Leadership

3 Prophetic Leadership Lessons from the CEO of AlBaik

What does it sound like when the CEO of a company operates from an Islamic framework?

I was surprised to hear Rami Abu Ghazaleh, CEO of AlBaik (yes, that AlBaik), share his approach to running his company.

There are quite a few gems in this video, and I will highlight three of them here.

1. It's Never About You

Typically, we expect a CEO to lionize their own narrative. They'll share the difficulties they faced, highlight their underlying passion and resilience, and then (with a token dose of humility) show how they ultimately succeeded.

The CEO is always the hero of his or her story. This level of narcissism serves them well - as I highlighted previously in How Bad Leaders Rise to the Top and Why We Keep Following Them.

We find that the Prophet (s) never made things about himself. Humility was one of his hallmark characteristics. This is shown through his focus on others and dedication to the message.

Rami tells the story of literally everyone else except himself. In a moment when others could justifiably talk about their own accomplishments and hurdles, he turns the spotlight to his parents, his brother, his team, and his customers.

As Islamic organizations try to copy business practices in the name of professionalism, these character traits often get overlooked. I have even seen the website for one major Islamic organization describing its own history by continually mentioning the CEO by name, lionizing his narrative,  and completely neglecting literally everyone else who contributed to its success.

What we build is for others, not ourselves. It is only after understanding this that we can genuinely embrace servant leadership - as the Prophet (s) said, "The leader of a people is their servant."

2. Amanah is Everything

Talking about motivators is popular. People are obsessed with finding their "why" - as the viral Simon Sinek talk popularized, "People don't care about what you do, they care about why you do it."

We strive to do the things we are passionate about. If we don't love it, we don't want to do it.

Rami shares a different passion, and a different motivator - amanah. It is the realization that whatever you are given is a trust from The Creator. This creates purpose far more potent than passion.

Abu Dharr said once asked the Prophet (s) to appoint him to a position of authority. He (saw) put his hand on the shoulder of Abu Dharr and said, "you are weak, and it is a trust, and on the Day of Resurrection it will be a source of humiliation and regret, except for the one who takes it and fulfills all obligations and does all duties required (Muslim).”

Understanding and fulfilling the amanah one is entrusted with is the basis of trust.

3. Abundance Mindset

Rami shares how they refused to raise prices when food costs went up to do right by their customers. They gave employees raises and bonuses when finances were tight, and most others would have done a round of layoffs.

The Prophet (s) said, "None of you will have faith until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself."

It is easy to say we would want a raise instead of being laid off. It is far more difficult to implement while in a position of leadership.

When people are short-sighted or focused on money, they will inevitably operate from a scarcity mindset.

Trust is built on giving more than you take, and when you do, you will be showered with blessings (barakah) from Allah (swt).

 

A Leadership Lesson from The 4 Types of Imam/Board Relationships

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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.

Apathy.

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.

Reflections on Moving Forward in the Era of President Trump

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Here's a glimpse into how my Tuesday evening went. We sat down to eat, with my kids asking if it was true we'd have to pack our bags and leave the country depending on the election outcome. After assuring them that we would not, I took a break to record a YouTube video for my new channel. One of the points I made in that video was that adversity happens to everyone, and we choose how to view it and the action we take in response to it. It didn't dawn on me that I would have to find a way to apply that lesson the morning after the election.

After recording, I headed over to attend Sh. AbdulNasir's seerah class. I thought it would be a much needed break from the election coverage. Except when I tried to listen, I couldn't help but check Twitter. I sat there, watching in real time as class went on the chances of Trump winning go up to over 57%.

Fast forward, and I'm watching Trump deliver his acceptance speech. He looked like the only person who might have been more shocked than the rest of the country. It seemed like the first time he was giving a rehearsed speech someone else wrote, and with the face of someone who clearly would rather go back to running his businesses than taking on the task of governing.

So what now?

I don't have the answers, but I did want to share some reflections I've had in trying to move forward.

Get Busy Planting Seeds

https://twitter.com/ibnabeeomar/status/796232180922019840

This hadith is the first one that came to mind after it became apparent Trump was going to win.

We can't change the fact that Trump won. We can choose how we respond to it.

If we want to know why we didn't have a viable 3rd party option, it's because we never planted the seeds 4, 8, 12, or 16 years ago. Trees don't sprout overnight. They take time to grow, and we are going to have to plant seeds that may not bear fruit until after our lifetimes.

https://www.facebook.com/imamtahir/posts/10155481259422222

Sometimes it takes a crisis to force us into action. This is the time to start voting and being active in our local city/county elections, and finding ways to help third-party candidates gain traction.

The hadith above isn't just about action, it's also about hope. No matter what the situation is, we have to do our part with optimism and compassion. That doesn't mean that things won't be difficult, or that we might not see an increase in Islamophobia. What it does mean, now more than ever, is we have to make a conscious choice to plant the seeds of generosity and kindness in society.

