In the previous post we explored the idea that leaders must anticipate opposition. Inevitably it will arise and great leaders must understand the nature of opposition and how it evolves over time within an organization or movement.  The following 4 stages of opposition are drawn from the lessons in the story of the temple rebuilding effort in Ezra chapter 4.  However, these stages seem to transcend the Ezra account and apply to virtually any opposition effort a leader may face.

As leaders must be able to recognize the general characteristics of opposition at each stage and be able to bring it to a halt as quickly as possible or else the mission will be compromised, delayed or thwarted altogether.

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Stage 1 – Dormancy of the Opposition

The people who will oppose our leadership are always nearby, but they are often dormant.  In Ezra 4:1, it says “Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building the temple…” Notice the adversaries didn’t move in from another city, they were there all along. Those who would oppose the rebuilding effort were “people of the land” and they were close enough to hear the celebration commemorating the completion of the temple foundation in Ezra 3.

If your mission is advancing and your are accomplishing something significant, do not be lulled into the assumption that there is no opposition.  In the dormancy stage those who will one day oppose our leadership are currently building relationships, followers and influence. Unfortunately, at this point it is very difficult to identify the potential opposition as there is limited if any evidence of impact.

The story continues in Ezra 4:2 where we read, “they (the adversaries) approached Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers ‘houses and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria who brought us here.” This sounds great doesn’t it.  Unfortunately, this is the beginning of the second stage of opposition.

Stage 2 – Infiltration of the Opposition

Adversaries don’t begin with outright confrontation.  They initiate disruption by attempting to infiltrate and ingratiate themselves into healthy and productive teams.  The adversaries of the Israelites didn’t initially fight against the work, but rather sought to “help” with the work. When opposition enters the second stage they pretend to be aligned and often project strong opinions that come close to the mission but miss the mark.  In this stage they can often be misunderstood as well-meaning and good intentioned. However, they will continue to gain power and influence if left unabated. When identified and addressed at this stage, the least amount of collateral damage is caused.

As we continue we read, “…Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of fathers’ houses in Israel said to them, “You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us” (Ezra 4:3). They recognized the misalignment and addressed it head on.

Unfortunately, the opposition didn’t stop there. A few verses later we read, “Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build and bribed counselors against them to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia.” (Ezra 4:4-5).

Stage 3 – Discouragement of the Opposition

When those who oppose leadership don’t get their way they often resort to more blatant and confrontational methods. Their time on the team in prior stages often permits them to gain the admiration, attention and trust of others. As a result, the discouragement stage can be much more volatile then a leader might realize. The opposition begins to sow cords of discouragement and discord.  They begin to speak indirectly against the hope put forth by the mission and the leaders. This disruption leads to lack of stability, uncertainty and fear.  In the Ezra narrative we see that they “discouraged the people” and ultimately made them afraid.  This was not done in the open for the leaders to see, but rather one might imagine this was occurring behind closed doors under the guise of good intention.

This stage is a crucial moment in any leadership effort.  Leaders must be able to identify and address this behavior or risk loosing the mission altogether. When addressed at this stage, the situation may be salvageable, but the conversation and process can be arduous, requiring both courageous determination by the leader and absolute humility by the offender. This combination is not easily achieved and all too often the offender is too prideful to back down.

Another thing to be aware of is the fact that opposition in this stage can linger for a long time if left unaddressed and unresolved. The opposition efforts chronicled in Ezra 4 continued to disrupt the work for nearly 100 years. The antagonism continued throughout the reigns of 6 kings (Cyrus, Cambyses, Smerdis, Darius I, Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes) lasting well beyond the initial project. Imagine leading an organization that deals with manipulative opposition for generations.

The story continues in Ezra 4:6-7, “…they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem… in the days of Artaxerxes king of Persia” As we read the rest of this chapter, we find that the adversaries wrote a politically charge, scathing, biased and manipulative account of the work to the new King of Persia, Ahasuerus, the 6th king since Cyrus originally commissioned the rebuilding effort.

Stage 4 – Confrontation of the Opposition

Adversaries eventually progress to out right confrontation of the mission, the leadership and the corresponding authority.  At this stage they seek to wreck havoc indiscriminately.  The opposition in our story waited until long after the king who commissioned the work died before sending their manipulative and malevolent letter.

Those who will oppose a leader at this stage will leverage whatever social, political, legal and relational equity they can muster. At this point extreme damage will be caused to both the organization or moment you lead.  Inevitably relationships and trust are so strained that reconciliation is extremely difficult if not impossible.

So why would we ever chose to lead? The answer is surprisingly simple. Adversity and opposition actually strengthen leaders.

Stephen Covey suggests, “Just as we develop our physical muscles through overcoming opposition – such as lifting weights – we develop our character muscles by overcoming challenges and adversity.”

Leaders Anticipate Opposition.  

Leaders know opposition will come and they work through it.  They have the hard conversations at the earliest possible moment to stop it before it reaches the latter stages.  Leaders leverage opposition to make themselves and those they lead stronger.

In our next post we will explore how we can respond strategically to each stage.

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