This past year I took one of my former students to camp with me as a leader. He commented how his experience as a leader was different than his experience as a student. He had the blessing of being my roommate so not only did he get to hear me snore through the night but he quickly realized that being a leader meant that you go to bed later than everyone else, wake up earlier than everyone else, and spend yourself all throughout the day concerned with how everyone else is doing. This was the burden of leadership that he had never seen before.
Most people from the outside looking in see leaders as those who bark orders, make plans, and get stuff done. Sometimes there are “perks” of leadership like looking at a set of plans in an air conditioned office building while the rest of the crew works outside putting the plans together; most often though, the demands of leadership are those of sacrifice and service. It wasn’t any different for Nehemiah.
And each of the builders had his sword strapped at his side while he built. The man who sounded the trumpet was beside me. And I said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, “The work is great and widely spread, and we are separated on the wall, far from one another. In the place where you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us.” So we labored at the work, and half of them held the spears from the break of dawn until the stars came out. I also said to the people at that time, “Let every man and his servant pass the night within Jerusalem, that they may be a guard for us by night and may labor by day.” So neither I nor my brothers nor my servants nor the men of the guard who followed me, none of us took off our clothes; each kept his weapon at his right hand. (Nehemiah 4:18-23 ESV)
In this passage he puts the trumpeter right by his side and he lets the people know, “When you hear the sound of the trumpet, run to the sound because that is where the fighting will be.” This communicated two things. One, that they would be able to know where to go should they be attacked at some point. Two, that Nehemiah would be right at the front lines of battle. After all, the trumpeter was with him!
Then Nehemiah went a step further and requested all the people to say in town so they could keep watch at night. It would have been easy for Nehemiah to post watches and go to sleep. He could have still taken advantage of his positions and taken baths, had his clothes washed, and even dined on a fine meal, but instead of taking leisure while everyone else was puling double time, he makes sure that he and his attendants serve just like everyone else. He sets the example.
Nehemiah made a promise to his people that when danger came he would be the first one into battle and that when the days got long and tired because everyone was pulling over-time, he would be the last one to get a bath. This type of leadership is called servant leadership. It doesn’t boast, gloat, or rule over others in a proud way. The people Nehemiah had come to help were already being exploited by people like Sanballot and Tobiah; they needed someone to lead them who loved them.
When I read this about Nehemiah I can’t help but also think of Jesus the ultimate servant leader about who the Apostle Paul wrote, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:5-7 ESV).