A Leadership Primer: Why We Are Failing Miserably?

A Leadership Primer: Why We Are Failing Miserably?

By Habib Siddiqui

There is a well known Prophetic hadith that says, “When three people set out on a journey they should appoint one of them as a leader.” [Abu Dawud: narrated by Abu Sa’eed al-Khudri (RA)]

This hadith alone is sufficient to point out the importance Islam attaches to leadership. Unfortunately, there is no escaping from the bitter fact that today the Muslim world is devoid of genuine leadership in the political arena. What we see are mostly clowns, corrupt and criminals ruling the Muslim world. They’re the exact opposite of role models. They appear to be the representation of Muslim peoples’ dreams of material success, but in actual fact they represent their great betrayal. If these are Muslim people’s new icons, then the old ones must be dispensed with because they do not belong in the same league.

Muslim rulers today are either oblivious of the essence of leadership or imagine that they don’t have any accountability for their misrule and bad deeds, both to the very people that they rule over and Allah that they will have to face on the dreadful Day of Resurrection. They surely can’t comprehend what had made Amirul Mumineen Umar ibn al-Khattab (Radi Allahu anhu), one of the best rulers in the Muslim history, to say, “Should a lost goat die in the Shat al-‘Arab I tend to think that Allah, the Most Exalted, will question me about it on the Day of Judgm ent.” [Hilyat’ul Awliya wa Tabaqatul Asfiya: Abu Na’im al-Asfahani] They are also unmindful of Muhammad’s (Sallal-lahu alayhi wa sallam) warning: “If you wish, I could tell you about leadership and what it is. Firstly, it is blame; secondly, it is regret; and thirdly, it is punishment on the Day of Resurrection – except for one who is just.” [Tabaraani in al-Kabeer; Saheeh al-Jaami’]

In spite of such stern warnings, there is no shortage of individuals who would rather lead than be led, even though vast majority of them don’t qualify as leaders.

Before we examine the Islamic notion of leadership, it may be useful to define the terms leader and leadership in a broader sense.[1] According to Robert Greenleaf (a pioneer of the modern trend to empower employees), a leader is a person who “goes out ahead and shows the way… He says, ‘I will go, follow me!’ when he knows that the path is uncertain, even dangerous.”[2] This definition is equally applicable for all cases, governmental and non-governmental, secular and non-secular.

Leadership is a process by which a leader influences others to accomplish an objective and directs the society/community/group/organization in a way that makes it more cohesive and coherent. Dwight Eisenhower, the American President and General, defined it as “the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” Warren G. Bennis, distinguished Professor of Business Administration at the prestigious University of Southern California, is a pioneer of the contemporary field of leadership studies. He says, “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” He also said, “Leadership is the wise use of power. Power is the capacity to translate intention into reality and sustain it.”[3]

Leaders carry out this task by applying their leadership attributes, such as character, beliefs, values, ethics, knowledge and skills.

In 1996 General (retired) Colin Powell wrote a book, My American Journey (Ballantine Books). From this book, San Francisco university professor Oren Harari was able to extract 24 lessons for a leader (“The Powell Principles”, McGraw-Hill, 2004). The major lessons being: Good leadership involves responsibility to the welfare of the group,[4] listening,[5] trust, decision-making, challenging the experts,[6] vigilance, paying attention to details,[7] courage[8] and risk taking,[9] surrounding oneself with best minds,[10] and perpetuating optimism amongst others.[11] According to Powell, a good leader must possess “intelligence and judgment and, most critically, a capacity to anticipate, to see around corners.” In picking good leaders he suggests looking for loyalty, integrity, a high energy drive, a balanced ego and the drive to get things done.

As noted by most experts, every successful leader must exhibit five qualities: vision, character, courage, communication and intelligence.[12] Vision is the quality that separates good leaders from bad ones. True vision, however, only comes with knowledge and intuition. People follow leaders because they believe leaders have the foresight to see more clearly than they do as to where and how to go and which direction to take. Foresight is the ‘lead’ that the leader has amongst his/her people.

Character defines a leader and the cause he/she espouses. A good leader is always a person of character. This quality must be developed before the other four. An immora l and unethical person can never become a good leader although he/she can be successful in his/her mission.

Courage exemplifies a leader and strengthens his bonding with the people. It is a state of mind or spirit that enables one to face danger, fear, or vicissitudes with self-possession, confidence, and resolution. It is, therefore, not the absence of fear or aversion of risk but rather their acceptance with the chance of success. It is difficult to acquire this quality. Great leaders are often remembered for their courageous actions or decisions in times of adversity. Courage, however, must be backed up by intelligence, without which the end result can be devastating.