Rethinking Our Activism Approach

The 8 years of the Obama administration has been an interesting time for Muslim activism (see: Obama is Muslim, White House Iftar, MLI, and others). The crux of a lot of the Muslim community's focus over the past 8 years, in my perception, boils down to 2 agenda items:

  1. Having a seat at the table
  2. Normalizing/humanizing Muslims

The microcosm of having a seat at the table was the many images of Muslim leaders smiling for photos with Obama as he waged drone attacks on innocent Muslim people. What this really highlighted was both a lack of principle, and a lack of guidance. Our community is simply not united in what our strategic vision should be going forward. White House Iftar 2017 is going to be an interesting one 😔.

Scholars, activists, media members, academics, and community members are all in need of each other. Problems arise when one operates in a vacuum separated from the others. To understand why this is problematic, Evangelicals voting for Trump is exactly what happens when theology and activism become divorced. People take a single issue (such as abortion), and because of wanting to be on what they consider to be right side of that debate, they overlook other moral issues (such as empowering sexual predators and further subjugating their victims into silence).

As for normalizing and humanizing, this to me is a larger issue. We have seen first-hand the effects of the dehumanizing of Muslims, as Suzanne Barakat explains in her heart-breaking TED Talk:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4CiNvnMtXE

While humanizing is necessary, we need a new strategy beyond trying to show we are cool just like everyone else. We need to change our narrative (as Sana Saeed outlines in this talk on Social Media Activism).

Changing the narrative may seem overwhelming, but it starts at a micro-level. Make sure your co-workers, colleagues, and neighbors get to know you at a human level. We find this example from the life of the Prophet (s). After the boycott when the Muslims were exiled to the outskirts of Makkah for 2 years, they started to re-integrate into a hostile environment. It was at this tense time that the Prophet (s) still took out time to do things like joking and wrestling with the most famous wrestler of their time as Sh. AbdulNasir explains in this video:

https://www.facebook.com/abdulnasirjangda/videos/1163281260375470/

The challenge now is seeing how much we are willing to work over the next 4 years to create change. In other words, how many seeds can we plant?

Race & Economics

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MA9aSvHzEIU

There's a debate happening online as to whether Trump voters were motivated by race or economics. I think it's both, but also a little more than that.

A few weeks ago, I listened to a podcast episode titled, "‘Secular Rapture’: Trump and the American Dispossessed," which focuses on an author attempting to construct 'deep stories' of families voting for Trump. They talked about how race and economics are easy outs. Beyond this, there is an overriding constellation of fears that are driving this mindset. They are people who are facing tough times (such as economic loss), and they feel everyone else is getting a break (e.g. minorities, welfare, affirmative action). In their eyes, Trump is the only one who is acknowledging them and fighting for them. The other candidates are insiders, elites who make fun of them, call them rednecks, and leave them out in the cold.

Trump found a way to validate them and go to bat for their problems - albeit using a platform of fear, paranoia, and racism. The real question becomes, how do we advocate for policies and candidates that lift people out of economic depression and also bridge the racial divide? It seems Bernie may have been that candidate, but sadly, we won't know.

People Who Aren't on Social Media Swung The Election

https://twitter.com/fart/status/796203406675169281

If you only follow the news and social media, what happened was shocking. Just like Brexit. I wrote about this in detail earlier this year - How Invisible Filter Bubbles Shape Your Social, Political, and Religious Views.

This election was decided by rural voters and the silent majority - groups who you do not hear from on social media.

[P]undits are disconnected from a vast majority of voters in middle America. When you live in New York City or Washington, D.C. - as many pundits do - you can become blind to seeing middle America, the south and vast swaths of the country. You must accept that your vision of America, might not match the vision of the rest of America. ....

We focused in the media on the loudest, most vocal and often the most-shocking Trump supporters. We tracked the base for Trump and base for Clinton. We said the base was incredibly stable and unchanging, leading to the prediction that Clinton would be President. While we were focused on the base - a new wave of voters were emerging. The silent voters slipped by, unnoticed until election day. ... America, the silent majority is asking "Can you hear me now?" (Marie Whitaker, NBC)

One of the foundations of social media is that it portrays a false sense of reality. The news industry tacked on top of it caters to the bottom-line of what makes money. I've highlighted some of its effects previously in this article.

Glenn Greenwald tweeted this, and I thought it made an excellent point:

https://twitter.com/ggreenwald/status/795666474249625600

Part of changing our narrative is going to be in helping to support other media outlets that are working to put out good journalistic content (such as AJ+).

Crisis of Leadership

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It's so painful when bad leaders rise to the top.

Leadership is influence, and in an election where one side nominated an egotistical narcissist, the other side nominated ... the status quo.

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There is undoubtedly a void in this country now, and people will be looking for a voice of reason and hope. Leadership is also about creating a vision. If we succumb to the negativity and fear, we can never help uplift people out of the despair they feel.

