5 Leadership Lessons from the Quranic Story of Talut (Saul)

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After the time of Musa (as), the tribe of Bani Isra’il began to stray from the obedience of Allah and encountered some losses to neighboring enemies. They came to their prophet and asked for a king to lead them and fight the enemy.

[Prophet], consider the leaders of the Children of Israel who came after Moses, when they said to one of their prophets, ‘Set up a king for us and we shall fight in God’s cause.’ He said, ‘But could it be that you would not fight, if it were ordained for you?’ They said, ‘How could we not fight in God’s cause when we and our children have been driven out of our homeland?’ Yet when they were commanded to fight, all but a few of them turned away: God has full knowledge of those who do wrong. (2:246)

1) Stop Looking for Motivation

These were people who were fully motivated - they and their families were driven out of their homeland. Yet, when the command came to fight, they did not follow through.

We fool ourselves by thinking we need to be motivated or inspired before doing something. We sit around waiting for inspiration to strike instead of taking action. This causes us to seek out motivation through various means (like Instagram).

The reality is we need discipline more than motivation. Success comes from the discipline that enables you to take action precisely at the moments you don’t feel like it.

Their prophet said to them, ‘God has now appointed Talut to be your king,’ but they said, ‘How can he be king over us when we have a greater right to rule than he? He does not even have great wealth.’ He said, ‘God has chosen him over you, and has given him great knowledge and stature. God grants His authority to whoever He pleases: God is magnanimous, all-knowing.’ (2:247)

2) Sometimes Good Followership Beats Good Leadership

We mythologize the characteristics of good leaders and hold them to practically impossible standards. Modern politics of leadership are no different than what is laid out in this ayah. We don’t want to follow people who aren’t like us or do not hold the status we deem appropriate. This is what creates “politics” in our communities.

There is so much emphasis on how to be a good leader that we often forget how to be a good follower. We have to find a way to make ourselves part of helping a good effort even if it comes without a title or authority.

When someone is given authority over us, we tend to dislike it and seek out a person’s faults. As long as a leader is sufficiently good enough, we should look for ways to tie ourselves to the broader mission and find ways to be supportive.

Someone once came to Ali (rA) and asked him why there was so much strife during his rule while the rule of Abu Bakr and Umar was relatively smoother. Ali replied by telling the man that Abu Bakr and Umar ruled over people like him (Ali), while he has to rule over people like this man. Even the best leaders need strong followers to support them.

Learning how to lead well ultimately starts with knowing how to follow well.

When Talut set out with his forces, he said to them, ‘God will test you with a river. Anyone who drinks from it will not belong with me, but anyone who refrains from tasting it will belong with me; if he scoops up just one handful [he will be excused].’ But they all drank [deep] from it, except for a few. (2:249)

3) We Look at the Wrong Resume

When a king is leading forces to war, there are some obvious qualifications that immediately come to mind. You need people that are strong, well-armed, experienced in battle, large in number, and so on.

Talut’s army keeps getting smaller and smaller. Some turned away when ordered to fight. Another group turned away by refusing to accept his leadership. And then those who are left are ordered to not drink from a river while out on an expedition?

What does drinking from a river have to do with how well someone can perform on the battlefield? What does this have to do with someone’s qualifications and ability?

What we value is often not the same as what Allah values.

At the core of leadership is subduing your ego. The more I question why Allah has commanded me to do something, the more I am entrapped by my own ego. The more I belittle what our faith directs us to in favor of what society leads us to, the more I am enamored with my own intellect instead of submitting to Allah.

The river was a small test. Do you have the discipline to carry out this small command of Allah? If a person cannot pass this seemingly insignificant test, how will they respond to a larger trial with more significant consequences?

When he crossed it with those who had kept faith, they said, ‘We have no strength today against Goliath and his warriors.’ But those who knew that they were going to meet their Lord said, ‘How often a small force has defeated a large army with God’s permission! God is with those who are steadfast.’ And when they met Goliath and his warriors, they said, ‘Our Lord, pour patience on us, make us stand firm, and help us against the disbelievers,’ (2:249-250)

4) Nothing Comes Easy

Even after passing all the prior tests, some people in the group lost faith when seeing the size of the opposing army.

It’s easy for us to talk about how we would act in a particular situation. Even with leadership, we consider ourselves to be heroes. We think that if someone would just put us in charge, we’d show them how to do things the right way and get results.

The truth is, we have no idea how we would react in a given situation or circumstance. What we think we bring to the table is largely irrelevant when compared to the aid of Allah (swt).

The believers mentioned in this ayah prayed to Allah not only for the end outcome of victory but asked for help with doing the hard work needed to attain victory.

and so with God’s permission they defeated them. Dawud (David) killed Goliath, and God gave him sovereignty and wisdom and taught him what He pleased. (2:251)

5) Trust the Process

A man came and asked the Prophet (s) if he should tie his camel to secure it or relegate his trust in Allah to protect the camel. The Prophet (s) famously told him to do both. That is the process.

We are fascinated by the underdog tale. Young David slays the giant beast Goliath. We use this story as inspiration and motivation. We tell ourselves that even though the odds are against us, we can still come out on top.

This is a dangerous lesson taken at face value. Many people are deluded into shortcutting the process of hard work by thinking their inspiration and passion will let them overcome any difficulty.

The real lesson is that a relentless amount of hard work must be coupled with unrelenting faith and trust in Allah (swt) to truly succeed.

Dawud (as) excelled in obeying Allah and following Talut before he was given the blessings of kingship and prophethood.

See also: Khutbah - The Politics of Leadership by Yasir Fahmy