Communication is the art of articulating the vision and mission that the leader espouses. By clearly stating and restating the visionary concept the leader gives certainty and purpose to others who may have difficulty in achieving it for themselves. Great leaders are great communicators of the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) principle. That is, they are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt, to offer a solution everybody can understand.[13] However, communication is more than making oneself heard, it is also the ability to listen and understand from others, especially those who know and not sycophants. According to Greenleaf, “Listening is a healing attitude, the attitude of intensely holding the belief—faith if you wish to call it thus—that the person or persons being listened to will rise to the challenge of grappling with the issues involved in finding their own wholeness.”[14]

Intelligence is the capacity to acquire and apply knowledge quickly. Like courage, it is a difficult quality to master. An intelligent leader is a good problem solver, and surrounds himself or herself with intelligent advisers who enable him/her to make right decisions fast. He/she is a quick learner and learns from previous mistakes, and has the courage to often think ‘outside the box.’ Note that even an unintelligent leader can be quite successful if he/she is willing to listen and carry out advice from his/her honest and intelligent advisers.

Professor Bennis once said, “I used to think that running an organization was equivalent to conducting a symphony orchestra. But I don’t think that’s quite it; it’s more like jazz. There is more improvisation.” In general, there are three leadership styles, which all leaders must use from time to time. These are: authoritarian, participative and delegative.

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[15] A successful leader knows when and how to apply these different styles.

In 1989-90, Bernard Bass proposed that there are three basic ways to explain how people become leaders.[16] These theories are: (1) some personality traits may lead people naturally into leadership roles (Trait Theory); (2) a crisis or important event may cause a person to rise to the occasion, which brings out extraordinary leadership qualities in an ordinary person (Great Events Theory); (3) peop le can choose to become leaders, they can learn leadership skills (Transformational Leadership Theory). The third theory is the most widely accepted theory today that is taught in many business schools.[17]

Greenleaf proposed an alternative leadership category, which he called servant-leadership where “the servant-leader is the servant first.” He explains, “It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. For such it will be a later choice to serve—after leadership is established. The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends20that are part of the infinite variety of human nature. . . The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.”[18] According to him, a servant-leader uses power ethically, with persuasion as the preferred mode. Persuasion “involves arriving at a feeling of rightness about a belief or action through one’s own intuitive sense.”[19] A servant-leader (1) seeks consensus in group decisions, when possible; (2) practices acceptance of and empathy for the people it leads; (3) must nurture community, i.e., does not separate him/herself from people; and (4) must practice the art of withdrawal (thus allowing deep wisdom and intuition to emerge). And most importantly, a servant-leader chooses to lead simply because he/she cares for people. To Greenleaf, the enemy is “Not evil people. Not stupid people. Not apathetic people. Not the ‘system.’ Not the protesters, the disrupters, the revolutionaries, the reactionaries…In short, the enemy is strong natural servants who have the potential to lead but do not lead, or who choose to follow a non-servant.”[20]

It goes without saying that those aspiring for political leadership should become servant-leaders first.

The road to great leadership, according to Kouzes & Posner (1987), which is common to successful leaders comprises of (1) challenging the existing process (for something better), (2) inspiring a shared vision that can be understood by followers, (3) enabling others to act by giving them the tools and methods to change the situation, (4) modeling or leading the way (i.e., they are not afraid of being personally engaged in ‘showing the way’ or getting their hands dirty for the task ahead) and (5) encouraging the heart to share the glory (often termed as the R&R - rewards and recognition - in the business world).[21] Bottom line: leaders promote action and20breed more leaders (i.e., leave behind equally effective successors or followers to carry on the task).

Well, it is not difficult to understand why the Prophets like Muhammad (S) and Moses (Musa Alayhis salam), the Prophets of Islam, are recognized as some of the best leaders of mankind. Not only did they meet all the five essential characteristics of good leadership, they also epitomized the concept of servant-leadership.

How about our current leadership in the Muslim world? Do they pass the litmus test on leadership?

Part 2: Leadership in Islam: Accountability to People

One day Molla Nasreddin Hodja was going down the street on his donkey’s back. The beast all on a sudden started rushing forward. When asked, “Hey Molla, where are you going?” the Molla, pointing to the donkey, replied, “Sorry, I don’t know where I am going; ask the beast.” Most Muslims of this century are exactly in the same situation as the Molla was. They simply don’t know where their state beasts, the political leaders in the government, are taking them.