It is painful when bad leaders rise tot he top, but not surprising. We are the generation that made the Kardashians famous. We are a society that rewards shameless behavior. This is a time, more than ever, that we need morality and ethics in society.

Leadership from the Muslim community should seem like a natural fit on these topics, but we have to be consistent with our values. If race and economics played a role in this election, then we need to take a long hard look at our own communities. How much racism is there in our own households? How much of our donation money is truly going to social justice and helping to lift people out of poverty? What about the economic and racial disparities, and the lack of togetherness, between inner-city and suburban masjids?

These are tough questions we have to tackle, and hopefully this election result becomes an excuse to do so. This kind of leadership takes courage - the same kind of courage that Apple needed to remove the headphone jack from the iPhone 7.

https://www.facebook.com/FajrLiterary/posts/1117463438290137

Prophetic Method

The Prophet (s) while giving advice to a child, Ibn Abbas (r), said: "Know that if all the people get together in order to benefit you with something, they will not be able to benefit you in anything except what Allah has decreed for you. And if they all get together in order to harm you with something, they will not be able to harm you in anything except what Allah has decreed for you. The pens have stopped writings [Divine Preordainment]. And (the ink over) the papers (Book of Decrees) has dried." (Sahih Bukhari)

One advice that's always stuck out to me has been the concept of tie your camel, and have tawakkul. My hope is that the above reflection points help move us in the direction of tying that camel and working strategically to affect positive change in our communities. The rest, we leave to Allah (swt).

https://www.facebook.com/ShaykhHamzaYusuf/posts/10154592907326544

Why Bad Leaders Rise to the Top, And Why We Keep Following Them

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Why does it seem like the most self-serving, arrogant jerks always get put in charge? Why does one of our two major political parties have an egotistical narcissist as its nominee?

How do noble institutions (such as masajid) seem to fall prey to being run by people wrought with wrong intentions?

Why does the talking head on YouTube get tens of thousands of more hits than the person with a qualified and nuanced opinion?

I recently attended a one-day leadership training seminar. It's exactly what you would expect - lots of focus on mastering people skills, relationships, empathy, communication, humility, and so on. A lot of the common sense, good-behavior type of things we all wish were characteristic of those we work for. Toward the end of the day, someone asked, "What do you do if you're stuck with a bad leader?"

The instructor joked, "You mean other than tell them to take this seminar?" To which the reply was, "She's already been through this seminar."

Ouch.

And that's exactly the problem. She knows what she is supposed to do, she's received training on what to do, yet her behavior hasn't changed. This is the premise that Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer explores in his book Leadership BS. He presents a disconnect. We have a record amount of leadership training, yet the factors by which we grade them (employee engagement and turnover) are at all-time worsts.

Take a parallel to the masjid. 15 years ago, we all thought things would get better because now people who were brought up here, understood the environment, had better soft skills, worked better with others, were more literate in Islamic studies and so on, would be taking over things. But that hasn't happened. In many cases, things have gotten worse.

The internet is the same thing. The revolution of social media was that it eliminated the gatekeepers. Now anyone could start their own blog (*cough*), their own YouTube channel, and be their own media outlet without someone else having to pick and approve them. This was supposed to create an open marketplace where the best of the best would rise to the top. And yet, we see no-name, unqualified people who refute Islamic scholars getting tens of thousands of more views than the scholars themselves that are actually producing beneficial content. Again, a disconnect.

In short, we have tons of knowledge about how everything should be, but everything appears to be more dysfunctional than ever.

Think about the most toxic workplace you've ever been in, or the most toxic leader you've worked for. Now imagine that so many millions of people like this person that they make him the presidential nominee for one of the two major political parties. How is that even possible?

In this post we will take a look at some of they key characteristics that allow bad leaders to rise to the top - and why people let them stay there.

People Do What They're Incentivized To Do

The objectives and interests of an individual leader are not always with that of the organization. In most cases, they actually diverge.

Think about the best player on a bad basketball team in the last year of his contract. He is not incentivized to sacrifice for the team and help win games. What's best for his career is to put up good numbers (even if it means losing), and get rewarded with a more lucrative contract at the end of the season.

Think about all the CEO's who have destroyed their companies but still gotten huge bonuses. CEO's of the major auto manufacturers crashed an entire industry, received a government bailout, and rewarded themselves with handsome bonuses. What incentive did they have to do otherwise? We might feel angry at them, especially for misusing taxpayer money, but the reality is people will do what most benefits their own career.

Why would Dick Cheney push for an invasion of Iraq when there is no evidence of WMD's? Was he incentivized to vet intelligence on behalf of the country and his office, or make money for Halliburton? It really shouldn't be a surprise.

Masjids are no different. Board members and committee members aren't really incentivized to think long term. What's the point of investing in human resources or building up an investment portfolio. Those things don't bring the same recognition as putting your name on a construction project. Part of the reason there is a conflict when hiring an imam is the divergence of interests. People in power are incentivized to find whoever serves their needs most instead of the community - hence the typical arguments about ethnicity, age, language, qualification, and so on.

