Islamic Leadership

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Some people articulate that leaders are born, while others argue that they are bred. Probably, a blend between the born and bred leader would throw down the argument. Nonetheless, the old-fashion way of choosing or electing leaders by ‘popular-vote’ for a company, organization, sports club, masjid or country has proven to be problematic and sometimes detrimental. Some people are placed into position because they are well-liked (popular). But the appointed or elected person (through popularity) does not have the finesse or the proactive inclinations to dynamically manage the position. Furthermore, the popular person knowingly his/her shortcomings and he/she would not do justice to the position, still accepts the nomination, due the ‘pressure of popularity’ and his/her ‘prestige and reputation’.

Other people, again, possess the natural qualities of leadership, charisma, loyalty and commitment and the ability to muster the support of co-workers (i.e. employees or the masses) to facilitate and support their vision. In the meanwhile, some of these ‘natural’ leaders lack the willingness or agility to empower and up-skill themselves to constructively address the challenges of modernization (or modernity) and globalization when taking the institution/establishment to new heights.  The success of any leader, whether you are born a natural leader, selected or elected for the position, is the ability to deal wisely with the diversities of the unwavering support, confidence and constructive criticism, or the direct opposite of the last-mentioned. In most cases, changing and/or improving the old, traditional ways of almost anything becomes an anxiety in itself for both the initiator (i.e. the visionary leader) and the traditional supporter/follower. Leadership fundamentally has to do with four things, namely: (1) envisioning, (2) goal-setting, (3) strategizing and (4) inspiring others to look forward to and execute what you [the leader] have envisioned.

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Leadership Succession

By succeeding – and not taking over or replacing – the previous leadership, whilst contemplating ways and means of innovatively and progressively taking the organization to the next level of functioning and operating is probably the toughest challenge of understanding how things were done in the past and occurring at present.

Generally, succeeding any previous leadership is all about finding a middle road (a wasatiyyah) amidst affecting changes or improvements, whilst acknowledging and retaining the rich, historical legacy of the organization. It is about acknowledging, respecting and honouring the major contributions and sacrifices the current role-players and their predecessors have ploughed into the organization, as to where it stands today. It is also to maintain the present status-quo, identity and the operational principles of the organization and, at the same time, ensuring its absolute relevance to the ever-evolving globalization. However, one great challenge remains and that is to review the current operations, structures, methods and systems for the organization’s operations, without any opposition or restraint, and even procrastination.

The cliché is:

“Why do you want to change or review a thing that is running and functioning successfully, whilst you do not even know and understand what our operation or organization is all about?”

Stating it another way: “We have been doing it in this way very successfully for all of these years [e.g. effectively for the past 15 – 20 years], why do you deem it necessary now to bring about changes when you don’t even know and understand what our organization is all about, i.e. our current operation? We have put all these things into place, when there was nothing of that sort.”

Essentially, the probable and common understanding of leadership succession has to do with managing and nurturing the mindset changes and behaviour-modification by all stakeholders. It has to do with managing and facilitating adjustments and/or ‘letting go’ of the past, thus realizing the present challenges and moving on into the future in a proactive manner. It is acknowledging all past and present contributions and developments leaders and workers have made to the establishment and building on it, thereby trendsetting the future of the establishment. There are furthermore the pragmatic expectations, as opposed to the impractical and unrealistic demands and perceptions of the general, consumer public, which they all-the-time burden the organization with. Literally, in the Arabic dictum this is summarized as: “al-ghazwu al-fikrī” (the intellectual conquest and challenges). Almighty Allāh also speaks about positive change when He says:

Indeed! Allāh will not change the condition of a people (a nation, a community, a family, a household, etc.), unless and until they change that which is within themselves [i.e. jihād-un-nafs – the struggle against the inner-self of pessimism and negative attitudes and turning them into positive ones]. But when Allāh wills a people’s punishment, there can be no turning back of it, and they will find besides Him no protector (Al-Ra’ad: Q13: 11).

In addition to the above-mentioned is effective and efficient branding and marketing of the organization, as a state-of-the-art role-player and stakeholder locally, nationally and internationally. It is also to align the organization to the key principles and operatives of Corporate Governance and to enhance its professionalism.

It is not that all of the aforesaid developments never existed in the organization or the organization had no corporate structure, or they never knew what they were doing. Nay! All of these things are in place. It is about doing things differently and smartly, making the operation of the organization compatible and relevant to the various unfolding and changing landscapes and challenges outside of the organization. To do this often becomes the greatest of all challenges and adaptation (‘change-in-mindsets’) inside the organization, without compromising the core principles and pristine values presently at the organization.

