What do culture-shaping leaders do? It’s no secret that leaders use their influence to mobilize people toward a vision or a goal. But what exactly do leaders do who want to leverage their influence to shape culture?
The book of Nehemiah describes the devastation of Jerusalem following the Babylonian exile and provides powerful leadership lessons in capturing vision and inspiring people. God prompted Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem to reshape culture by restoring dignity to the city, and removing disgrace, through the rebuilding of its wall and gates. No longer would other leaders or nations be able to ridicule the condition of the city.
As Nehemiah’s story unfolds, we quickly discover that the needs of Jerusalem are deeper than originally anticipated. Not only is the city in ruins, but its leaders are a disgrace. Chapter five describes an extraordinary abuse of power. The leaders are overtaxing the people. Interest rates are out of control. Families are mortgaging their fields, vineyards, and homes just to get enough food to survive the famine. Worse of all, parents are selling their children into slavery to get money to live.
Nehemiah’s response to this situation is remarkable. From his example, we learn four practices of culture-shaping leaders that we can apply today.
1. Culture-Shaping Leaders Wisely Confront Injustice
When Nehemiah heard the complaints of the people, he was angry. But he didn’t let his anger dictate his response. Nehemiah 5:7 says, “After thinking it over, I spoke out against these nobles and officials.” Careful thought preceded deliberate action. He called a public meeting and said, “‘We are doing all we can to redeem our Jewish relatives who have had to sell themselves to pagan foreigners, but you are selling them back into slavery again. How often must we redeem them?’ And they had nothing to say in their defense” (Nehemiah 5:8).
Nehemiah teaches us a crucial lesson: When leaders see injustice, they act with wisdom rather than react with wrath. Nehemiah was courageous without being careless. Careful contemplation prepares culture-shaping leaders for courageous confrontation.
2. Culture-Shaping Leaders Raise a New Standard
The second thing culture-shaping leaders do is to raise a new standard that rights wrongs. Nehemiah 5:9-11 says:
“Then I pressed further, “What you are doing is not right! Should you not walk in the fear of our God in order to avoid being mocked by enemy nations? I myself, as well as my brothers and my workers, have been lending the people money and grain, but now let us stop this business of charging interest. You must restore their fields, vineyards, olive groves, and homes to them this very day. And repay the interest you charged when you lent them money, grain, new wine, and olive oil.”
Nehemiah didn’t allow political favors or personal preferences to define his response to the cries of the people. He didn’t define his standard of right and wrong according to opinion polls. The driving motivation behind Nehemiah’s response was the fear of God. To walk in the fear of God implied reverent commitment to God and upright compassion toward people.
Culture-shaping leaders have a deep, unwavering inward devotion to God that delivers a profound, outward compassion toward people. This “fear of God” shapes the definition of the standard they use for restoring and redeeming culture.
Zach Hunter is a great example of a young leader confronting injustice and raising a new standard. At the age of twelve, Zach was moved with a powerful blend of anger and compassion as he read the stories of abolitionists like Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr. But his greatest challenge came when he discovered that slavery was more than a history lesson, but a modern day epidemic affecting more than 27 million people.
Most people in the seventh grade would feel helpless tackling a monster like slavery, but Zach mustered up the courage to face it head on. He launched “Loose Change to Loosen Chains,” a student-led movement to raise awareness and funds to help eliminate slavery. Through his efforts, he supports several abolitionist and human rights organizations.
Today Zach is 21 years old. He says he’s a “painfully normal guy” who refuses to sit on the sidelines and do nothing about the injustice in our world. He’s a culture-shaping leader who used what little influence he had to confront injustice and raise a new standard. As a result, his influence has grown as he challenges others to pursue their passion to make a difference in the world. Zach says, “There’s hurting everywhere, and we can be the solution.”
3. Culture-Shaping Leaders Hold People Accountable
Nehemiah didn’t stop by confronting the leaders of his day and insisting on a new standard of behavior. Verse 12-13 records the response of the leaders as well as Nehemiah’s symbolic action of accountability:
They replied, “We will give back everything and demand nothing more from the people. We will do as you say.” Then I called the priests and made the nobles and officials swear to do what they had promised. I shook out the folds of my robe and said, “If you fail to keep your promise, may God shake you like this from your homes and from your property!” The whole assembly responded, “Amen,” and they praised the Lord. And the people did as they had promised.
The act of shaking out the folds of a robe was a symbolic act that meant if a person disobeys they will live under a curse from God. It was a measure of accountability coupled with consequence. Culture-shaping leaders understand the importance of holding people accountable to do what they say they will do. Without accountability, problems get bigger and culture perpetuates dysfunction.
4. Culture-Shaping Leaders Model the Way
The final verses of the fifth chapter of Nehemiah set the tone for Nehemiah’s leadership. He understood that culture-shaping begins with a leader’s personal behavior.
“For the entire twelve years that I was governor of Judah—from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of the reign of King Artaxerxes—neither I nor my officials drew on our official food allowance. The former governors, in contrast, had laid heavy burdens on the people, demanding a daily ration of food and wine, besides forty pieces of silver. Even their assistants took advantage of the people. But because I feared God, I did not act that way. I also devoted myself to working on the wall and refused to acquire any land. And I required all my servants to spend time working on the wall. I asked for nothing, even though I regularly fed 150 Jewish officials at my table, besides all the visitors from other lands! The provisions I paid for each day included one ox, six choice sheep or goats, and a large number of poultry. And every ten days we needed a large supply of all kinds of wine. Yet I refused to claim the governor’s food allowance because the people already carried a heavy burden. Remember, O my God, all that I have done for these people, and bless me for it.” (Nehemiah 5:14-19)
Get the picture. Nehemiah becomes the governor of Judah for twelve years. Under Persian law, Nehemiah had the right to receive taxes from the people. These taxes would be used to operate his household, hire servants, and supply his salary. This was how the former governors who preceded Nehemiah became wealthy.
But Nehemiah wasn’t like the former governors. Even though it was legal and politically acceptable, Nehemiah refused to place economic strain on the people he was leading. Instead, he paid for food and expenses out of his own pocket. He modeled the way. Why? Verse 15 says, “Because I feared God…” This is the second time Nehemiah speaks about the fear of God.
Culture-shaping leaders model the way by pursuing integrity over incentives and responsibility over rights. When you receive a promotion in position, greater authority, or wider influence, how do you use it? Do you use your position and power to get your way? Do you use your authority to make life harder for others? Do you demand people to do what you say because you’re the one in charge?
Culture values a “title” as the highest form of leadership. But the truth is, a “title” is the lowest form of leadership. The only thing a title does is buy you a little time to prove what kind of leader you really are. You can gain influence through a title, expertise, or relationships, but culture-shaping leaders build influence by who they are…their character and integrity.
When you model the way with integrity, people follow you because they want to not because they have to. Proverbs 11:3 says, “The integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity.” Culture-shaping leaders don’t put their “rights” above what is “right.” Integrity guides them.
What do culture-shaping leaders do? They use their influence to wisely confront injustice and raise a new standard. They hold others accountable and model the way with integrity. Driving their efforts is the fear of God…a deep devotion to Christ that produces a compassion toward others.
Question: What else have you seen culture-shaping leaders do to positively shape society?