Look at this tweet from when Dick Costolo joined Twitter as COO.

https://twitter.com/dickc/status/3962807808?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

This tweet was made tongue in cheek, but a year after this tweet he was CEO.

When a person gets to the top by being selfish, sticking to their own agenda, and trampling over others, they'll continue to do it. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.

Part of the disconnect is we end up studying an idealized version of what a leader should do, and we neglect to study how a person rises to the top. We study how things should be instead of critically analyzing how things actually are.

Pfeffer relates a story about graduates from a prestigious business school,

10-20 percent ... left their jobs involuntarily within the first couple of years postgraduation. Again, the predominant cause of the firings: people believed in the world described to them in business school and in the prescriptions for leader behavior. Consequently, they were surprised by and completely unprepared for what they actually encountered at work. And when their leaders failed to live up to the expectations of these new hires, many of those folks let the leaders know, either directly or indirectly, how they were failing and how the subordinates were feeling, thereby completely sealing [their] fate.

The mistake we make is thinking that inspiration, or even education, will solve this problem. Inspiration doesn't produce change. Especially not when results are measured by titles earned, salary made, funds raised, social media followers, and likes on posts (friendly reminder, click here to share this post on Facebook).

Surely someone in charge of a masjid would change their behavior after taking a class on the seerah, right? Not unless there's an incentive to do so.

https://twitter.com/masteryquotes/status/763010450929967104

Lack of Self-Awareness

When people attain a leadership role, they tend to talk about their rise to the top with a heavy dose of revisionist history.

Pfeffer gives an example of one business school professor that has published leadership books and was a previously an industry CEO. His colleagues would often say about him that as a teacher of leadership he lived the values more as a professor than he actually did as a CEO.

This is 'motivated cognition,' as Pfeffer explains,

[P]eople are motivated to think well of themselves. Therefore, not only do individuals perceive themselves to be above average for most positive attributes and believe that the qualities in which they excel are the most important ... but individuals will also selectively remember their successes and forget their failures or shortcomings.

We want to turn our leaders into heroes and study their biographies. We idealize who they were, and some stock set of values they proffer in a book, but we ignore the day to day realities of what they were sometimes like - and in many cases they were complete jerks. 

Because people have a tendency to highlight the positives, the more they retell their own story, the more they actually believe what they're saying. We've all seen 'that guy' who gives a grandiose story about how he got to where he is, and we know that it's complete baloney. The reality is, that person isn't being deceptive in a malicious sense, they've probably reached the point where they simply believe what they're saying.

We also let them get away with it. They're not talking facts and figures that we're going to verify statistically. They're telling stories - stories that make us feel good. What's the harm in some feel good banter?

Part of the lack of self-awareness is a reliance on past deeds. For a bad leader, a past good deed becomes a license to do something that otherwise may be unethical. If I donate a significant amount of money to the masjid, I can influence the decision making to my own advantage (even if that interest is not necessarily aligned with the community at large).

Malcolm Gladwell explores this in detail in a podcast episode called The Lady Vanishes. To put this argument another way. It's like someone responding to an assertion that they're racist by saying "but I have friends who are black." Or in a more modern context, it is like someone voting for Obama and then following it up by being more openly racist then before - having proven their good deed by voting for him.

Once someone has received validation - usually in the form of praise for what they have done, they're no longer incentivized to change future behavior. The higher a person moves up, the more this happens. Think about the terrible khateeb who has been giving khutbah for 20 years. Every week someone tells them they're doing an amazing job. After a while, they tend to not only believe it, but it invalidates any future criticism no matter how valid.

Narcissism

This is the logical next step after the above characteristics. Narcissism is associated with characteristics like arrogance, self-importance, lack of empathy, obsession with their own success, belief in their own special status or abilities, entitlement, and seeking admiration from others. They're people who compete intensely even when it doesn't matter - they're as equally unlikely to pass the ball to an open teammate during a game of pickup basketball as they are giving credit to someone else even if they deserve it.

The conundrum is this. To attain a leadership position, you have to get noticed. You have to get noticed by a manager to get a promotion. You have to get noticed by customers or clients. You have to get noticed by people who will vote for you (whether it's the board of a local nonprofit, or head of state).

You've got to sell yourself. Hype up your accomplishments. In other words, the exact opposite of humility and modesty (things that we would normally argue are key character traits we want in a leader). Self-confidence, in this case, and self-promotion go hand in hand.

This is obviously exacerbated in the social media age. Remember, we're the generation that made the Kardashians famous.

