the shape of leadership

The Flexibly Strategic Leader

Once a plan goes into action, things have a way of not going exactly as planned. Nehemiah shows what to do next.

Leaders are change-makers. Anytime you start something new, or launch a fresh vision, you are entering into unknown territory. Serious leaders accompany that vision for change with a strategic plan to help you get from point A to point B. But once the plan goes into action, things have a way of not going exactly as planned. Your finely crafted strategy inevitably takes a few twists and turns. That’s why leaders have to be strategic, yet flexible.

Nehemiah discovered the necessity of being flexibly strategic when he faced internal and external resistance during the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem. Nehemiah 4:10-12 says, “Meanwhile, the people in Judah said, ‘The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall.’ Also our enemies said, ‘Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to the work.’ Then the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times over, ‘Wherever you turn, they will attack us.’”

These three verses describe the disruption Nehemiah and the people experienced, and that disruption meant Nehemiah was going to have to make some changes to the original strategy. The lesson for us today is clear: your marriage to a vision must be firm, but your relationship with the strategy must be flexible. So, what changes did Nehemiah make as a flexibly strategic leader?

Three Ways Nehemiah was Flexibly Strategic

1. He restructured his staff.

First, Nehemiah did some restructuring with his team. “Therefore I stationed some of the people behind the lowest points of the wall at the exposed places, posting them by families, with their swords, spears and bows” (Nehemiah 4:13). And verses 16-18 say, “From that day on, half of my men did the work, while the other half were equipped with spears, shields, bows and armor. The officers posted themselves behind all the people of Judah who were building the wall. Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other, and each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked. But the man who sounded the trumpet stayed with me.” In short, Nehemiah’s restructuring efforts involved effectively repositioning and appropriately resourcing his team.

Staff structure is a strategic issue. It has often been said that an organization needs to restructure with every forty percent growth it experiences. I’ve heard various growth percentages (higher and lower) attached to restructuring efforts but suffice it to say that growth will eventually demand a new structure to support and sustain continued growth. In other words, you may need to redefine who reports to who, what responsibilities team members carry, or what new staff need to be hired. Your staff structure (strategy) must ebb and flow with the growth of the organization (flexibility).

2. He implemented a new communication system.
Nehemiah 4:19-20 says, “Then I said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, “The work is extensive and spread out, and we are widely separated from each other along the wall. Wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet, join us there. Our God will fight for us!”

Once your strategic plan goes into action, things have a way of not going exactly as planned. That’s why leaders have to be strategic, yet flexible.

The larger your organization grows, the more your communication efforts will have to change to support it. Again, communication is a strategy, but it’s not a fixed strategy. It requires flexibility as more people join the team. Communication looks different when it’s you and one other staff member vs. multiple departments with multiple staff and leaders at a variety of levels. The larger you grow, the more easily communication falls through the cracks.

I discovered the need for this change as I added a combination of full-time and part-time members to our staff. Not everybody was in every meeting, and not everybody was on campus on the same days. We had to get more strategic and intentional with our communication systems. Much of this is now addressed through technology, all-staff meetings, and weekly oversight meetings with a supervisor. Without flexibility, our communication strategy would never have morphed.

3. He increased encouragement to his team
Anytime there is a change, feelings of uncertainty will always surface among your team. This is often overlooked in the change management process. We get so focused on the technical details of the change that we forget to affirm, encourage, and reassure our team.

When change is happening, it’s your responsibility as the leader to gather the team—on multiple occasions—and let them know everything is going to be alright. It’s your job to speak life, keep their attention focused on the vision, and remind them that God is with all of you.

That’s what Nehemiah did. After restructuring his team, look what happened next: “After I looked things over, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, ‘Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your families, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.’ When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to our own work” (Nehemiah 4:14-15).

Being flexibly strategic is part of a growing church. Again, marry your vision, but let your strategy shift and change to help you achieve it. How do you know when you’re not being flexibly strategic? You’re more likely to exhibit these qualities:

  • You resist new ideas from others or feel threatened by change
  • You ignore the hard data on existing strategies
  • You’re not honest about an existing strategy’s ability to fulfill its originally intended purpose
  • You’re having a hard time admitting that a strategy is not sustainable or scalable in its current design

A flexibly strategic leader is willing to have the hard conversations, admit when something isn’t working, and be willing to step into uncomfortable territory to discover solutions that really work. This doesn’t mean a strategy should change constantly, but it does mean a change in strategy is welcome if it will produce a greater outcome.

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