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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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While developing organizational structure, communication, and exercising authority are intrinsic aspects of leadership, identifying leadership with one of its various aspects only hinders our ability to understand the full scope of its impact and significance. We, therefore, prefer to define leadership as “the capacity to inspire a group of people to pursue an articulated vision, and to ensure their continuous cooperation for the realization of this vision.’’ This definition is broad enough to encompass the various aspects of leadership and also specific enough to identify the combination of elements necessary for the emergence of leadership. The above definition of leadership can be restated to define leaders: “Leaders are visionaries who have the capacity to communicate their vision with clarity, translate it into a set of concrete actions, and inspire others to follow their lead.”

According to the above definition leadership is perceived, first of all, in relation to the leader’s personal qualities and skills. An individual’s capacity to lead should not, however, be conceived in a vacuum but in connection with the common activities of a specific group of people sharing common aspirations and goals. Second, it underscores the need to understand the act of leadership in connection with a specific group of people who are receptive to the leader’s directives. In other words, understanding leadership requires that one examine the attitudes of the group members towards their leaders and explore the source of receptiveness to leadership among group members. Since no leader can emerge without followers, understanding the nature and source of subordination is essential for studying leadership. Third, the definition suggests that the presence of a shared vision is fundamental for the emergence of leadership. Indeed, the articulation of a vision and the identification of common goals are necessary both for the formation of the group itself as well as for the cooperation of its members. Quite often, leadership emerges in the process of articulating a vision and a set of goals and persuading others to commit themselves to achieving them.

In addition, goals serve as indicators by which leadership effectiveness can be measured, for while all leaders must be able to articulate a set of goals and mobilize their people to work towards their achievement, not all leaders can succeed in leading their followers towards the realization of the established goals. It is true that the group’s failure to achieve its desired goals is a complicated issue and hence cannot always be blamed on the act of leadership itself. Still, most people seem to be interested in and to admire effective leaders. In fact, the four candidates for the title of the “hawk of Quraysh” represent cases of triumphant and successful leaders.

Leadership Qualities

The first element of leadership relates to the leader’s personal qualities and traits. The most direct way to identify leadership qualities is to study the personality traits of recognized leaders. This is also the easiest way, since our history books are filled with lists that describe the traits of leaders with various causes and abilities. One of the most elaborate and detailed accounts of leadership traits is that of ‘Abd al Rahman al Dakhil, the “hawk of Quraysh.” The Andalusia historian Ibn Hibban described this man’s character in the following terms. “‘Abd aI Rahman,” he wrote,

was overtly forbearing, vastly knowledgeable, and sharply insightful, possessed swift decisiveness and strong resolve. [He was] far from inaction, an expeditious and hardworking person who neither enjoyed tranquility nor got satisfaction in indolence. 

[Hence,] he would not leave the [handling of] affairs to others, yet he would not single handedly dispose of them on the basis of his individual opinion. [He was] courageous and brave, with depth and breadth. [He had moments] of fury, and very few [moments] of serenity. [He was] articulate and eloquent; poetic, a perfectionist and easy going, generous and outspoken. He used to attend funerals and pray for the deceased. He used to lead congregations whenever he was present at Friday and ‘id prayers and to deliver the khubah at the minhar. [He used] to visit the sick, and come out to meet [ordinary] people and walk in public.[4]

The above description of ‘Abd al Rahman provides us with a list of the following traits: forbearance, intelligence, resolve, diligence, courage, eloquence, generosity, compassion, fury, and restlessness. With the exception of the last two, these personality traits seem to be shared by many of those who may be described as distinguished leaders, beginning with the most important model of leadership provided by the prophets. While the above list is far from being comprehensive or complete, it includes some essential leadership qualities. In the remainder of this section, we will identify some of the most essential personal qualities of leaders. In so doing, we specifically trace the moral qualities that the Qur’an associates with the role of leadership.

Patience (Sahir). A quick survey of Islamic literature shows that no virtue has more affinity with leadership than patience. The Qur’an emphasizes repeatedly the importance of patience for believers in general and for leaders in particular and identifies it as one of two essential qualities of leadership, the other being conviction (yaqin):

And We made, from among them, leaders (a’immah), giving guidance under Our command, so long as they displayed patience (sabr), and continued to demonstrate faith (yaqin} in our signs. (Qur’an 32:23)


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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