Alas, the current political leadership in the entire Muslim world – from Indonesia to Senegal - has miserably failed to live up to the dictates of good leadership. Hardly any of these rulers fulfill the necessary characteristics for successful leadership. Quite a few of the rulers are not “leaders” by any measure that we have discussed earlier; they can better be described as sociopaths.  This pathetic condition is simply difficult to explain given Islam’s emphasis on society and moral or spiritual enrichment of every member of the society. Unlike most religions, Islam, after all, is a social religion that defines the role and criteria of20leadership in unambiguous terms.

The Qur’an says, “And remember when his Lord tried Ibrahim (Abraham) (alayhis salam) with His commands, and he fulfilled them, He said, Surely I have appointed you an Imam for mankind. Ibrahim said: ‘And of my offspring’ (will there be Imams)? He said: ‘My covenant includes not the wrongdoers.” (2:124) (Note: If we want to find the Islamic equivalents to the words - leader and leadership, these are Imam and Imamat, although other words are also in use.) We can only appreciate the importance of leadership when we reflect upon the fact that Prophet Ibrahim (AS) had to pass through several trials in his life, which included striving against a whole nation single-handedly. Before Ibrahim (AS) was appointed a Rasul (Messenger) of Allah, he was a Nabi (Prophet). Allah appointed him His Messenger before He appointed him His Khalil (friend); and He appointed him His friend before He appointed him an Imam of mankind. This Qur’anic verse also says categorically that wrongdoers cannot be leaders (even though they may belong to Abraham’s family).

To elucidate further the meaning of leadership in Islam, let me quote the following statements (which are self-explanator y) of early Muslims, who understood Islam better than any of our contemporaries.[22] [For a comprehensive list of quotations, the interested reader may like to consult this author’s books – Islamic Wisdom (2000), and Wisdom of Mankind (2007).]

Criteria of Good Leadership

Ali (RA) said, “So far as protection of properties, rights and honor of the Muslim world, the propagation and preservation of Muslim laws and the guardianship of Muslim finances are concerned, an ignorant person, a miser, a tyrant, a man who accepts bribes or the one who has forsaken the principles of equity and justice should not be entrusted with the governance or rulership of a Muslim state.  A miserly person will covet the wealth of those over whom he rules; an ignorant will misguide them; a tyrant will oppress and tyrannize them, one who is not afraid of fast changing times and policies will, to the detriment of the cause of Islam, keep on forming unholy alliances with one nation after the other; a corrupt ruler, who is open to bribery, will violate rights and will not dispense justice and the one who has given up the traditions of the Holy Prophet (S) will be responsible for the destruction of Islamic ideals and doctrines.” [Nahjul Balagha] 

1) Service to people: When Umar ibn Abdul Aziz (R) was appointed caliph, he summoned Salem ibn Abdullah, Raja’ ibn Hayat and Muhammad ibn Ka’b (R), who were tabi’ins (Successors).  “I have been afflicted with this trial.  What am I to do, for I know this high office to be a trial, even though men count it for a blessing?” - He asked.  They advised, “If you wish tomorrow to escape from God’s punishment, look upon aged Muslims as though each one were your father, and regard youthful Muslims as your brothers, Muslim children as your own sons, treating them in all respects as one does one’s father, brother, and son.” [Tadhkirat al-Auliya’: narrated by - Fudayl ibn ‘Iyadh (Rahmatullah alayh)]

When caliph Harun al-Rashid sought advice from Fudayl ibn ‘Iyadh (R), the latter said: “Consider the lands of Islam as your own house, and their inhabitants as your family.  Visit your father, honor thy brother, and be good to your son.  I fear that your handsome face will be sorely tried by the fire of Hell.  Fear Allah, and obey His command.  And be watchful and prudent; for on the Day of Resurrection Allah will question you concerning every single Muslim, and He will exact justice fro m you in respect of every one.  If one night an old woman has gone to sleep in a house without provisions, she will pluck your skirt on that Day and will give evidence against you.” [Tadhkirat al-Auliya: Fudayl ibn ‘Iyadh]

Muhammad (S), the Messenger of Allah, said, “Your best leaders and rulers are those whom you love and who love you (in return), and for whom you pray and who pray for you.  And your worst leaders and rulers will be those whom you hate and who hate you, and whom you curse and who curses you. [Muslim: ‘Auf bin Malik (RA)]

