In my chronological reading through the Bible, I’ve arrived at the book of Nehemiah—a remarkable study of leadership. Many others have preached, blogged and written on the leadership principles gleaned from this case study. Nevertheless, I’m going to attempt to draw out some fresh points. As you will recall, Nehemiah was a cupbearer to King Artaxerxes, the Persian King. In spite of his status as a Jewish exile, he earned a position as part of the bodyguard protecting the ruler of one of the world’s two greatest powers at the time.

From the very first moment we meet Nehemiah, we sense a calling. As he serves the king in Persia, the news reaches him that Jerusalem is still lying in ruins after almost a century. It wrecks him. He weeps, he mourns and he prays day and night—for four months. Nehemiah doesn’t just pray with objectivity; he prays himself into the solution: “let Your servant prosper this day, I pray, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man,” the king (Nehemiah 1:11).

In other words, Nehemiah does something Moses and Gideon would never have dared. While they said, “send somebody else,” Nehemiah says, “send me.” God honours his request, and it starts him on a promotion path. First King Artaxerxes appoints him as foreman of the rebuilding effort. Then, after some early success in Jerusalem, the king promotes him to governor. When my pastor Glen Nudd preached on Nehemiah recently, he summarized it neatly:

At the end of it all, Nehemiah is given a job, a position, an assignment, a mission. He invites it, he receives it, he accepts it, he embraces it.

Can you do that? Is it okay for believers to show such ambition? Aren’t we supposed to resist the temptations of advancement and the lure of power? Isn’t it Christian to be content and to suppress ambition? Doesn’t Nehemiah’s action show complete lack of humility? As Pastor Glen put it:

Sometimes, as believers, we think that to be spiritual and godly we should always refuse advancement, promotion, or any kind of upward mobility and just go play in the shadows quietly, unnoticed and not expecting to influence anything very much. Maybe we think it’s the humble thing to do.

Were Moses and Gideon more godly than this young upstart, Nehemiah? After all, wasn’t Moses described in Numbers 12:3 as the most humble person on earth? Yet a careful reading reveals that Moses and Gideon were paralyzed by fear. I think many believers today have the same problem. While Pastor Glen allowed that there are valid reasons to turn down promotion, he pointed out that sometimes humility is a mask for the real issues for reluctance: fear of responsibility, fear of commitment, or fear of having our faith and abilities tested.

Pastor Glen asked us to consider promotion in a different light:

What if God wants to promote you so that He can use you in an even greater way to be salt and light in a dark world? What if your “no” is actually refusing the potential for great influence and ministry and impact for the Kingdom of God?

Proverbs 29:2 says, ‘When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when a wicked man rules, the people groan.’

It’s a good thing, a God-honoring thing, when God’s people are promoted and the salt gets better distributed and the light shines farther. When the gospel and the glory of God are advanced, that’s a good thing.

There’s no Biblical prohibition on ambition for a cause, and that’s why Nehemiah willingly accepts position. The question is how you lead in whatever position God gives you. Jim Collins will tell you that a great leader engaged in a cause should lead with humility. I met a few Proverbs 29 Members of Parliament a couple of weeks ago in Ottawa. I was impressed at their quiet competence, but also their fire when it came to causes like human trafficking. Like Nehemiah, they embraced high positions and the voice it gave them. Through years of faithful witness, each has earned respect for the way they handled the challenges of federal politics.

So, is the act of stepping up in leadership antithetical to humility? Not at all. The answer, as we’ll see in Nehemiah 5, is servant leadership.

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Warning: at first glance, this post is about sports. Or maybe it’s not about sports. You might have to read past the first paragraph and gauge for yourself.

A couple of weeks ago, Georgia Tech concluded its search for a new basketball coach, selecting Brian Gregory from Dayton. For most Tech fans, that choice was underwhelming, as it appears Gregory is more steak than sizzle. Yes, he’s good. But his team isn’t in the NCAA tournament, and he didn’t come from a major conference. Tech fans have a high-enough view of their program that they think they could have hired a great coach away from another big-name school. So Gregory is bound to crush expectations.

