A 2500-Year-Old Lesson in How to Address Conflict

What can leaders learn from an ancient story?

History tells us Israel was conquered by the Babylonians in 586 BC. The city of Jerusalem was burned to the ground and the people were deported to Babylon. They lived there as exiles for 70 years, until the Persians overthrew the Babylonian empire. At that time, King Cyrus allowed large groups of former captives to return home.

The first group was led by a Jew born in captivity named Zerubbabel. He led the building of a new Temple in Jerusalem. It was a great achievement. But then, progress stopped. Decades later, the city was still in ruins. Reports of the devastation spurred another Jewish exile named Nehemiah into action. He had risen to high office in the Persian government as cupbearer and consultant to the king. In 445 BC, he asked King Artaxerxes for permission to travel 850 miles to rebuild the city walls of Jerusalem.

Nehemiah recruited an army of unskilled volunteers to rebuild the demolished wall. He faced daily opposition from enemies, conspirators, and false prophets. The project seemed impossible — the wall was forty-feet tall and two-and-a-half miles long. However, under Nehemiah’s galvanizing leadership, the entire wall was restored in just 52 days. Jerusalem was no longer vulnerable to attack.

But that’s not the end of our story…

Twelve years after arriving in Israel, Nehemiah was called back to Babylon. Before leaving, Nehemiah and a priest named Ezra instituted major social and religious reforms. The people swore to follow them. But they soon broke their promise.  

As governor, Nehemiah had to deal wisely with constituents who were: 

  • Defiling the Temple. Enemies of Israel (like the Ammonites and Moabites) were forbidden to enter the Temple. But the top priest was renting out rooms in it like a motel — even to his father-in-law, a trouble-making Ammonite.
  • Neglecting the Levites. Because this tribe was set apart for religious duties, they had no private income. The Levites totally depended on community support. But the disobedient citizens were neglecting their upkeep to the point of poverty.
  • Marrying foreigners. In the past, Israel had fallen into defeat after intermarrying with neighboring nations. So, it was clearly forbidden. But during Nehemiah’s absence, the people returned to marrying non-Jewish foreigners.
  • Desecrating the Sabbath. Jewish law states that Israel should not work on the Sabbath. All commerce was to cease. But the people were openly breaking this commandment by buying and selling in the markets on the weekly day of rest.

Although he was filled with righteous indignation, Nehemiah used “The Four C’s” to address the conflict and turn each situation around. How? Let’s look at some of the ways this exceptional leader did so…

  1. Clarify. Israel had messed up. But you can’t be expected to follow rules you don’t know. To make sure the Jews knew exactly what was expected of them, the Torah (first five books of the Hebrew scriptures) was read out loud to all the people. This public reading lasted six hours, from daybreak till noon. To ensure maximum clarity, the Levites read carefully, “making it clear and giving the meaning so the people could understand.” With everybody on the same page, they could no longer plead ignorance.  
  2. Confront. Nehemiah wasn’t shy. He addressed wrong behavior head on, often with a proactive question. When he discovered the Levite workers weren’t being fed, he asked, “Why has the Temple of God been neglected?” When he learned a non-Jew was living in the Temple, he threw the man’s belongings out in the street and had the room purified. When he caught merchants selling on Sabbath, he shut them down, adding, “If you do it again, I’ll arrest you!” He was not afraid of confrontation. 
  3. Correct. In Nehemiah’s presence, the Jews had promised not to allow their children to marry foreigners. Sadly, they broke their vow. In fact, half the newlyweds had quit speaking Hebrew! When Nehemiah found out, he didn’t ignore it. He took immediate action. Strong action. “I beat some of them and pulled out their hair.” Think that got their attention? Then he lectured them on the calamities the practice had caused in the past. This leader’s deliberate, corrective action reversed a serious situation. 
  4. Confirm. Nehemiah put an immediate stop to Jerusalem’s illegal Sabbath trade. But what about the future? How could he confirm his policy would be sustained? He formally ordered the city gates be shut and all merchants sent home every Friday afternoon — before Sabbath officially commenced at sunset. He stationed his own trusted men at the gates and commanded the Levites to also stand guard. Assigning two separate groups of enforcers assured ongoing compliance and accountability.

Nehemiah’s approach is a lesson for us today.

Nehemiah lived 2,500 years ago. But his principles of effective leadership can help us today. Like the wise governor, many of us lead good people who sometimes go astray. When they do, it’s our job to guide them back to the right path.  Let’s look at his Four Cs through the lens of 21st century business practices:

  1. Clarify. It’s our responsibility to provide a clear expectation. We need to provide clarity on where to go and how to get there. As Max DePree famously said, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” That includes setting specific, measurable criteria for achievable, attainable objectives and deadlines. We can’t possibly expect those we lead to hit a target without well-defined goals, roles, and timelines. Every push goal and major policy change needs a well-understood strategy. 
  2. Confront. When something goes wrong, don’t ignore it. Address it head on. Engage in conflict but remember to do so with respect. Often, starting with a question can be helpful, something like, “Can you help me understand how this happened?” Remember that poor performance can result from lack of training, or even a personal problem affecting their focus. Confronting problems is never easy. Nevertheless, leadership’s responsibility is to address the uncomfortable situations that often go ignored. 
  3. Correct. Unlike wine or cheese, business problems don’t age well. As soon as the issue is defined, take the steps to fix it. Invite your team member to be part of that process. Ask for suggestions. This can be a great learning experience for them, and a great coaching (relationship building) experience for you as their leader. Remember, ignoring a problem sends a signal to the staff that you tolerate bad behavior. Finish up positively by establishing periodic, informal evaluations. 
  4. Confirm. Once the correction is made, a great question to ask is, “What do we need to put in place to ensure this doesn’t happen again?” Take steps to put both short and long-term compliance and accountability in place. When President Reagan said “trust, but verify,” the goal was information reliability and increased transparency related to nuclear arsenals. If you’re a leader with outcome-critical parameters, use it! Give your staff room to breathe but double-check their work progress.

After years of working with leaders at all levels, I’ve learned this: If you’ve got people, you’ve got problems. So be like Nehemiah — address them, fix them, make sure they stay fixed. Doing this will keep your organization moving forward and reaching your goals in the new year.