Pfeffer adds to this,

In the case of leadership, if you project confidence and claim competence with enough conviction to be credible, observers will tend to assimilate any information about you in ways consistent with the idea that you know what you are doing and are deserving of a position of leadership

In other words, when someone arrogantly hypes themselves up as deserving of a position (usually due to selfish motives and a lack of self-awareness), it's relatively easy for them to get the position they want. They push to fill leadership gaps. And once they get it, people assume that they must know what they're doing, and they go along with it. This is why you may have someone trying to make a career out of being an Imam despite having no qualifications, and people not only hire them, but will treat them like scholars and go to them with issues of fiqh and counseling.

This makes the hadith of the Prophet (s) that much more profound - "Do not ask for a position of leadership, for if you receive it due to asking, you will be left alone with it, and if you receive it without asking, then you will be aided [by Allah] in it."

Narcissism is something we consider so abhorrent that it's perplexing how someone could act like that when it damages everyone around them. The reality is people who are narcissistic never deal with the negative consequences, they simply see themselves climbing higher and higher up.

When something negative does come along, because of their lack of self-awareness, they shift the blame to those around them.

Take the example of Fir'awn. Shaykh Yaser Birjas gave an entire khutbah on the 'bad leadership' lessons from Fir'awn. He explains one incident where Fir'awn, after seeing the miracle of Musa, gets worried and goes to his advisors (the magicians of his court). They gave him the advice to bring Musa (as) in and essentially have a debate to see who had better magic. We know how the story ends with the magicians submitting and believing. This should have been a moment of sheer humiliation for Fir'awn. His own advisors suddenly turning on him in public after advising him to have this event. The whole thing has backfired. Instead, Fir'awn, like a true politician, says,

[Pharaoh] said, "You believed him before I gave you permission. Indeed, he is your leader who has taught you magic. So I will surely cut off your hands and your feet on opposite sides, and I will crucify you on the trunks of palm trees, and you will surely know which of us is more severe in [giving] punishment and more enduring" (20:71).

He uses his eloquence to basically say, "Oh Ok, this was a plot, and you were all in on it, and Musa is your master who taught you these tricks." And the people believed him despite what they saw with their own eyes.

These types of leaders are extremely effective at scapegoating others for all their issues. They will find ways to deflect it on others, or if that's not possible, then they'll simply blame environmental factors (like the economy). Many will even take it to the point of putting everything in terms of "us vs. them" on each issue. Or they'll resort to child-like tantrums when challenged and constantly do things like threaten to resign their post - thinking no one would accept that because of all the previous good they have done.

Michael Maccoby actually makes a similar point about Donald Trump, writing in the Harvard Business Review,

But his appeal may have even more to do with his personality. No one pushes Trump around, and no insult goes unanswered. He fights back. He is not cautious or fearful of offending a critic or any of America’s adversaries. In this, Trump has a personality type that’s common to the charismatic leaders who emerge in times of turmoil and uncertainty, when people are ready to follow a strong leader who promises to lead them to greatness. ....

They can become so tied to their visions that they lose touch with reality. They can become so self-important and thin-skinned that they lash out at subordinates who question them. They can act as though the rules don’t apply to them. They can end up isolated in their own worlds.

Another hadith becomes pertinent here, "Some eloquent speech is as effective as magic (Bukhari)." When you combine all these factors, it then becomes no surprise that someone like Dajjal will have tons of followers.

Power corrupts. The way this happens for a narcissist is that they start believing the rules no longer apply to them.

Lying

This is what you do when you think the rules no longer apply to you. Lying brings the most amount of benefit to a bad leader, with the least amount of negative consequences.

James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, famously testified in front of Congress that intelligence officials weren't collecting data on American citizens. This was proven false later when Edward Snowden famously exposed them. In the ensuing aftermath, Clapper has yet to face any real consequences, while Snowden is currently in Russia seeking asylum while under threat of prosecution by the US Government.

People do what they're incentivized to do. In this case, what is the incentive for lying, and what is the incentive for whistleblowing? The answers to those questions explains why the status quo is the way it is. It perpetuates this vicious cycle that Pfeffer outlines,

A cycle of behavior is created. Because lying produces few to no severe sanctions, lying increases in frequency. Because lying is then common, it becomes normative, in the sense that norms describe common behavioral patterns. Because lying becomes normative, it isn't sanctioned, because it makes no sense to try to punish widespread, almost taken-for-granted behavior.

Similarly, the more people or organizations break promises, the more we come to expect that behavior. Then when it happens, there is less and less outrage. We're told to 'deal with it' because that is how things are - 'it is what it is'.

Sadly, it doesn't stop there. One reason that lying benefits bad leaders is because most people simply want to believe them. Pfeffer gives the example of Bernie Madoff famously swindling people out of millions through a ponzi scheme. Many people could see the returns seemed to good to be true, but never looked into it in detail because they were hoping it was true.

We want to believe the best about people, even to our own detriment. The same way we simply assume that someone having a certain position must somehow mean they're qualified.

