“When leadership is great, success inevitably follows. Likewise, when leadership is poor, failure inevitably follows.” – Adnan Jalali, Leadership Trainer.
Many people vie for leadership positions whether in school, at work, or in government. But most people make bad leaders. It’s true. We tend to think that a leader is someone who bosses others around, someone who gets to say what goes, the one who everyone else serves.
And because of this understanding of what a leader is and does, the world has seen much evil from leaders-tyrants, despots, dictators—leaders with a myriad of problems—megalomania, narcissism, psychopathy. We know what makes a bad leader. We don’t even have to look to the past for examples.
What Makes a Good Leader?
“People want leaders who listen to them, and empower them rather than who practice power over them.” (Leonard Pellicer, Caring Enough to Lead).
But we also know what makes a good leader. The role of a prophet in its essence is that of leadership. God chose these men and women[i], these prophets, as leaders to show people the way back to Him. The prophets were examples of great leaders.
When we look to the prophets for guidance in what it means to be a good leader, we learn that being a good leader is being a servant—the opposite of what most think leadership is.
It is in Muhammad’s (PBUH) role as prophet, that we today still can witness what is meant to be a great leader. And most who read the biography of the Prophet Muhammad will come to understand that he was a servant to God first and to his people second.
Manners of Serving Others
According to Faiza Gonaim, Department of Educational Leadership Studies, University of Victoria, Canada[ii], The Prophet (PBUH):
Became a leader while remaining a servant. The Prophet was always amongst his people: teaching, helping and guiding them. He never pursued comfort or high position over his people. Nevertheless, his companion sometimes offered to help him, yet he refused saying, ‘Allah isn’t pleased with the slave who distinguishes between himself and his companions, and considers himself better than others.’”
Throughout his prophethood, Muhammad (PBUH) talked to people, listened to men, women, children, rich, poor, slaves, leaders. He heard his people’s concerns, their needs, their pains. He empathized with people, prayed with them and for them, and healed them.
But the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) knew that leading meant going one step further than listening. He knew leading meant taking advice. So, he sought counsel from his followers- men, women, children, rich, poor, slaves, leaders. God commanded him to do as much:
…and consult them in the matter […] (Quran 3:159).
The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was dedicated to the betterment of his people in all spheres of life. He first and foremost served his people as their teacher. He regularly used everyday instances to give insight, introspection, wisdom, and more.
The Prophet (PBUH) encouraged his people to continue seeking a path of self-improvement (those among him, those to come, and even us today). He said:
If anyone threads a path seeking knowledge, God will make his path to Paradise an easy way. (Muslim)
But perhaps the most noteworthy servant-leadership quality of the Prophet Muhammad was that he led by example. He served people with kindness, a smiling face, a generous hand, and a listening ear as an example to his people of how best to be in this world.
He was gentle to show people how to be gentle:
O Messenger of Allah! It is a great Mercy of God that you are gentle and kind towards them; for, had you been harsh and hard-hearted, they would all have broken away from you (Quran 3:159).
He was merciful and compassionate to teach mercy and compassion:
Now there has come to you a Messenger from among yourselves: it grieves him that you should fall into distress: ardently anxious is he over you: to the Believers he is compassionate, merciful. (Quran 9:128)
We Are All Leaders: We Are All Servants
The Messenger of Allah (PBUH) said:
“All of you are shepherds and each of you is responsible for his flock […]” [iii]
No one ever will ever again experience leadership on the scale that the Prophet (PBUH) experienced it. But we all have leadership roles in our own ways. And this means that we are all in the service of others whether it be in the service of our children as parents, of our community as an imam, of our employees as an employer. People look to us. And we owe them our service.
Service is the meaning of leadership as it was exemplified by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
We learn from the Prophet that a leader is not the one who says what goes, but s/he listens to his/her community, helps them, reacts to their needs, and takes their counsel.
We learn that a leader is not the one who everyone else serves, but the one who serves and betters his/her people. A leader is not someone who bosses others around. A leader is the one who is committed to leading by example.
Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said:
Today, 1400+ years after the Prophet has passed away, he is still the most beloved leader. And we pray for him every time we mention his name (PBUH).
[i] refer to Imam Al-Kamal Ibn Al-Humaam, a principal Hanafi scholar, whose opinion that there were female prophets is mentioned in Husn Al-Uswah by Muhammad Siddiq Khan (vol. 1, p. 591); and Imam Al-Mubarkafuri in his Tuhfat Al-Ahwathi (vol. 5, p. 460), who cited verses from chapter 21 in the Qur’an (Al-Anbiyaa’) as proof. For more details given by scholars who supported this opinion, refer to Imam Al-Razi, the famous commentator of the Quran, in his Al-Durr Al-Mukhtaar (vol. 5, p. 441); Imam Al-Suyuti, an authority in the sciences of the Quran, in his Al-Ashbaah Wal-Naza’ir (vol. 1, p. 240).