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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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Despite the fact that people who occupy leading positions in an organization tend to be more experienced, and hence better decision makers than their subordinates, any attempt on their part to monopolize power and decision making can only lead to a lower level of efficiency. If they try to speed up work, they become susceptible to making frequent mistakes because they are forced to make hasty decisions. If they try to deliberate and do a more thorough job in studying issues and examining consequences, important decisions are delayed and the opportunity to take decisive actions are lost.

The leader who wants to empower others must be generous, humble, and people oriented, genuinely concerned about the well-being and development of subordinates. A self-centered, power-hungry, or envious individual is not capable of true leadership, because he/she is interested mainly in the aggrandizement of personal power and not the development of others.

Finally, mobilizing a community behind a new vision requires a great deal of determination, patience, and perseverance. The leader's patience is crucial for overcoming the group's inertia and resistance to change, and the greatest resistance to change should be expected from those who control the power centers of the organization. Leaders who are not prepared to persevere and to hold their ground in the face of stiff resistance will fail to implement their vision, no matter how brilliant it is.


Leadership tasks include, as pointed out earlier, the creation of a culture of devotion, satisfaction, and trust. Creating or reforming an organization's culture is undoubtedly a difficult task, and the leader's success hinges on a number of factors, most notably the nature of the predominant values and attributes or the degree of deformation in the values and attitudes of the organization members.

Reforming an organization simply means introducing a new vision that projects aspirations and modes of operation markedly different from the prevailing ones. Thus, the reformation of an organization presents leaders with a tremendous challenge, for they must overcome the moral and psychological inertia of organization members who are accustomed to the old ways. On certain occasions, the obstacles blocking the reform impetus could become so great that their defeat from within the organization is almost impossible. Such a situation is most likely to occur when the leader who is desirous of reform is himself subject to higher authorities.

This difficulty arises from the moral tension created by the double role of leading and following that has to be played by leaders at the middle level of the command hierarchy, for to be a good leader one has to be a good follower. Among the most outstanding qualities of subordinates is cooperation with the leadership. Obeying rules and commands is essential for the continuation of collective work. Khalid bin al Walid, the most renowned military leader in the history of Islam, was always willing to accept the duties of an ordinary soldier under the command of others, even after he became a highly acclaimed general. In the expedition of Mu’tah, for example, he fought willingly as a soldier under the command of Zaid bin Thabit and agreed to assume command only after those who were chosen by the Prophet to succeed Zaid had perished. Again, many years later he accepted gracefully the decision of ‘Umar bin al Khattab and surrendered his command to others.

While being a good follower is an important stage in becoming a good leader, the two roles can clash occasionally, for it is the duty of the visionary and forward-looking leader to make all possible attempts to communicate his/her vision and to point out shortcomings and flaws. Sometimes leaders must stand firmly and insist on certain approaches and modes of action. Very often, however, a leader’s opposition to decisions and modes of activities is interpreted by superiors as a sign of disloyalty. The more the leader tries to persuade his/her superiors of the need for modifying and changing the way of handling things, the higher the chance of being perceived as “nonconformist” and thereby subject to increasing isolation from his superiors. Leaders have to accept this fate if they are to continue to be true to their visions and beliefs.

One of the most telling examples of the dilemma of maintaining the right balance between being simultaneously a good leader and a good follower come from the life of khalid himself, a leader whose qualities as a follower are above question. This is the same Khalid who never hesitated to follow the leadership of others, who fought under the orders of less accomplished generals, who had to resist the command of the khafifah when he felt they were counterproductive to the accomplishment of his mission. Ibn Hajar narrated in his al Ijabah fi Ma‘irifat al Sahahah that ‘Umar advised Abu Bakr to write to Khalid that he should compensate none except with your permission. [Abiu Bakr] ordered [Khalid] to do just that. Khalid replied: Either you leave to me the responsibilities of my office

or you allow me to leave my office. [Upon learning of Khalid’s reply, [‘Umar] advised [Abu Bakr] to relieve [Khalid] from his duties. When Abu Bakr asked: Who would accomplish for me what Khalid has been accomplishing?, ‘Umar responded: I will

. . . When ‘Umar prepared himself and was about to leave (to assume Khalid’s responsibilities), the Prophet’s Companions came to Abu Bakr and said: Why is it that ‘Umar is leaving when you need him here, and why did you ask Khalid to step down [from his office] when he has competently executed [all assignments]? [Abu Bakr] asked: What should I do? They said: Command ‘Umar to stay and write to Khalid to continue his task. And [this Abu Bakr] did.[16]

Evidently, Khalid was relieved from his responsibilities later for declining ‘Umar’s demands that he should ask permission from the office of the khalifah to compensate his people, because he believed strongly that without such leverage the effectiveness of his office would be diminished.


We stressed in the foregoing pages that the essence of true leadership does not lie purely in the personal quaIities of a leader but in how these qualities are brought to bear on the task of leadership. Qualities such as resolve, eloquence, and courage are necessary but insufficient requisites for leading others. For these qualities to give rise to leadership, they must be applied in circumstances where leadership is most needed. To put the point differently, we can say that leadership cannot be grasped by contemplating the individual qualities of leaders but by examining how these qualities interact in a specific context.

In attempting to relate leadership qualities to the task of leading, we are led to recognize that leadership is at bottom a balancing act. As such, leadership involves not only elements susceptible to analysis and explanation but also elements that have always eluded our intellectual penetration and that have been subsumed, by contemporary scholars of leadership, under the rubric of “charisma.” These latter elements constitute, it appears, the threshold that brings the human being into contact with his/her divine source through faith.

*An early version of this article was published in the American Journal of Islamic Social Scientists, Volume 12, No. 2 (Summer 2005), under the title Leadership and Subordination.


[1] R. M. Stogdill, Handbook of Leadership (New York: Free Press, 1974), 411.

[2] T. 0. Jacobs, Leadership and Exchange in Formal Organizations (Alexandria, VA: Human Resources Research Organization. 1970), 232.

[3] K. F. Janda, “Towards the Explication of the Concept of Leadership in Terms of the Concept of Power,” Human Relations 13 (1960): 345-63.

[4] Ahmad bin Muhammad al Maqri, Nafh al Tib (Beirui: Dir al Kitib al ‘Arabi, n.d.), 110-11.

[5] Muhammad Husayn Haykal, The Life of Muhammad, 8th ed. (Indianapolis: North American Trust Publications, 1976), 85.

[6] Max Weber, Economy and Society (California: University Press of California, 1978), 241.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 242.

[9] The notion of “vision” will be discussed further below.

[10]For example. a leader of a political party with an unpopular message.

[11] Abu Bakr Muhammad bin al Hasan al Muradi, Al Isharah fi Tudbir al ‘Imarah (Casablanca, Morocco: Dar al Thaqifah, 1401/1981), 1 19.

[12] Sadiq Ibrahim ‘Arjun, Khalid bin al Walid (Jeddah: Dar al Sa’udia li al Nashr. 140311983], 213.

[13] al Muradi, al Isharah. 1401/1981, pp. 61-62.

[14] ‘Arjun, Khalid bin al Walid, p. 201.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 297.


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