Leadership skills and qualities: Born or Made?

By Ahmad Faizuddin

Is a leader naturally born? Or can we make someone who is not a natural leader and turn him into one? Depending on our definitions of leadership, a leader can be naturally born or made. Basically, leadership is defined as the ability to lead. It is similar to the notions of guiding, directing or influencing people in an organised group to accomplish its vision, mission and goals. Based on this definition, the elements of leadership include leader, followers and situation.

From the Islamic perspective, leadership is a trust (amanah) between a leader and his followers in a psychological contract to treat them with justice (‘adalah) and righteousness (shalahah). Allah SWT mentioned in the Qur’an: And We made them leaders guiding by Our command. And We inspired to them the doing of good deeds, establishment of prayer, and giving of zakah; and they were worshippers of Us (Q.S. Al-Anbiya’ 21:73).

Since its beginning, there are two primary roles of a leader in Islam, i.e. servant-leader and guardian-leader. A leader serves his followers, seeks their welfare and guides them towards good. This idea was later developed by Robert Greenleaf (The Servant as Leader, 1970) and a centre named ‘Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership in Indianapolis, USA’, was established.

However, different from the Western theory, leadership in Islam is guided by three basic operational principles. They are consultation (shura), justice (‘adalah), and freedom of thought (hurriyyat al-fikr). Based on these principles, a Muslim leader is obliged to consult with knowledgeable people (‘ulama) who can provide sound advice, to deal with people justly regardless of race or religion, and to allow constructive criticism from his followers. A Muslim leader is also responsible for guiding his followers towards faith (iman), God-fearing (taqwa), worship (‘ibadah), and ethics (akhlaq). These elements are totally ignored by non-Muslims.

Based on the above-conception, Muslim leaders should have the following characteristics: honesty, competence, patience, humility, and willingness to seek consultation. The best example of a leader who has these characteristics is our beloved Prophet Muhammad SAW. He is known as Al-Amin (the trustworthy) and Ash-Shadiq (the truthful). Prophet SAW is competent in handling and managing the community (ummah), patience in facing problems, humble to his companions, and willing to seek consultations from other before making decisions.

The characteristics of followers are also an important ingredient in a dynamic leadership. Followers should comply with the directives of their leader but at the same time not to be passive bystanders should the leader err. It means that the Islamic model of follower-ship does not mean blind obedience to the leader, but they are considered as partners in the pursuant of good community.

In a modern setting, talking about which leaders would be the best choice for its followers, we are reminded of Todd Ronnei’s address in the Finest Hour 127 (Summer 2005, p. 15) under the title “Whom would you trust?” He wrote that “Let’s imagine: It’s time to elect a world leader, and your vote counts. Which one would you choose?

Candidate A: Associates with ward healers and consults with astrologist, has had two mistresses, chain-smokes and drinks eight to ten martinis a day.

Candidate B: Was kicked out of office twice, sleeps until noon, used opium in college, drinks a quart of brandy every evening.

Candidate C: Is a decorated war hero, a vegetarian, doesn’t smoke, drinks an occasional beer, and has had no illicit love affairs.

The revealed answer was shocking. Candidate A is Franklin Roosevelt. Candidate B is Winston Churchill. Candidate C is Adolf Hitler. However, Professor Warren Kimball (the editor of Roosevelt-Churchill Correspondence) argued that there are no evidences that the characters of the first two candidates are true. But he admitted with a question that Hitler’s descriptive are true, but how crucial are these characteristics in determining the worthiness of a leader?

Of course, these examples are not Islamic models of leadership. It is provided for the reason of thinking before judging on people. Everyone has good and bad characters. In Islam, we have excellent examples of leadership of Prophet Muhammad SAW, Khalifah Ar-Rasyidin (Abu Bakr Ash-Shiddiq, ‘Umar ibn Al-Khattab, ‘Usman ibn ‘Affan, and ‘Ali ibn Abi Thalib), and those leaders who follow the footsteps of Rasulullah SAW and his Companions.

Finally, leadership skills and qualities are not innate. Everyone is born with potentials to become a true leader. The qualities are sharpened through practical experiences within community. A good and effective leader normally has many years of learning experiences. More specifically, leadership in Islam is the exercise of becoming true vicegerents (khalifah) of Allah SWT on earth (Q.S. Al-Baqarah 2:30). ***

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