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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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The importance of the leader’s conviction in times of volatility and change is seen in the fact that when the existing order begins to break down, along with its rules and regulations, actions can be guided only by the principles and values to which one is committed. Thus a deep conviction in and a strong commitment to a set of principles or values are essential for a leader who wants to reform the accepted patterns of behavior. Again, the same conviction is needed if the leader is to challenge the status quo, for without a deep faith in a higher and better order, the task of changing the prevalent order is impossible.

Following in the footsteps of Weber, many scholars of leadership recognize the significance of faith and conviction for reformist leadership and use the term “charisma” to mystify its spiritual origin. Weber himself, while studying charisma from a secularist point of view, was quite aware of its religious underpinning. In his words, “charisma”

refers to a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to ordinary persons, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a “leader.”[6]

Weber further attributed charisma to “magical powers, whether of prophets, persons with a reputation for therapeutic or legal wisdom, leaders in the hunt, or heroes in war.[7] However, he refused to go any further in determining the nature of charisma, arguing that such a determination is “entirely indifferent for purpose of definition.”[8] While one should not underestimate the complexity of this concept, it is appropriate to stress here that the power and influence exercised by a charismatic leader are due, in the first place, to a deep personal conviction in a set of values and beliefs that he/she presents to the community in the form of a “vision”[9] and then utilizes them to inspire followers to overcome the problems and difficulties confronting them.

The Leadership Task

Any attempt to understand leadership by focusing on leaders’ traits alone is inadequate for gaining a deep insight into this phenomenon. This is because leadership is not simply a matter of individual traits, but rather is connected directly to one’s ability to bring the right balance to the application of personal capacities to the task performed by the group, the prevailing values and norms among the leader’s group, and the overall cultural and structural conditions. It is quite possible that a person could possess a combination of the leadership traits discussed above but still fail to exercise leadership within his/her community for several reasons: his/her qualities have not been brought to bear on the group’s organizational activities, the incompatibility between his/her characteristics and those of the community, or even because the message advanced is deemed inappropriate by the organization.[10] In this section, we will focus on the first aspect of leadership, which relates a leader’s personal traits and their relation to the task or role he/she is expected to perform. A discussion of the other two elements will be found in a subsequent section.

In order to relate leadership qualities to the task of leadership, first of all we must identify those activities that are intrinsic to the act of leading. Leaders are usually involved in a variety of activities, such as directing, planning, negotiating, persuading, and evaluating. These may be subsumed under the following general categories: a) directing the organization’s members, including articulating a vision and setting goals and identifying major difficulties and obstacles lying in the way of achieving the desired goals. directing also involves developing strategies for pursuing established goals as well as elaborating solutions for overcoming existing problems; b) Mobilizing the resources required for achieving desired goals and developing the competency and skills of organization members; and c) integrating the various elements needed for the organization’s continued existence and improving teamwork among its members.

In the next three sections, we explore the leader’s task regarding each of the three sets of activities outlined above and examine the type of leadership qualities needed to undertake them. We also identify which qualities contribute to the fulfillment of the leadership role.

 Vision

The first, and probably most important, role leaders have to play is providing direction to their organization. Indeed the very notion of “leading” derives from one’s ability to guide and direct the actions of others. To do so, one has to identify the specific goals that the group wants to realize and then develop the appropriate strategy to achieve them. Leaders should not, however, select goals and purposes at random or in an ad hoc fashion. Rather, goals and purposes must be part of a broad vision in order to inspire the commitment of organization members.

The vision should consist of a) a set of clear goals and purposes, b) a general statement assessing the group’s present state and describing the future state to be attained while pursuing the established goals, and c) a set of principles to guide the organization members’ internal and external interaction.

The vision statement of the group could emerge out of the creative thinking of the leader or in the course of discussion and exchange of ideas and views among members. But in either case, a process of consultation and deliberation aiming at achieving consensus (ijma‘) through dialogue and persuasion must be put in place.


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