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Written by Louay Safi   
Oct 09, 2005 at 05:36 AM
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Visionary Leadership*
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Vision, Communication, Empowerment, and Discipline

Leadership is, arguably, the most important and complex act in human life. Leadership is often perceived as a position of power and authority endowed on particular individuals by organizations and governments.

While power and authority are obvious manifestations of the act of leadership, leadership involves much more than the exercise of power and authority. To lead is essentially to move ahead of others; to guide and to show the way; and to be willing to withstand friction, resistance, and uncertainty, often experienced by those who move ahead of others and advance into higher grounds and uncharted territories.

 Leadership is, evidently, one of the most elusive concepts and is exceedingly difficult to pin down, as it continues to manifest itself in individuals who possess different qualities and styles. This has given rise to the contingency theory of leadership. According to this theory, leadership hinges more on the circumstances surrounding the act of leaders, rather than any specific set of traits or skills, or particular leadership styles. Simply put, contingency theory argues that it is the circumstance in which people find themselves that makes particular traits or styles more effective than others. Hence, what might be considered useful traits or styles under certain circumstance may turn out to be unhelpful under another.

 Contingency theory of leadership underscores an important fact, which we will highlight further below: traits and styles do not by themselves give rise to leadership unless they are bought to bear on the challenges and difficulties facing a particular group of people. Traits, qualities, and styles are, nonetheless, important aspects of understanding leadership, and have, therefore, always constitute, since time immemorial, the key to examining the act of leadership.

Abu Ja’far al Mansur, the founder of the ‘Abbasid dynasty, posed, for one, the leadership question to some of his confidants:

Who is the hawk of Quraysh? They replied: The Commander of the Faithful (Amir al Mu’minin) who established the reign, quieted upheavals, and extinguished ordeals. He said: You have not answered my question. They said: Is it Mu‘awiyah? He said: No. They said: Is it ‘Abd al Malik bin Marwan? He said: No. They said: Who else, O Commander of the Faithful? He said: ‘Abd al Rahman bin Mu’awiyah, who escaped by his cunning the spearheads of the lances and the blades of the swords, traveling the desert, and sailing the seas, until he entered an alien territory. [There] he organized cities, mobilized armies, and reestablished his reign after it was completely lost, by good management and strong resolve. Mu‘awiyah rose to his stature through the support of ‘Umar and ‘Uthman, whose backing allowed him to overcome difficulties; ‘Abd al malik, because of previous appointment; and the Commander of the Faithful through the struggle of his kin and the solidarity of his partisans. But ‘Abd al Rahman did it alone, with the support of none other than his own judgment, depending on no one but his own resolve. (Ibn al Athir, 5:182)

Identifying leadership and determining its qualities and contributions to collective life is an ancient concern of people. Abu Ja’far al Mansur, an eminent Muslim leader in his own right, raised the question in a yet practical way. By asking his companions to identify the “hawk of Quraysh,” he was asking them to name the foremost leader of a leading Arab tribe. For the desert Arabs, the hawk was an exotic animal and a superior bird known for its sharp vision, precision, and swiftness.

Similarly, the Quraysh was a leading tribe and a tribe of leaders both before and after the advent of Islam. The names suggested by al Mansur’s companions, as well as the one he proposed, are those of the founders of three powerful Islamic states: Mu’awiyah (the founder of the ‘Umayyad state), ‘Abd al Malik (the second founder of the ‘Umayyad state after its eclipse during the reign of Mu’awiyah’s grandson), al Mansur (who established the ‘Abbasid state along with his brother ‘Abdullah al Saffah), and finally, ‘Abd al Rahman, who reestablished the ‘Umayyad rule in Muslim Spain [Andalusia] after he was forced to flee the Muslim East due to the successful ‘Abbasid revolt.

To al Mansur, the “hawk of Quraysh,” the leader of the tribe that had produced many outstanding leaders over the years, was none other than ‘Abd al Rahman bin Mu‘awiyah, also known as ‘Abd al Rahman al Dakhil, who united the warring Muslim factions in Spain and thereby reaffirmed ‘Umayyad’s rule in the Muslim West after it had been lost in the Muslim East. As al Mansur himself explained, his selection of ‘Abd al Rahman as the foremost leader and statesman of the Quraysh had to do with the latter’s ability to ascend to the position of authority by relying on his personal qualities rather than on structural and procedural factors.

For, as al Mansur pointed out, among the candidates to the title the “hawk of Quraysh,” only ‘Abd al Rahman lacked institutional support. He was not nominated to the office he later occupied by established leaders, as was Mu‘awiyah; he did not inherit his office from a predecessor in accordance with a hereditary principle, as did ‘Abd al Malik; and he did not receive the support of a large and well-organized movement, as did al Mansur.

For al Mansur, ‘Abd al Rahman provided an unequivocal example of true leadership, for his rise to leadership was not the result of occupying a position with recognized authority, but rather was based on personal qualities and leadership abilities. As al Mansur put it, ‘Abd aI Rahman’s leadership rested on his “good management and strong resolve.” While personal qualities and managerial skills are not the only factors that contribute to the emergence of effective leaders (a point that will be discussed at length later), al Mansur’s argument underscores brilliantly the fact that leadership, as a social phenomenon, is quite independent from any position or office associated with the exercise of authority. To understand leadership, therefore, one has to study it in its own right and apart from the rights and obligations attached to formal positions of authority.

In the remainder of this paper, we will identify the essential qualities of leadership, first by examining the Qur’anic account of the traits of the most influential leaders in history, namely, the prophets who were entrusted with the responsibility of reforming the deteriorating conditions of their communities. We then relate the qualities identified through this examination to the task performed by leaders. We conclude by discussing briefly the moral dilemma faced by leaders that result from the occasional clash between two sets of demands: those conforming to the directives of superiors on the one hand and those taking initiative and providing direction to subordinates on the other.

Leadership Defined

If leadership is independent of formal positions and offices, how are we to perceive it? Contemporary students of leadership offer definitions with varying emphasis. For instance, it has been defined in relation to the task of initiating and maintaining a definitive organizational structure.

Thus Stogdill defines leadership as “the initiation and maintenance of structure in expectation and interaction.” [1] Others have equated it with communication skills and information management by defining it as “an interaction between persons in which one presents information of a sort and in such manner that the other becomes convinced that his outcomes (benefits/costs ratio) will be improved if he behaves in the manner suggested or desired.”[2] Still others link it with power relations by insisting that leadership is “a particular type of power relationship characterized by a group member’s perception that another group member has the right to prescribe behavior patterns for the former regarding his activities as a group member.”[3]


The Qur'anic Narrative
The Qur'anic Narrative

Leading with Compassion
Leading with Compassion


Tensions and Transitions
in the Muslim World

Peace and the Limits of War

The Challenge of Modernity 


Blaming Islam

Foundation of Knowledge

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