15 Wherefore, I, Nephi, did strive to keep the commandments of the Lord, and I did exhort my brethren to faithfulness and diligence.
16 And it came to pass that I did make tools of the ore which I did molten out of the rock.
17 And when my brethren saw that I was about to build a ship, they began to murmur against me, saying: Our brother is a fool, for he thinketh that he can build a ship; yea, and he also thinketh that he can cross these great waters.
18 And thus my brethren did complain against me, and were desirous that they might not labor, for they did not believe that I could build a ship; neither would they believe that I was instructed of the Lord.
(1 Nephi 17:15-18)
Shortly after Nephi’s family left Jerusalem, he received a promise from the Lord that, if his older brothers rebelled against him, and if he obeyed God’s commandments, he would be “a ruler and a teacher over [them]” (1 Nephi 2:21-22). Not long after, an angel who rescued him from those older brothers gave the same warning directly to them: “Why do ye smite your younger brother with a rod? Know ye not that the Lord hath chosen him to be a ruler over you, and this because of your iniquities?” (1 Nephi 3:29).
I think if you had asked Laman and Lemuel at the end of their lives whether that prophecy had been fulfilled, they would have said no. Nephi was never their leader in their minds. They did, however, complain many times that Nephi thought he was their ruler, and that he aspired to rule over them. (See 1 Nephi 16:37-38, 1 Nephi 18:10, 2 Nephi 5:3.)
But at the end of Nephi’s life, he affirmed that the prophecy had been fulfilled. “I had been their ruler and their teacher,” he said, “according to the commandments of the Lord, until the time they sought to take away my life” (2 Nephi 5:19).
The passage above shows us what that leadership looked like. The Lord had commanded Nephi to build a ship. He got to work, and he asked his brothers to help him. They protested that it was an impossible task and that they didn’t want to participate. They didn’t offer an alternative course of action; they just didn’t like his. Eventually, with God’s help, Nephi was able to convince them to contribute to the effort.
Objectively, who’s the leader here? One of them has a vision, is working toward realizing it, and is striving to influence others to participate. The others are criticizing him, calling him names, and refusing to help. No matter how much Laman, the oldest, may have wanted to be recognized as the leader, he wasn’t acting like one. Whether or not they acknowledged Nephi to be their leader, he was the only one who was actually leading.
Leadership isn’t holding a position of authority. It isn’t being praised or respected. It isn’t getting credit for the work you do. Leadership is seeing what needs to be done, working hard to do it, and striving to influence others to contribute to the cause.
Ronald Reagan kept a small plaque on his desk in the Oval Office with the following words: “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he does not mind who gets the credit” (“Reagan the Man,” Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Institute Website).
Today, I will follow Nephi’s example of true leadership. I will focus on doing what needs to be done and influencing others to help, without regard for status or recognition.