This leads to 'moral decoupling'. It's like saying we're going to ignore an NBA player's infidelity because of their performance on the court. Pfeffer writes,

Our motivation to rationalize and decouple so we can continue doing what we want to do helps ensure the absence of sanctions for lying. And with positive reasons to deceive - creating a reality in which what was originally untrue becomes true - and with few to no sanctions for doing so, why would we expect most leaders or anyone else to do anything different?

In other words, for someone like Trump, his supporters will stand behind him regardless of if he lies or not. They really don't care about the lies or fact-checking. They've bought into the alternate reality he has created that serves their selfish interests. The way his followers rationalize that is the exact same logic (albeit on a substantially smaller scale) as someone who supports an pro athlete even though he may have been found guilty of domestic violence. And it's the same logic when a community lets someone in the masjid make up lies to create havoc - accusing those calling for accountability of creating fitnah.

The self-deception becomes important here because it doesn't just apply to bad leadership. It applies to us as well. We deceive ourselves by thinking we are good judges of character. We overlook things as 'one time' issues, or things that won't happen again because we feel like we know who they are as a person. So we'll maintain relationships and friendly appearances with someone even if they are outright oppressing those under their control. We think - after all, if this person was truly that bad, I of all people would have noticed it by now.

The reality is we will never hold someone accountable for their behavior or their lies until those lies personally affect us. When the harm is affecting other people, we don't feel the need to speak up - we trust our judgment of that person. In fact, we might even blame the victim and find excuses for the leader. Think about how the media spins narratives of innocent people who are killed by saying things like "well that person dressed like a thug."

Not only that, but we'll actually put up with harm from leaders out of self-interest. It's the famous saying about why the middle-class agrees to tax cuts that harm them for the rich. They've been sold the dream that one day they also will be rich, and so when they are, they want to enjoy the benefits.

It's only when something is directed at us do our attitudes finally change. Go back to the example of the masjid. This is issue is the root of dysfunction. The accountability mechanism for a governing body is the general community. When that community becomes apathetic, those in charge will never be held accountable. And as long as the harms of that governing body are affecting other people, the community simply won't care enough to force a change. They'll attribute negativity to politics, "thats how things are", "it is what it is", or blaming the victim.

There is an extreme cognitive dissonance that is common to all these scenarios. It's summed up nicely by Pfeffer in talking about a person who hates their job,

The idea that I have joined and voluntarily remain in a place, and the idea that the place I am in is run by some incompetent, venal, mean individual, are two highly discordant thoughts. It is often difficult to change the reality of my joining and remaining in my present place of employment. It is much easier to change my perception of the leader and my workplace, deciding that they are actually wonderful and special, which is why it was so sensible for me to join and remain in the first place.

So What Do We Do?

Despite the shortcomings of some leaders themselves, the actual skill of leadership is still a vital one. It is needed to lift people up and tackle major challenges. We simply need to look north of the border to Canada and the election of Justin Trudeau. Friends of mine who are active in the community in Canada said the air literally felt differently the day after he was elected. The climate changed almost immediately from one of negativity to suddenly being more welcoming and positive.

The fact that we defer to leaders and follow them so willingly works both ways. The challenge is in finding the good leaders and supporting them.

In our personal lives, it means we must adopt a more cautious approach. This is a middle ground between wildly naive optimism and paranoid pessimism. It means doing due diligence on someone before following them as a leader. That could mean voting for someone, working for someone, learning from someone, or even hiring someone.

Standing for justice, and 'helping your brother whether he is oppressed or the oppressor', are not tag-lines or slogans. They are real concepts that have a direct impact on our society. We have to think about how to apply these in a way that extends beyond simply the issues that affect us personally.

For our communities, it means we need to tackle the challenge of governance. What gets measured gets changed. If people do what they're incentivized to do, then we need to change the incentives. Take the example from earlier about a star player on a bad team trying to simply take care of his own stats. What if the salary structure was changed and the majority of the pay was dependent on the number of team wins? The statistics and output from that person would change dramatically.

We also need to rededicate ourselves to a proper study of the life of the Prophet (s) - the best leader to have ever lived. From his example we will learn all those skills that are needed of a good leader such as strength, vision, compassion, and humility. Leaders like that exist in our midst. They are just as rare in the corporate world as they are in our communities, but they're there. Their rarity though, should not lead us to embrace the status quo to try to make short-term successes. It means treading the tougher path to do it the right way.

The Prophet (s) said, "Indeed Islam began as something strange and it will return to being strange as it began. So Tūba (glad tidings) is for the ghurabā (strangers). (Tirmidhi)"

Webinar Recording: Prophetic Leadership - Leading the Unleadable from the Life of Tufayl bin Amr

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This video covers:

  • What leadership is
  • Why it is important and of concern to each and every Muslim
  • How the Prophet (s) increased the leadership capacity of Tufayl bin Amr
  • Leading people who are deemed "unleadable" by others
  • The link between productivity and leadership
  • Creating a legacy for yourself through leadership

This video was made to help give a preview of the type of content that will be covered in The Barakah Effect Seminar on Prophetic Leadership and Productivity taking place in Dallas on April 30, 2016.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i1bKwR7DFX0

 

4 Steps to Put the Ship Back in Leadership

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I always keep coming back to a project I wanted to do at the masjid that I was particularly passionate about. I had a formal proposal ready, I had outlined how it would benefit the community and the masjid. The imam of the masjid was on board and excited. I had dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s so to speak.

