I'm going to start with the punchline. This post isn't really about masjids or imams. It's about leadership, the impact of it, and one of its most essential laws.
"Leadership ability is the lid that determines a person’s level of effectiveness." -John Maxwell, Law of the Lid (21 Laws).
Extrapolated further, an organization will never outperform the potential of its leader. To succeed, an individual must develop his or her ability to influence and add value to others. By extension, an organization needs to fulfill the mission set forth by the leader.
How this applies to a masjid begins with a few critical questions. Who, exactly, is the leader? Who is setting the vision for building the community or running the organization? How does their leadership ability impact the ability to carry out that vision, and how do we see this manifest itself in a community?
To explore this, we'll look at this following chart in detail.
High Competency Board / Low Competency Imam
This is the rarest of the scenarios.
It is pertinent here to define what is meant by a 'low-competency Imam' for the remainder of this post. This means someone serving in a capacity of spiritual leadership for the community without any actual qualifications or training. In other words, they lack the requisite qualifications needed for the position as well as the general leadership ability needed to develop a community over the long-term.
*The definition of a low-competency board seems fairly obvious so we won't belabor the point.
A high competency board will, by definition, have low tolerance for anyone not at their level. This situation is rare because a low-competency person would likely never pass the interview process. If they somehow attained a formal role, the most likely outcome is that they would either move on to another community or a lesser role within a year or two.
Low Competency Board / Low Competency Imam
This is surprisingly the most stable of all four scenarios.
The thing about low competency is that its hallmark is insecurity. There is a constant need to portray an image that is better than reality. This scenario thrives in situations where there is co-dependency. Since both parties are weak leaders, they gain their justification from the other.
Stability should not, however, be confused with progress. It would more accurately be described as stagnation.
In these situations the board and Imam retain their positions, but the community does not grow. There is a dearth of actual educational programs or progress. New people may come and try the masjid out for a while, but will quickly move on to other places.
The Imam/board partnership in this case is constantly looking to showcase their "wins" to whoever will listen. So you'll find them constantly bragging about previous accomplishments or openly giving themselves credit for whatever achievements they may have made.
Low Competency Board / High Competency Imam
This is the scenario most people end up hearing about. Community gets an awesome Imam. Community grows. They experience some big wins.
It's usually short lived though, as the Imam eventually leaves because of "board politics."
This is the classic conflict that happens with the Law of the Lid. In this case, the Imam has a much stronger leadership capacity than the board. He knows how to build the community and serve their spiritual needs. The board would simply need to get out of the way and play a supporting role.
Except if the board feels threatened. Remember, insecurity is the hallmark of low competency. If they feel they are working but not getting credit, or that the Imam is outshining them, or that the Imam is not carrying out the vision the board wants to execute - then there will inevitably be conflict.
A high capacity person cannot stay subjugated under a low competency organization for long. They'll enjoy some success, but it usually doesn't end well. This happens all the time in sports. Think about a low competency owner (like James Dolan or Jerry Jones). They'll enjoy some huge wins (like winning a Super Bowl with Jimmy Johnson coaching), but in the end there will be a falling out of some sort and people will move on.
The sad part is, the board usually replaces the high competency imam with a lower competency one - starting that cycle of co-dependence we talked about above.
High Competency Board / High Competency Imam
This seems to be the ideal, but it has its pitfalls.
The best version of this would be what most people consider the culmination of synergy. Everything's awesome. The community is rapidly growing and developing. Programs are taking off. They're doing things other communities can only dream of doing.
The pitfall is that this situation can be ripe for a well-meaning ego clash. High competency individuals are extremely confident in their abilities, and have a track record full of validation to back it up. This is something that can be controlled and prevented, but needs to be watched out for nonetheless.
So Where Does That Leave Us?
In a vacuum, none of these options is truly ideal. Especially since that second scenario (of co-dependency) is often the longest lasting of the four.
There are a lot of reasons for this, but they can be distilled down to a couple of big picture items.
Understand that these scenarios are not static. Someone may start off in a position with low competency, but through dedicated study, growth, and mentorship, they can achieve high competency. This is a critical part of leadership development. Your ability is not fixed, you have the capacity to grow and develop yourself if you put forth the effort.
The other part of this is that boards experience rapid turnover due to the election model in our communities (which I believe is a broken system altogether, but that's another post for another time). A community can go from high competency board to low competency board in a matter of weeks depending on their elections. This can cause rapid upheaval and instability.
There is a third party that can provide checks and balances for the Imam/board relationship - the general community. Realistically, the community should be able to prevent destructive scenarios like a low competency board running off a high competency Imam, or hiring a low competency Imam in the first place. They're the ones who elect the board and they are the audience served by the Imam.
There's only one reason this doesn't work.
People simply don't care. They let people get away with things, and that's ultimately what has caused a lot of the issues that plague us. When the people don't demand better, they won't receive better. The leaders, the organization, and the community will fall back to the existing level of their lid. And unless each individual takes on the onus of improving that lid, the status quo will continue to perpetuate.