Tech’s athletic director had a choice to make, and it just so happens that it’s the kind of choice any leader makes when it comes to succession planning and search committees. I think sport serves as a fishbowl, bringing certain choices into the open that often happen behind the scenes. The choices Tech faced, stated in general leadership terms for greater application:

1. Covet a shiny object. There are a number of “Cinderella teams” who crashed the NCAA tournament this year. Every time Butler or VCU won, the dollars projected for a bigger school to steal their hot coach rose significantly. Yet who’s to say their recent success in a smaller organization would translate to a regular winning program? Most organizations can point to people who, by their movement in an organization, are bound to be noticed. Yet there are concerns. For someone who has been successful at every level, what happens when they face adversity? What happens if their inertia collides with the Peter principle and they exceed the limits of their competence? Have they been adequately tested? Can they handle the increase in complexity and profile? How much risk is there in promoting the latest trend? One area to watch for is managing expectations. This leader better win, and soon. With all sizzle, he’s likely to win spectacularly or fail spectacularly.

This week, I read the story of David and Goliath again. David’s qualifications for taking on Goliath were that he had defeated lions and bears. King Saul had a decision to make: promote or protect this young, eager leader.

2. Stay safe with experience. In contrast, the safe choice looks attractive. He’s slow and steady. He’s never stood out as a rising star, but he’s also had few down years. Mr. Consistency has been successful at just about every level and is solid in the fundamentals. He’s likely a workaholic, accomplishing success through hard work and effort. He might be boring, but he’s put in the years and earned the right to be considered for the position.

My biggest concerns here are whether the person has the passion and energy to motivate followers and the courage necessary to lead change. If the organization has systemic challenges, it needs a leader, not a manager. Sometimes the safe choice is the biggest risk. In Saul’s case, the safe choices were hiding. The organization needed a fool who would “rush in where angels fear to tread.”

3. Stay close to home. In Georgia Tech’s case, a duo of former players indicated an interest and built a strong enough argument to at least get interviewed. Willing to work for less money and put their heart and soul into the job, home grown leaders have the opportunity to tap the culture and win over the fan base. In this case, both lacked head coaching experience but had been successful at lower levels. There’s risk, because they’re unproven, but patience among the fan base, who is willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

This is the kind of leader Jim Collins calls a Level 5 Leader: someone from within who is passionate about the organization and stubbornly wills it to success. In a sense, David tapped into that passion. His drive came from the fact that Goliath mocked his God. Nobody should get away with that!

4. Go with reluctance. In the person who never sought the job, you find humility and a low salary. While similar to the passionate leader in being homegrown, there’s a distinct difference: this person showed no initiative, nor did he dream that he would be considered. My concern is that someone who never thinks himself a leader and doesn’t take personal development seriously. He might do a competent job, but he’s not interested in growing as a leader so may never take the organization any further. When adversity comes, he may buck responsibility and wither. On the other hand, expectations are low, and followers are pulling for his success, so he may be given a long honeymoon period.

We absolutely love the Rags to Riches story, and we have a strange desire for a leader who stands up and says he never wanted the position. But the risk is that he’ll burn out because it’s a bad fit or quit because of the stress. Or perhaps he’ll turn down your offer in the first place.

There are lots of examples in the Bible of reluctant leaders who begged God not to send them, but David wasn’t one of them. I love the way he verifies the reward before taking the risk with Goliath: “What will a man get for killing this Philistine?” While they weren’t his primary motivation, David didn’t refuse the attractive salary package (the king’s hot daughter and a tax exemption for life).

So, which is the right strategy? It depends. The fact is that every organization is different, and every organization is at a different stage when looking for a coach or president. In Georgia Tech’s case, they needed fundamentals, consistency and a low salary. That led them to replace a coach who looked uninspired with an experienced coach who has hardly excited the fan base. In another setting, they may well have made a different choice.