Amirul Mu’mineen Umar ibn Khattab (RA) said, “The happiest of governors (on the Day of Judgment) is one whose subjects were happy with him (in this world), and on that day, the most wretched of governors is one whose subjects have suffered under him in this world. Beware never to procrastinate or fail to serve people. Otherwise your deeds will fritter away and you will be like a cow, once it sees green pasture, it hastens to chomp on it to grow fatter not realizing that once it becomes fat, it will be fit for slaughter.” [Hilyat’ul Awliya wa Tabaqatul Asfiya: Abu Na’im al-Asfahani]

Bottom line: The basis of leadership is that the leader is for the people. The acknowledgment of the rights of the people and abstinence from anything that is harmful to their authority is the first essential condition of a sound leadership.

2) Justice: Muhammad (S) said, “If you guarantee me six things on your part, I shall guarantee you Paradise: (1) speak the truth when you talk, (2) keep a promise when you make it, (3) when you are trusted with something fulfill your trust, (4) avoid sexual immorality, (5) be modest, and (6) restrain your hand from injustice.” [Baihaqi: Ubada b. Samit (RA)]

“O ye who believe! stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents,=2 0or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for Allah can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest ye swerve, and if ye distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily Allah is well-acquainted with all that ye do.” [Qur’an 4:135]

“O ye who believe! stand out firmly for Allah, as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety: and fear Allah. For Allah is well-acquainted with all that ye do.” [Qur’an 5:8]

Ali (RA) said, “Silence will create respect and dignity; justice and fair play will bring more friends; benevolence and charity will enhance prestige and position; courtesy will draw benevolence; service of mankind will secure leadership; good words will overcome powerful enemies.” [Nahjul Balagha]

A wise man said, “Doing justice is good for all, but is better for the rulers and leaders.”  [Al-Munabbihat]

In his letter to a government official, Ali (RA) commanded, “Do justice to the people and look after their needs patiently, for you are a treasurer of the people, a representative of the nation and an ambassador of the Imams.” [Nahjul Balagha]

Ali (RA), addressing Abdullah ibn Abbas (RA), said, “This Caliphate is more trivial to me than an old shoe unless I restore a right or redress a wrong.” [Nahjul Balagha]

3) Trust: The real position of a ruler is that of a trustee.

Muhammad (S) said, “He who is not trustworthy has no faith, and he who does not keep his covenant has no rel igion.” [Baihaqi]

        “Allah commands you that you restore trusts to their owners, and if you judge between people, judge justly.” [Qur’an 4:58] That is, rulers are custodians of the people.

        Ali (RA) said, “It is essential for the Imam to judge according to what Allah has revealed and to restore the trust. If he does that it is incumbent upon people to listen to him, to obey him and to respond whenever they are called.” [Durr al-Manthur]

4) Manners: Muhammad (S) said, “The worst ruler is one wh o deals with people harshly.” [Muslim: Abu Saeed Hassan al-Basri (R)]

When Muhammad (S) sent Mu’adh ibn Jabl (RA) to Yemen as governor, he instructed him: “Make things easy for the people and not difficult; win their hearts by speaking with them nicely; do not scare them away; and when you offer your prayers with them, your prayer should be such as to suit the weakest of them (i.e., don’t prolong your prayer).” [Sirah Ibn Hisham]

Umar (RA) said, “Authority or governance is not permitted save to him who possesses gentleness without weakness, and severity and strength without harshness.” [Bahr al-Fava’id]

Ali (RA) said, “Feel need for the one whose prisoner you wish to be, dispense with the one whose equal you wish to be and prefer the one whose leader you wish to be.” [Nahjul Balagha]

5) Humility and being in touch with common people and the wise: The Prophet (S) said:  “Allah has revealed to me that you must be humble, so that no one boasts over another, or oppress another.” [Muslim: ‘Iyad bin Himar al-Mujashi’i (RA)]

The Prophet (S) said: “The worst of scholars is he who visits princes, and the best of princes is he who visits scholars.  Happy is the prince who stands at the poor man’s door, and wretched is the poor man who stands at the door of the prince.” [Fihi Ma Fihi: Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi (R)]

6) Piety: Muhammad (S) said, “If two types of people are pious all mankind=2 0will be pious: the ulama and the rulers.” [Bahr al-Fava’id] 

