unlikely one for leadership, here are a few qualities that made him a capable leader.
Courage. Nehemiah wanted to be released from his duties to return to Jerusalem to rebuild it, and presented that request to the king. This was at a time when kings might lop off the head of anyone who was impudent. But Artaxerxes granted the request. Being a leader often means taking a chance on making a change, even if it could have negative results.
Optimism tempered by reality. When Nehemiah returned with high hopes of rebuilding the city wall, he first took a night tour of broken down wall to form a realistic idea of what needed to be done and to begin developing a strategy. Dreaming big is great, but anyone can do that; leaders find ways to turn possibilities into realities.
Willingness to pitch in. Nehemiah didn’t merely give orders to the workers, he worked alongside them to build the wall. When they were in danger of attack from enemies, he took up his weapons, ready to stand alongside the others to defend themselves. When people see their leader in the trenches with them, they feel more invested in the task, which creates an improved work ethic.
Confidence. When faced by naysayers, and even threats of having his enemies report fake news to the king, Nehemiah continued his work, knowing he was doing the right thing. Opposition will always face leaders who are trying to make a change, but those who have confidence in what they’re doing have the best chance of success.
Defending his people. When Nehemiah learned that local rulers were charging outrageous taxes, so severe that people were selling off their land to pay it, he became angry. He confronted the rulers and got them to agree to return the property and quit charging interest. Being a leader means being aware of the situation of your people, and working to correct any injustices.
Celebrating. When the Jews successfully completed the wall, in just 52 days, he held a weeklong celebration. Letting people celebrate the successful completion of a task, especially a stressful one, builds camaraderie and increases their willingness to engage in future tasks with a positive attitude.
Communication. Throughout the process of building the wall, Nehemiah kept communicating the vision and the plans to keep the process going. Leaders keep the communication lines strong so that everyone knows the status and goal of the project.