James 3 continues, saying godly ambition must be pure and sincere. Other versions use some helpful synonyms. Ambition must integrate as part of a holy life. It must be honest, without hypocrisy. The Message says it’s not two-faced.

What does pure ambition look like? Purity means it’s in its original, uncorrupted state. Dave Harvey says that we’re all wired to pursue glory. In the first days of creation, we existed in perfect relationship with our Creator, seeking his glory alone. If God was lifted up, we had everything we needed. But we perverted our original design, turning our focus to ourselves. (I say “we” because I’m convinced today we would do the same thing as our pansy ancestors Adam and Eve.) It’s impossible to make something pure that has been corrupted. Think about snow. Once its dirty, there’s no making it white and powdery again. Or salt. As Jesus said, how can you make unsalty salt salty again? So even when we attempt great things for God’s glory, we should suspect ourselves. Our motives are seldom as pure as we want them to be. We just can’t have pure ambition on our own.

Ambition should be sincere and honest. I come from an organization that loves the leader who stands up and says, “I never wanted this job, but since you chose me, I’ll do the best I can.” We love humility and, conversely, we suspect signs of ambition. In contrast, I have a healthy suspicion of platitudes. I admit I love the ideal of an unsought promotion and of a leader emerging from the rough. It makes a great story. But two problems stick in my mind. If a leader really has no ambition and never sought a position, then he has never prepared himself for higher levels of leadership. Who’s to say the reluctant leader is a lifelong learner or takes leadership responsibility seriously if they didn’t want the job? On the other hand, if a leader is saying that deceitfully, then I have bigger issues. False humility may well be the tip of the iceberg, a sign of darker things lying below public view.

In contrast, godly ambition is never two-faced. I heard a story that Abraham Lincoln was once charged with being two-faced. He responded, “If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?” It’s far better for a leader to admit their ambition… and shift it toward the cause. Better to be open about ambition. When it’s on the table, there’s a certain amount of accountability, because leadership is a private matter lived out in public, as the authors of The 52nd Floor put it. Ambitious leaders need help to keep their aspirations pointed in the right direction.

Moses is a great example for us. In Exodus 2, we eavesdrop on a dialog that exposes Moses’ real fear of leadership. He is as reluctant a leader as you’ll find. But it’s not from pure motives; it’s fear based on his failure in Exodus 1, when his unharnessed, misguided ambition led to murder. The second time, he needs convincing that God is in the call and will give him everything he needs to lead. The next couple of books in the Old Testament portray a leader with mature ambition, deeply concerned with God’s glory. Multiple times Moses appeals to God to make his Name great or to act on behalf of Israel “for the sake of your Name.” Sure, he still struggles with the purity of his ambition, getting angry with Israel, breaking priceless handwritten tablets and smacking rocks with his staff, but Moses’ name becomes great only as he pursues God’s Name with his whole heart and allows God to show his great power rather than trying on his own effort to save Israel.

In this world, our leaders may never achieve pure ambition, but the pursuit of it is an admirable trait.

What happens when the right person is unwilling to lead? I know an organization that recently came up short looking for a new president. The board made the decision to start their search over again. Is there simply a shortage of good leaders in that organization? No. There are a number of extremely-qualified candidates who turned them down.

Not long ago, The Reluctant Leader had an interesting post that drew my attention to an Old Testament parable. While Steve Murrell applies Judges 9 to government — which I think is a very good application — I think you’ll see how it applies more broadly. In the non-profit world we live in at Wycliffe, with no financial incentives to offer someone to step up in leadership, we often face situations where the right leader is unwilling to take on greater responsibility.

When the right people don’t step up, the void is filled by others.

The third item on Steve Moore’s list caught my attention. It reminded me of an essay by Reidy Associates on Encouraging Reluctant Leaders that explored the reasons leaders don’t step up, blaming the “hero myth” for a lot of the damage. Reidy starts with a quote from Jerry Garcia:

“Somebody has to do something and it’s incredibly pathetic that it has to be us.” We don’t have to have all the skills, all the answers. We don’t have to have it figured out better than anyone else. We do need to see something that needs attention and be motivated enough to organize a response.