        “…Help ye one another in righteousness and piety, but help ye not one another in sin and rancor: fear Allah: for Allah is strict in punishment.” [Qur’an 5:2]

7) Benevolence, good deeds and consultation: Muhammad (S) said, “O Muslims, if your rulers are benign and your wealthy people are generous and the basis of your transaction is mutual consultation, then your remaining on the surface of the earth is better than going into its belly.  On the other hand, if your rulers are uncompassionate and your wealthy ones are miserly and the settlement of your transactions depends on the advice of your women, then it is better fo r you to go into the belly of the earth than to remain on it.” [Tirmizi: Abu Hurayrah (RA)] [Note: What is reproved here in terms of consultation is when the advice is sought only from one’s spouse, and not from others.]

Muhammad (S) also said, “If your rulers are the good doers of you, rich ones are from the gracious ones of you, and your affairs go on through consultation among you, then (living) on the earth is better for you than (being) under it. But, if your rulers are the wicked ones of you, your rich ones from the misers of you, and your affairs go on without consultation among you, then (being) under the ground is better for you than (living) on it.” [Manhaj-us-Sadiqeen]

7) Knowledge, intelligence, morality and character: Ali (RA) said, “He who puts himself as a leader of the people should begin the reform with himself.” [Nahjul Balagha]

Ali (RA) said, “Whoever wants to be leader and a guide should educate himself before educating others; before teaching morality to others he should improve his morals and character. [Nahjul Balagha]

Ali (RA) said, “How can he who is misled himself lead others?” [Nahjul Balagha]

“Do you enjoin right conduct on the people while you forget (to practice it) yourselves, and yet you recite the Scripture? Will you not then use your reason?” [Qur’an 2:44]

Ali (RA) said, “The ruled will not be good unless the rulers are sound, and the rulers will not be good unless the ruled are honest.” [Nahjul Balagha]

8) Guidance: Muhammad (S) said, “By Him in Whose hands is my life, you must enjoin virtue and check evil, or else Allah will certainly send chastisement upon you.  And then you will pray but your supplications will not be accepted.” [Tirmizi: Huzaifa (RA)]

Muhammad (S) said, “The recompense of one who directs somebody to do good deed will be equal to the reward of the latter.” [Muslim: Abu Mas’oud Uqbah ibn ‘Amr Ansari al Badri (RA)]

        “Whoever intercedes in a good cause becomes a partner therein; and whoever recommends and helps an evil cause, shares in its burden: and Allah has power over all things.” [Qur’an 4:85]

        “Let there be a community from among you that invites to all that is good, and enjoins the doing of what is right and forbids the doing of what is wrong, and it is they who attain success.” [Qur’an 3:104]

        “Those who if We firmly establish them in the land (with leadership) … enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong, with God rests the final outcome of all events.” [Qur’an 22:41]

9) Diplomacy: Ali (RA) said, “He who fails in diplomacy will fall short of leadership.” [Nahjul Balagha]

10) Veracity: Muhammad (S) said, “There are three types of people to whom Allah will not speak and look on the Day of Resurrection and they will have a painful punishment: an old man who commits fornication, a ruler (or king) who is a great liar, and a poor man who is proud.” [Muslim: Abu Hurayrah (RA)]

        Besides, the Qur’an describes good leaders as those who are honest,[23] caring,[24] gentle,[25] morally upright,[26] charitable,[27] sincere[28] and people-centric in allowing public participation in policy making.[29] Furthermore, the leaders must not misappropriate or squander funds[30] in public trust and indulge in luxury.[31]

Part 3: Leadership in Islam: Accountability Before God

Islam does not stop with just setting the criteria of leadership. As we shall see below, it enunciates what is in store for the leader if one fails or succeeds in carrying out the task properly.

        Caution against Bad Leaders

Muhammad (S) said, “A person who is appointed in authority over people and betrays them, will not be allowed to enter Paradise after his death.” [Bukhari and Muslim: Abu Ya’la Ma’qil bin Yasar (RA)]

Muhammad (S) said, “If he (the ruler) does not look after the people (placed under his care) with goodwill and sincerity, he will not get even the aroma of Paradise.” [Bukhari and Muslim: Abu Ya’la Ma’qil bin Yasar (RA)]

Muhammad (S) said, “If Allah appoints a person in authority over the Muslims, and he fails to redress their grievances and remove their poverty, Allah will not fulfill his needs and will n ot remove his poverty on the Day of Judgment.” [Abu Dawud and Tirmizi: Abu Maryam Azdi (RA)]