The only thing missing was the final stamp of approval from the masjid president so we could fundraise a relatively small amount of money to kickstart it.

Not even 2 minutes into the presentation, the president vetoed it. No explanation given. It was perplexing. No matter how hard we tried, we could not get him to agree. Eventually we ended up waiting an entire year for the elections and a new administration before being able to move forward.

Looking back and assessing, it was clear there were multiple breakdowns. Relationships were not properly established — I assumed the Imam would be enough support. Politics were not taken into account. Competing priorities in regards to funds were not taken into account. And most of all, we were not able to showcase the vision of the project in such a way that the president would buy into it.

All of these shortcomings stem from the leadership law known as the Law of Navigation. The solution? Relentlessly going through the process of muhasabah, acting with hikmah, seeking shura, and executing with ihsān.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OcgDNZrPJ40

John Maxwell identifies Navigation as one of the irrefutable laws of leadership. In essence, it states, “Anyone can steer the ship, but it takes a leader to chart the course.”

A leader is not someone who only has a vision, but one that can draw the map for how to get there and inspire people to work together and follow it.

Why are quarterbacks and point guards so integral to their respective teams? They have to move beyond the vision of scoring and make sure the right person gets the ball on each play.

So how do you become a good navigator?

  1. Muhasabah (Reflection)

Begin by taking account of past successes and failures. Successes help us see what we’re capable of. Failures — though we tend to block them out — show us what to avoid going forward.

2. Hikmah (Wisdom)

A good navigator would never set sail directly into a hurricane. Yet, we see it all the time. There’s a false bravado that’s become prevalent now. We want to do whatever we think is right regardless of the environment or conditions.

We might hate that there are organizational politics, but if you don’t understand the landscape, you’ll fail. This doesn’t mean you have to play the politics — just understand them. Things like morale, momentum, and culture matter.

Wisdom means going beyond charting the course. It means understanding the consequence of the course you chart.

Aisha (r) mentioned, “If the first thing to be revealed was: ‘Do not drink alcoholic drinks.’ people would have said, ‘We will never leave alcoholic drinks” (Bukharī).

We find the Prophet (s) showing this foresight. He was asked why he wouldn’t rebuild the Ka’bah on the original foundations of Ibrahim (as), and he replied, “Were it not for the fact that your people have recently left disbelief (I would have done so)” (Nasa’ī). In other words, he did not want to rectify one issue by creating a bigger one.

3. Shura (Consultation)

“…whose affair is [determined by] consultation among themselves” (42:38).

There are numerous examples of the Prophet (s) taking shura from people. One of the most famous is the example Salman al-Farsī giving the suggestion to build a ditch around the city at the Battle of Khandaq.

4. Ihsān (Excellence)

“Balancing optimism and realism, intuition and planning, faith and fact can be very difficult.” — John Maxwell

While difficult, it is precisely this ability that puts a good leader ahead of the pack.

When asked whether a person should take the security measure of tying a camel, or have faith in Allah, the Prophet (s) said to do both — “Tie the camel, and have tawakkul (faith) in Allah.”

Tying the camel means establishing relationships with people. It means creating contingencies. It means getting people on board with your vision.

It means doing everything the best you possibly can within your capacity as a leader, and then having faith in God to deliver the results.

Career Path Lessons from the Prophet Muhammad (saw)

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The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “Allah did not send any prophet except that he shepherded sheep.” His companions asked him, “Did you do the same?” The Prophet (ﷺ) replied, “Yes, I used to shepherd the sheep of the people of Mecca for some Qirats.”

There are a number of lessons we can learn from this narration about leadership and patience (see some of them here). There’s a larger story beyond that though, which to me is more in line with the origin story of the Prophet (ﷺ).

He served as a shepherd. He also served as a traveling businessman for Khadijah (rA). He then served as a Messenger upon receiving Prophethood and eventually what we might call the head of state.

What’s interesting about this is that he received Prophethood at the age of 40. This was the ultimate life mission he was being prepared for. This was his vocation if you will.

Everything up until that point was a preparation process. Shepherding sheep and traveling to do business might seem like disparate experiences, but when we look back at the big picture — we see how they all fit together. Shepherding taught him (ﷺ) how to deal with people. Doing business gives you a host of life experiences, as does travel. He also came to marry Khadijah (rA) through this.

Point being, when you look back, it makes sense.

Many of us have something that mirrors this to a certain degree. Except instead of shepherding sheep, we might work a cashier job at the mall. We might later take a job a little out of our field to get experience. We might become a consultant or sales professional who travels regularly for business.