“Smart” basically has to do with or implementing your vision and goals or objectives in the following manner: when you tabulate and implement your goals or objectives, which must be in tandem with your Vision and Strategic Objectives, they must be Specific. They must be Measurable. They must be Attainable. They must be Relevant to contemporary developments, challenges and circumstances (modernization & globalization) and, more importantly, they must be Time-bound. Added to this is that the goals must be Congruent, Acceptable and Flexible, [the Acronym: SMART-CAF].

Sometimes the observation is as such that whatever one does differently or perhaps intuitively, then it is an infringement on something that used to be done in a particular way. No one dares digress or divert from the “entrenched” way, otherwise the whole world becomes confused about it. So, leave it the way you were told to do it, not your way. WOW!!!


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Leadership Style

It is very hard to get one universal definition for a leader, because everyone has its own viewpoint and definition as to how a leader should be or behave once he/she has assumed such a leadership position. We often confuse the concepts, ‘leader’ and ‘leadership’, and by cascading the confusion further, a leader is often confused with a ‘manager’ and likewise ‘leadership’ with ‘management’, though both sets of concepts are interrelated and interchangeably used.

A leader is referred to: “a person who leads a group of people, especially a head of a country, or an organization, or a business, or an enterprise.” Being ‘the Head’.

Leadership refers to: “the state or position of being a leader.”

To lead is to guide, inspire, conduct, direct and pave the way.

To manage is to plan, organize, activate, control, staffing (i.e. building capacity) and monitor.

Thus, literally, the leader inspires (i.e. to envision) and the manager executes that which he was inspired with. Therefore, the manager proficiently and efficiently manages the ‘action’ (the Action Plan) processes of the organization and not the leader, though it does not preclude the leader of assisting with the managing.

Consequently, a person generally needs to grapple with everyone’s interpretations, expectations, prescriptions, descriptions and definitions for the way they would perceive the leader. If the leader fits into their ‘Terms of Reference’ and functions accordingly, red-carpet treatment is the answer. If not, turmoil or chaos becomes the order of the day, yet, proactive leadership needs to prevail. Actually, it is counter-productive to lead whilst being an island in oneself; or “the one-eyed man leading the blind people in the darkness”. Indeed, a leader does not exist and/or flourishes without followers and/or co-workers therefore the latter-mentioned must always be acknowledged and respected with mutual understanding.

As Muslims, we generally try and emulate – in an uncompromising way – the leadership style of our beloved Prophet Muḥammad (s.a.w.s.) and thereafter that of his Companions (r.a). However, this is not always the case because we live in an ever-changing world, where flexibility, adjustments and rationalization (ijtihād) are required more often than ever. This is, as long as we don’t compromise, in the process, the fundamental principles and values of the Prophetic (s.a.w.s.) ways and teachings and the Shar’ī principles, ethics, values, practices and requirements. Usman (Mabco Petroleum), in his daily email communication, has the following to say:

The Messenger of Allāh (s.a.w.s.) said: “When three people go on a journey, they must appoint one of them as their amīr (leader).” [Abū Dāwūd].

Every successful organization is headed by a single leader. Having multiple leaders result in clashing wills and efficiency and the purpose of organization is lost. This ḥadīth indicates the necessity of being organized at all times, even if it is only three people on a journey. Leadership in Islām is to be entrusted to the most capable and Allāh fearing, whose job it is to take counsel from those around him. It is the duty of the rest to give good counsel but obey their leader in whatever he decides.

It must be remembered though that obedience to any human being is subject to Allāh’s obedience. He who disobeys Allāh for the sake of obeying a person is then enslaved by that person as a punishment from Allāh (subhana wa ta’ala).

By conducting a Literature Review on leadership, one is often amazed that despite empirical research and analyses, there is simply not a “one fits them all” leader. Leadership is something that has to be tailor-made to suit and grade it to an optimal level of functional leadership, according to what you want to become or allowed to be. Common leadership-descriptions are to be found, like charismatic leaders; laissez-faire leaders, democratic leaders; instrumental/autocratic (bureaucratic) leaders; plutonic leaders; transformational or transactional leaders; the amīr-system leaders; and the imām-system leaders, amongst other definitions and descriptions for leaders. Most of the time, once a leader has adopted a certain style of leadership and convinced himself / herself it is the correct and perfect style or strategy of leading a country, war/battle, community, organization or group of people, then you find him/her to be quite inflexible, uncompromising and dogmatic about his/her leadership style.