Muhammad (S) said, “Beware of the supplication of the one is wronged, for it goes up to the heaven like a flame.” [Hakim: Abdullah ibn Umar (RA)]

Muhammad (S) said, “Allah says, ‘I swear by My power and glory that I will certainly wreak vengeance upon the oppressor sooner or later and also upon the one who in spite of being capable does not help the oppressed.’” [Abu al-Sheikh: Abdullah ibn Abbas (RA)]

Muhammad (S) said, “May Allah’s curse be upon both the payer and receiver of bribe.” [Ibn Hibban]

Muhammad (S) said, “The prayer of a tyrant ruler is not answered.” [Uswai Rasool-e-Akram: Talha bin Ubaydullah (RA)]

Muhammad (S) said, “For you to obey God for a moment is better than a thousand years of people obeying you.  Command shall be a cause of regretting on the Day of Resurrection.” [Tadhkirat al-Auliya’: Fudayl ibn ‘Iyadh]

Muhammad (S) said, “Time is coming when you will aspire for public offices and authority.  But beware! it will be a matter of humiliation and repentance on the Day of Judgment.” [Bukhari: Abu Hurayrah (RA)]

Muhammad (S) said, “He who has been a ruler over [even] ten people will be brought in shackles on the Day of Judgment till justice loosens his chains or tyranny brings him to destruction.” [Darimi]

Muhammad (S) said, “A person who calls people toward doing good deed will get the same reward as those who follow him and do good; and not hing will be diminished from the requital of the latter.  Similarly those, who call the people towards vice will have the same punishment as those who follow him without any diminution in the punishment of the perpetrators.” [Muslim: Abu Hurayrah (RA)]

Muhammad (S) said, “The end of those who hang about the rich and who help the oppressor will be exceedingly sorrowful. They will neither be taken as Muslims nor come to my Pond [Kauthar], howsoever they claim to profess Islam.” [Ahle Sunan: Abu Hurayrah (RA)]

Mustawrid ibn Shaddad (RA) relates that the Prophet (S) said, “He who commands Muslims and looks after their affairs is permitted to take enough of that wealth to seek a wife, build a dwelling, and obtain a mount.  Whoever takes more than that from the Bayt al-Mal (state treasury), to make a separate stable for his horses or a chamber for his servants, or to seek cups of gold and silver, brocades, and silks, or to amass silver, ‘He will come to God on Judgment Day burning and grasping’; on Judgment Day he will come forward and they will cry out above h im, ‘This is a traitor; this is a robber of the Bayt al-Mal.’ ”  This much is allowed that person who has no daily support allotted to him; but (even) this amount is unlawful to one who has a stipend.  Today they (rulers) have abolished the Bayt al-Mal and ruined Muslims.  “Woe to the kings from the weak; and woe to the rulers from the poor!” [Bahr al-Fava’id]

Rewards of Good Leadership

Muhammad (S) said, “The just and fair persons (rulers and judges) will be seated on chairs of light before Allah.  Such persons are those who decide justly and deal justly in the matters relating to their families and other affairs entrusted to them.” [Muslim: Abdullah ibn ‘Amr ibn al-‘As (RA)]

Muhammad (S) said, “The inmates of paradise will be of three kinds: (1) a just ruler, (2) one who spends in charity according to his capacity: a person full of mercy and tender hearted towards all his relatives and Muslims, and (3) a pious self-restraining person having a family.” [Muslim: Iyad bin Himar (RA)]

Ali (RA) said, “Four kinds of men whose prayer will not be rejected are: the prayer of the just leader (Imam) for his subjects; the son who is respectful to his father; the father who is loving to his son; and the oppressed man.  Of them, Allah says: By My strength and My majesty, I will support you even after time.” [Kitab al-Irshad: Shaykh al-Mufid]

Conduct of Kings/Rulers

As to the conduct of Muslim rulers, the author of the book Bahr al-Fava’id says, it is expected that they are pious Muslims who fulfill daily Islamic obligations, give something in charity each day, do good deeds, sit in open court, and deal with the affairs of petitioners; live with the populace with benignity and not violence; strive to make all of their subjects content; do not prefer pleasing men over pleasing the Creator (i.e., be just); do justice and command justice, frequent the ulama (scholars) for counsel, and restrain the hands of wrongdoers and, most certainly, of their mercenaries, and prevent these from wrongdoings; for on the Judgment Day he will be asked about their wrongdoings, and will be accountable.