Let me repeat that last statement, because it’s as good a definition of leadership as I’ve heard in a while: someone who sees something that needs attention and is motivated enough to organize a response. As Reidy points out, many get into leadership out of necessity. “Action occurs when motivation is stronger than resistance or reticence.”

Let me give you a personal example. Over the last ten years, I noticed a number of incredibly-gifted young leaders suddenly decide to leave our organization. These were people that I was looking forward to serving shoulder-to-shoulder with, long into the future, and they were suddenly gone. I realized that if our young leaders didn’t stick around, we wouldn’t have the leadership we needed to see our vision completed.

It certainly wasn’t my responsibility, but someone needed to do something about it. As no one stepped up, my desperation grew. About three years ago, I decided to send out a pact to all the young leaders I knew. It contained four points:

  1. We will practice leading. We commit ourselves in community to develop and use that gift where God has placed us. “If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously” (Rom 12:8).
  2. We will be not be disqualified. We hold ourselves to a high standard of godliness. We will hold each other accountable for our actions. “Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified” (I Cor 9:27).
  3. We will step up. We will develop our gifts by accepting appropriate positions of responsibility and authority. We will encourage each other to consider new challenges. “If someone aspires to be an elder, he desires an honorable position” (I Tim 3:1).
  4. We will not give up. Working as younger generations in a Boomer environment, we know we will get discouraged at times. We will not give up without consulting with one or two other colleagues for encouragement and prayer. “Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity” (I Tim 4:12).

We began the Threshing Floor community as a lunch discussion group, and it has since expanded to Facebook. In the three years since we began meeting, I’ve had eight conversations with people who approached me and said, “I promised I’d talk with someone before I did anything…” and then went on to share their frustrations. Only one regular Threshing Floor participant has left the organization.

It’s not just a Wycliffe need. When Steve Moore taught that breakout session on supporting young leaders, he struck a chord. At the end, a young African American lady from another mission was in tears as she said, “I’ve been so hungry for this kind of thing.” She confessed her frustration at being overlooked because of her age and her gender. That was the moment I realized that I’ve only scratched the surface with the breadth of these issues.

Back to the topic at hand. My road to leadership development started three years ago when I saw an unmet need, and I had to do something. The need isn’t gone; if anything, I’m still learning how big that need is.

In a Personnel Conference from The Mission Exchange a few years ago, Steve Moore listed in a breakout session a number of the factors he looks for in emerging leaders. Listed on a scale from the more obscured and foundational to the more obvious and experienced:

  • The reactive hypothetic. Marked by statements such as, “If I were in charge, I wouldn’t do it like that.”
  • Subversives. See my post on The thorn in your side.
  • Those who notice things others miss. I think servants and visionaries both have good eyes.
  • The intuitive functional. They have some leadership ability but can’t fully articulate why they do what they do.
  • Tentative operational. I’d say this is your classic reluctant leader: has some leadership competence but doesn’t have the confidence to label it “leadership.”
  • Proactive operational. Willing to take on challenges others won’t.

There’s a lot of good stuff in this list. I’ll let it go without comment and then post some separate thoughts on the subject matter.

Drs. Anthony and Crystal Gambino, in their essay on reluctant leadership, look for the following traits:

  • servanthood
  • teachability
  • initiative
  • passion
  • encouragement

Some of these characteristics are more fundamental to and may be observed even earlier in the process than Tim Elway’s suggestions. While initiative and passion are somewhat predictable — they’re often the points where we often first notice someone — the others are less obvious.

An interest in being others-focused is an excellent starting point. A willingness to serve and the companion part of it — noticing needs around them — are the foundation of leaders of integrity who support their direct reports. Likewise for a desire to encourage and lift up people around them.

I totally agree with teachability as an early sign of leadership. I’ve heard it said several times that leaders show insatiable curiosity and ask lots of questions. A desire to learn and grow eventually shapes a leader who is a developer of others. Teachability is a trait that can be spotted early and should be part of a leader until the day he dies.