Such adopted leadership-style works for him/her and it is fitting perfectly his/her comfort zones. However, all other possible leadership options simply have to take a back-seat and it must be aligned to the way he/she leads. In essence, leadership displays a type of character (personality traits), style, skills, knowledge, qualities, and ability of leading others. Actually, once placed into the leadership position, it depends on how others [e.g. the leader’s comrades, fellow-colleagues in the same (top-structure) leadership circle] and the followers respect and allow the leader the scope to execute his/her leadership abilities.

A lot of focus – since time immemorial – has been placed on comprehending and defining “leadership”, as previously alluded to, which proves only one thing: everyone seeks the best possible way, means or vehicle to steer the organization, business or entity in the right and successful direction through their leader. It is, indeed, a two-way stream.

However, to be a successful, dynamic leader depends on how much latitude (autonomy), leverage (power) and confidence the established business/organization [i.e. the key role-players (the top-structure & elders)] are prepared to give to the new leader. The new leader must be given the scope to lead the business/organization by exercising his/her dynamic leadership skills and experience. Everyone is searching for ‘dynamic leadership’ that will best work for their organization, business or entity and/or in their interests. A writer once wrote:

Since people tend to follow those in whom they see a means of satisfying their own personal goals, the more the leader understands what motivates his subordinates and how these motivations operate; and the more he reflects this understanding in carrying out his managerial actions, the more effective as a leader he is likely to be.

Keith Grint (2010) addresses some of these issues in his book and as part of his elucidation on leadership he classifies leadership into four categories:

Position-based leadership – Is it where ‘leaders’ operate that makes them leaders?

Person-based leadership – Is it who ‘leaders’ are that makes them leaders?

Result-based leadership – Is it what ‘leaders’ achieve that makes them leaders?

Process-based leadership – Is it how ‘leaders’ get things done that makes them leaders?

Probably a combination of all of the above-mentioned leadership-classifications makes up an excellent leader because a proactive leader should function or rise to the occasion in any of the above-mentioned scenarios. If the other why, which and when questions are also incorporated and all the questions differently asked with an open mind, then perhaps strategic reasoning and planning will also be employed by the leader and his/her followers to take the organization to further heights.

A young Chinese businessman, Simon Ng, became a trainer in “dynamic team-building” for his employees and other companies. He is also a martial arts trainer, so to him “discipline in whatever we do” is of utmost importance. In this way his company has thrived in leaps and bounds. Some of the points he highlighted:

By: Simon Ng (A young Chinese businessman)

A Dynamic Leader

You must have a vision: where we are today is not important, but where we will be in the future is important.

You must be flexible as opposed to be rigid in your thinking. In other words, you must always have a broader outlook and an entrepreneurial mindset and never look inwardly only (your own industry/organization), but rather expand your horizons and learn from the broader perspectives and successes of others and deflect it on your own

To thrive and survive, corporations and institutions need to evolve in line with market forces and shift from ‘Management of Crises’ to Leading by Vision and Mission.

In striving to have a high-performance team (within the concept of dynamic team-building): It does not help when the team members come from a system that dictates: “for me to be number 1, you have to be number 2”.

Lastly, in any industry or organization, the ingredients for success are universal:

  • Believe in your products;
  • Have the courage to believe “we” can add-value;
  • Have the “can-do” attitude;
  • Develop creative selling skills;
  • Be daring to be different; and
  • Always be a student of your subject-matter.
  • Be bold enough to accept constructive criticism against yourself
  • Be courageous enough to change for the better, for none of us is perfect
  • Focus on the solution, rather than the problem


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To reiterate and sum it up, leadership fundamentally has to do with four things, namely: (1) envisioning, (2) goal-setting, (3) strategizing and (4) inspiring others to look forward to and execute what you [the leader] have envisioned. This can only transpire in a positive way if there is good, solidified and sincere teamwork by all stakeholders involved.

For a successful and stress-free Way Forward, the key words here are “genuine mutual cooperation”, “constructive communication” and the underlined issue for developing a successful, dynamic organization or business is:

How much do the key-role players (i.e. the founding members) and the old-guard of the organization/business want to let go of their past experiences and knowledge and transform them into the future with an open and sincere mind and heart (i.e. without reservations, but unselfishly and with confidence) to their new leader, allowing him/her the space and scope to prove himself / herself as a dynamic leader or not?


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