When Ali (RA) sent Malik al-Ashtar as governor of Egypt, he instructed him, “The fact is that the public speak well of only those who do good.  It is they who furnish the proof of your actions.  Hence the richest treasure that you may covet should be the treasure of good deeds.  Keep your desires under control and deny yourself that which you have been prohibited from, for, by such abstinence alone, you will be able to distinguish between what is good to them and what is not. Develop in your heart the feeling of love for your people and let it be the source of kindness and blessing to them.  Do not behave with them like a barbarian and do not appropriate to yourself that which belongs to them.

Remember that the citizens of the state are of two categories.  They are either your brethren in religion or your brethren in kind.  They are subject to infirmities and liable to commit mistakes.  Some indeed do commit mistakes.  But forgive them even as you would like God to forgive you.  Bear in mind that y ou are placed over them even as I am placed over you.  And then there is Allah even above him who has given you the position of a Governor in order that you may look after those under you and to be sufficient unto them.  And you will be judged by what you do for them.

… Do not rouse yourself to anger, for no good will come out of it.  Do not say: “I am your overlord and dictator and that you should, therefore, bow to my commands” as that will corrupt your heart, weaken your faith in religion and create disorder in the state. 

… Let your mind respect, through your actions, the rights of God and the rights of man, and likewise, pursue your companions and relations to do likewise.  For, otherwise, you will be doing injustice to yourself and injustice to humanity.  Thus both man and God will turn into your enemies… Nothing deprives man of divine blessings or excites divine wrath against him more easily than cruelty.  Since God listens to the voice of the oppressed, He waylays the oppressor.” [Nahjul Balagha]

Shaykh Sa’di (R) said, “To do good to wicked persons is like doing evil to good men.” [Gulistan]

Final Words:

As can be seen the matters of do’s and don’ts in leadership, and what is expected from Muslim leaders are rather unambiguously laid down. As a matter of fact, no other religion comes close to Islam in terms of articulating such rules so vividly clear. The discussion above also shows that the Islamic concept of leadership is not mu ch different from its secular counterpart, except that Islam puts an extra component in leader’s accountability before God on the Day of Resurrection. That is, a leader’s accountability does not end in this world, but extends all the way to the Next World.

And yet there is no escaping from the harsh reality that some of the worst rulers of our time can be found in the Muslim world. We ask: why? How is that possible? Is this a reflection of the famous prophetic hadith, “As you will be, so will you have rulers put over you”? [Baihaqi: Abu Ishaq (RA)][32] A corollary is, if we have not become rotten ourselves, we would not have settled for these corrupt leaders either in our midst? Are we supposed to feel sorry only and do nothing to improve our lots? The good news is: like most things in our world, people can modify their ways and leadership can also be learnt. And it is never too late to learn and modify oneself.

Let this blessed month of Ramadhan encourage us to become better human beings. Let this month guide our leaders to modify their ways by settling for what is noble and good.

Man’s need of guidance is the basis of the teachings of the Prophets and the philosophy of their mission. Just like gasoline, which needs to be discovered, extracted, refined and then used, the human asset within men also require being discovered, guided, managed and turned to action. Good leaders promote action but more importantly they improve the society by changing the character of the people.[33] Leaders give those under their charge the chance to own the challenge, along with the glory of overcoming it. That is exactly what leadership is all about.

How long will the Muslim world wait to have leaders that care about those led or ruled, and that know of their accountability for every act he/she was responsible on this earth?


