Leadership Traits That Really Matter

WallCommon words to describe successful leaders include vision, talent, and persistence. In thinking of the authentic leader however, an additional trait must never be left out — integrity.

Consider Nehemiah, a Jewish boy, as an example. He was living in Babylon with throngs of his displaced countrymen from Judah. Over time, he rose to the position of cupbearer to King Nebuchadnezzar. He was charged to taste the king’s wine before serving it to assure that it was not poisoned. It was a position of unmatched trust.

His important job notwithstanding, his heart remained in his homeland, Judah, and focused on the Lord’s covenant with his people. When a traveler arrived from Jerusalem, and Nehemiah learned that the people back there were “in great trouble and disgrace,” he wept for them.

Consider four time-tested character traits that marked Nehemiah, not only as cupbearer, but also as a patriot who, with the king’s permission, returned to Judah to rebuild Jerusalem.

I. Nehemiah was unwaveringly honest. While still the king’s cupbearer the king asked him why he looked so sad. He knew telling the truth might cost him his job or his life. But he told the truth anyway: he was heartsick over the wasted state of his homeland (Nehemiah. 2:1-6). And later, in Jerusalem after his nighttime inspection of the damage to the city’s walls, he shared openly and honestly with the officials what he intended to do and then invited their help (Nehemiah. 2:16-18).

II. Nehemiah was a man of deep spiritual commitment. Even while still in Babylon identification with his beloved homeland moved him to pray and fast for days on end. His deeply personal prayer at that time is recorded (Nehemiah. 1:5-11). Also, he readily attributed his great achievements in his homeland to the working of divine providence (Nehemiah. 2:8). When enemies threatened to overcome his exhausted workers laboring to restore Jerusalem’s wall, he made their peril a matter of prayer (Nehemiah. 4:4-5). This deep spiritual grounding is constant as his story unfolds.

III. Nehemiah was quick to discern the sinister intentions of his enemies. All leaders have enemies. When the broken walls of Jerusalem were again forming under his leadership, certain jealous neighbors – namely Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem – devised a plot to hinder Nehemiah’s achievements. He was quick to sense their hidden intentions and avoid their traps.

Perhaps because Nehemiah was not a devious man himself, his honesty kept his mind uncluttered and thus keen to discern what his enemies were up to.

IV. Nehemiah’s tough-mindedness remained intact even when dealing with wrongs committed among his own people. When famine struck Jerusalem and surrounding areas, a few wealthy men in Jerusalem had control of the grain supply. They were selling it to the poor at inflated prices. The people cried out to Nehemiah that they were losing their land and even their children just to stay alive.

For Nehemiah this may have been his supreme test. When dealing with charges of wrongdoing – the rich against the poor or the powerful against the weak or the individual against the  group — it can be tempting to come down on the side of strength or influence. The law of God recognizes this peril and says, “Do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly” (Leviticus. 19:15).

Nehemiah could have come down on the side of the powerful but with moral keenness he made himself see the situation for what it was and sternly commanded the grasping wealthy officials to quit their greedy practices and make amends. He made them pledge to pay back the excessive amounts they had exacted (Neh. 5:6-13). He was a man of clear moral discernment and thus led with conviction.

In our times the call for morally grounded leadership is being sounded with urgency — in government, business, education and particularly in the Christian cause. In the light of that call, Nehemiah’s traits look good: unshakeable honesty; deep spiritual commitment; keen discernment of evil; and general tough mindedness in making moral decisions. And all wrapped in a robe of personal integrity.

Nehemiah, the patriot and the godly man, will forever model leadership traits that really matter.

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