We hold a number of different roles, and yet it seems like we can’t figure out what it’s all leading to. Some of us have been in the same job for 10 years and can’t figure out why. We’re hoping there’s something better around the corner. We’re hoping that whatever situation we are in is part of the process to get to something better.

It’s stressful to not have things figured out. We think that we’re supposed to pick a major at the age of 18, and that magically we will do that for the rest of our lives.

We compare ourselves to our parents and their friends as we were growing up. They seemed to have everything figured out. We don’t want to let anyone know that we’re still trying to figure out what we want to be when we grow up — even though we’re in our 30’s or 40’s and have our own kids that look up to us.

It’s important to step back and assess the process. You might not see what the path looks like a couple of years down the road, but there’s a reason you’re in the situation you’re in. What you’re doing now will play a role in what you eventually do, even if you don’t see how quite yet.

Work the process and try to do things daily to start shifting in the direction you want to go. The destination won’t change overnight, but the direction can. There is a purpose, and even if you haven’t found it yet, don’t lose hope.

Make dua for where you want to go.

How The Most Talented Person In Your Organization Can Be Its Downfall

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The biggest strength and biggest weakness of an Islamic organization is usually the same thing - a talented personality. This comes in many different shapes and sizes. It's the person who...

...opens the masjid every day.

...brings snacks to Sunday School.

...fixes the microphone for the khutbah every Friday.

...updates the prayer times on the masjid website.

...puts the announcements on the screen in the lobby.

...is the 'face of the franchise' in making dawah.

If you do something for so long, so well, that no one else has to worry about it, then the organization will organize around you.

But wait, how is that a bad thing? 

We dream of having individuals so capable that we can assign them a task and then forget about it. There's a huge relief in knowing someone capable and dependable is taking care of it.

It's only a bad thing if we are concerned about the long term health of our organizations.

Here's how it becomes a vulnerability. When we do something well for a long time, we become indispensable.  No one else worries about it. Sometimes we do things for so long, what we contribute to the organization becomes habitual - i.e. we don't even consciously notice what we're doing sometimes.

That also means that if something happens to that person, no one knows what holes will need to be filled.

We throw around words like sadaqah jariyah when fundraising for our masjid construction projects. Donate that extra thousand even if you can't afford it because you will have a reward that lasts forever. The problem is, we don't build our human infrastructure with the same sustainability requirements as the concrete slabs and wooden frames.

Identify the pressures, responsibilities, and tasks that you do. Then find a way to share the responsibilities, the decision making, and truly involve others.

When someone is in charge of something, we organize around that person instead of organizing around their role. We might not give the Friday khutbah a second thought because the same person has been in charge of organizing it for a long time. But what if that person is not actually suited for that job? What if they don't know how to tell a good khateeb from a bad khateeb? In that case, this person becomes a lid on the growth of the organization.

The key then, is to identify the roles. It means identifying the responsibilities, knowledge, and decision making that is required of each role - and truly involve others. Make yourself replaceable.

This is true whether you are at a lower rung, or you are the face of the organization. The personalities who left the greatest legacies in dawah are those who had the ability to multiply. An organization cannot sustain on the basis of one person no matter how talented that one person is.

This doesn't mean that you stop doing what you're doing. Not at all. But you cannot lead as if you will be there forever.

When someone refuses to lead and instead clings to their position, this is actually a sign of weakness. What is required is a growth mentality. It means to continue doing the job well, but also looking at how to mentor and groom others. The paradox is, as you do that, you yourself move higher up and become that much more valuable.

 

Bill Clinton: Put the Integrity in Your Effort

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In 1993, Michigan played UNC for the NCAA basketball championship. The famous Fab Five of Michigan was led by Chris Webber, who went on to become the #1 overall pick in the NBA draft. Michigan lost the championship game due, in part, to Chris Webber calling a time-out in the final seconds when his team did not have one, resulting in a technical foul.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-QPB9NBUG2g

This incident has followed him throughout his career. Immediately after it happened, Bill Clinton (the president at the time) wrote Chris Webber a letter:

I have been thinking of you a lot since I sat glued to the TV during the championship game. I know that there may be nothing I or anyone else can say to ease the pain and disappointment of what happened. Still, for whatever it's worth, you, and your team, were terrific. And part of playing for high stakes under great pressure is the constant risk of mental error. I know. I have lost two political races and made countless mistakes over the last twenty years. What matters is the intensity, integrity, and courage you bring to the effort. That is certainly what you have done. You can always regret what occurred but don't let it get you down or take away the satisfaction of what you have accomplished. You have a great future. Hang in there.

Sincerely, Bill Clinton

(taken from Grantland)

No matter what line of work you're in, particularly when it comes to Islamic organizations, you will have failures. Some will be more spectacular than others. What differentiates those who bounce back and have spectacular success is that they bring the intensity, integrity, and courage to every aspect of their work. Or in another word, ihsaan [excellence].