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[1] As you will notice, there is hardly much difference between secular and Islamic notion of leadership outside that the fundamental belief the Muslim accountability does not end in this world, but in the Next World.
[2] Robert K. Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader, Indianapolis: Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership (1970, 1991), p.8; Don M. Frick, Robert K. Greenleaf: A Life of Servant Leadership, San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler (2004).
[3] For quotes from Professor Bennis, see, e.g., http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/w/warren_g_bennis.html.
[4] To explain this lesson, Harari says, “Trying to get everyone to like=2 0you is a sign of mediocrity: You’ll avoid the tough decisions, you’ll avoid confronting the people who need to be confronted, and you’ll avoid offering differential rewards based on differential performance because some people might get upset. Ironically, by procrastinating on the difficult choices, by trying not to get anyone mad, and by treating everyone equally “nicely” regardless of their contributions, you’ll simply ensure that the only people you’ll wind up angering are the most creative and productive people in the organization.”
[5] Powell says, “The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either20case is a failure of leadership.”
[6] Powell says, “Don’t be afraid to challenge the pros, even in their own backyard.” Harari explains, “Leadership does not emerge from blind obedience to anyone. Xerox’s Barry Rand was right on target when he warned his people that if you have a yes-man working for you, one of you is redundant. Good leadership encourages everyone’s evolution.”
[7] Powell says, “Never neglect details. When everyone’s mind is dulled or distracted the leader must be doubly vigilant.” Harari explains, “Strategy equals execution. All the great ideas and visions in the world are worthless if they can’t be implemented rapidly and efficiently. Good leaders delegate and empower others liberally, but they pay attention to details, every day.”
[8] Powell says, “You don’t know what you can get away with until you try.” Harari explains, “Good leaders don’t wait for official blessing to try things out. They’re prudent, not reckless. But they also realize a fact of life in most organizations: If you ask enough people for permission, you’ll inevitably come up against someone who believes his job is to say “no.””
[9] Powell’s advice is don’t take action if you have only enough information to give you less than a 40 percent chance of being right, but don’t wait until you have enough facts to be 100 percent sure, because by then it is almost alw ays too late.
[10] Powell says, “Organization doesn’t really accomplish anything. Plans don’t accomplish anything, either. Theories of management don’t much matter. Endeavors succeed or fail because of the people involved. Only by attracting the best people will you accomplish great deeds.”
[11] See, Quotations from Chairman Powell: A Leadership Primer http://www.govleaders.org/powell.htm; http://www.govleaders.org/powell2.htm
[12] See the series of articles on leadership by David Piccione in http://www.run4yourlives.com
[13] As quoted in General (Retd.) Colin Powell’s book from Michael Korda.
[14] Greenleaf, On Becoming a Servant Leader, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco (1996), p. 95.
[15] Note that this is different than the managerial grid, proposed by Blake and Mouton (1985), which uses two axes: concern for people against concern for task – on a scale of 1 (low) to 9 (high). It categorizes four types of managers: authoritarian (people 1: task 9), country club (9:1), team leader (9:9) and improvised (1:1).
[16] Bernard Bass, Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership: A Survey of Theory and Research (1989), Free Press, New York; Bernard Bass, From Transactional to Transformational Leadership: learning to share the vision. Organizational Dynamics, vol. 18, Issue 3, Winter (1990), pp. 19-31.
[17] Prof. Bennis says, “The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born-that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.” However fact remains that not everyone is cut out to be a good and successful leader. Only certain people have the potential to become great leaders by mastering the natural talents they were born with. Leaders can be good or bad.
[18] Op. cit.
[19] Greenleaf, On Becoming a Servant Leader, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco (1996), p. 129.
[20] Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader, Indianapolis: Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership (1970, 1991), pp. 34-35.
[21] James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco (1987).
[22] The criteria established by the Shi’i scholars are even more stringent. For example, ‘Allama Muhammad Baqer b. Muhammad Taqi Majlisi (1628-99) accounts for the necessity of Imams in this way: Imams are the leaders not only in political and religious matters but also in every aspect of communal life, and they function as the deputies of the Prophet (niyabat) and his successors (janeshini). Majlisi, counting some of the conditions for being an Imam, regards the following as the most significant: (1) must be afzal (most learned men), (2) ismat (immune from sin), (3) sayyid (belonging to Muhammad’s (S) family). Other conditions are that they must be brave, of perfect character, manly, lack of physical defect, pure of human pitfalls like jealousy, greed, etc.
[23] Qur’an 2:188.
[24] Qur’an 76:8-9, 93:9-11.
[25] Qur’an 3:159
[26] Qur’an 22:41
[27] Qur’an 2:195
[28] Qur’an 2:44
[29] Qur’an 3:159, 42:38
[30] Qur’an 17:26-27
[31] Qur’an 11:116-117
[32] In another hadith, Muhammad (S) said, “My Ummah will keep on flourishing as long as it retains the following three characteristics: (1) they speak the truth when they speak, (2) they administer justice when they decide the affairs of the people, and (3) they are merciful on weaklings when a request for mercy is made.” [Bukhari and Muslim: Abu Yala (RA)]
[33] Shaykh Morteza Motahhari said, “The best leader is he who mobilize the individual forces, motivates them, coordinates them and creates an ideal for all people. For an ideal two things are necessary. First the people are ideal-minded and second large groups of them are induced to accept the ideal introduced to them.” (Notes on Leadership and Management)


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