Elements of successful leadership

Good leaders, good followers, and the advice of good scholars all play an important part in achieving goals. 

GOOD leadership is important in any nation, society, organisation or institution. Leadership is the action of leading people towards achieving goals. A leader shoulders a huge responsibility in ensuring that the set goals are achieved.

The history of Islam saw many great figures who successfully carried out their tasks as leaders – including Umar ibn Abdul Aziz, Harun Amin al-Rashid, Salahuddin al-Ayubi and Muhammad al-Fatih.

In a hadith narrated by various sources, Prophet Muhammad said, “Verily you shall conquer Constantinople. What a wonderful leader will her leader be, and what a wonderful army will that army be.”

Many commentators on the hadith related these words of the Prophet to the success of Muhammad al-Fatih in liberating Constantinople from the Byzantine Empire in 1453. While this was the case, there is another pertinent message contained in the hadith.

In the hadith, Prophet Muhammad indicated that the best leadership is the combination of great leaders and quality followers; one cannot make do without the other. This was the example shown by Muhammad al-Fatih and his army.

Muhammad al-Fatih was a great leader, while his army was the best of armies. The combination of the two resulted in the success of the opening of Constantinople as the capital of the Ottoman Empire that lasted for nearly five centuries.

In this regard, the Quran states in verse 59 of Surah al-Nisa’: “O you who have believed, obey God and obey the Messenger, and those in authority among you. And if you disagree over anything, refer it to God and the Messenger, if you should believe in God and the Last Day. This is the best (way) and the best in result.”

The verse highlights the importance of loyalty and trust between leaders and their followers. Leaders depend on followers in achieving goals, while followers rely on leaders to show the way.

Another important component that contributes towards successful leadership is the role of scholars. Abu Ali Hasan ibn Ali Tusi, better known as Nizam al-Mulk, who was the Wazir Kabir (Prime Minister) of the Seljuq Empire in the 11th century said: “Scholars are the joints of religion, and the best of both this world and the hereafter, for they are the spiritual element pertinent for the development and protection of the state.”

It is not surprising therefore to see historical records showing Nizam al-Mulk was always in the company of great scholars.

It is under the same understanding of the importance of scholars in advising leaders that erudite scholars of yesteryear, wrote scholarly texts as guides and advice for leaders, to the extent that a literary genre of its own – called “Mirrors of Princes” – flourished during the Middle Ages.

This genre may be in the form of “textbooks” for kings and leaders on aspects of rules and behaviour.

The existence of scholarly texts from Islamic civilisation highlights the close relationship between leaders and scholars. Great leaders of the past were willing to be guided and advised by erudite scholars, and these scholars were willing to take up this advisory role.

It is perhaps timely for scholars of today to contribute their thinking on leadership for the benefit of today’s leaders. With this intention, the Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia published the book Kepimpinan dan Amanat Peradaban (Leadership and the Civilisational Mandate) in 2016.

The elements of a successful leadership are found not only in leaders, but should also be present in followers and scholars. A leader should be a person who has the calibre, charisma and integrity to lead, while possessing certain characteristics.

In Islam, a leader is someone who is guided by his belief in God and His Messenger, and is knowledgeable and wise. He is someone who is willing to enjoin what is good and forbid what is bad.

He must also be just in all his actions, and not be oppressive and corrupt. As such, integrity should be at the heart of leadership.

A leader must also be someone who believes in consultation and practises the ethics of differing opinions.

He must be willing to accept not only sound advice but listen to dissenting views, especially before making important and difficult decisions.

The followers, meanwhile, should demonstrate loyalty to leaders as long as leaders meet the above criteria. The fourth caliph of the Khulafa’ al-Rashidin rule, Ali ibn Abi Talib, was asked by a companion why there were schisms during his time as compared to the time of the Prophet and the previous caliphs.

To this question Ali remarked, “During the time of the previous caliphs, it was people like me who were the followers; and during my time as caliph, it is people like you who are my followers.” The underlying message was that the best of leaders need the best of followers.

As for scholars, it is critical that they play the role of sound advisers. Scholars should not have any self-interest when advising leaders. Their advice must be objective, unbiased and constructive in the best interest of the nation and its people.

In the present context, we are not short of good leaders, nor are we short of good scholars. What is needed is synergy between leaders and scholars in order to obtain the best ideas that can be implemented in meeting the challenges of the 21st century.

  • Dr Shaikh Mohd Saifuddeen Shaikh Mohd Salleh is the director of Ikim’s Centre for Science and Environment Studies. The views expressed here are entirely his own.
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