Running a Masjid is a Lot Like Bikeshedding


Bike what? I had an epiphany after understanding bikeshedding. It's very difficult to not get giddy while writing this, because I think I have finally stumbled upon the ultimate answer - why are Masjids always focused on the manifest destiny of construction and expansion at the expense of things that actually matter to the community?

In essence:

Parkinson shows how you can go in to the board of directors and get approval for building a multi-million or even billion dollar atomic power plant, but if you want to build a bike shed you will be tangled up in endless discussions.

Parkinson explains that this is because an atomic plant is so vast, so expensive and so complicated that people cannot grasp it, and rather than try, they fall back on the assumption that somebody else checked all the details before it got this far...

A bike shed on the other hand. Anyone can build one of those over a weekend, and still have time to watch the game on TV. So no matter how well prepared, no matter how reasonable you are with your proposal, somebody will seize the chance to show that he is doing his job, that he is paying attention, that he is *here*.

In Denmark we call it "setting your fingerprint". It is about personal pride and prestige, it is about being able to point somewhere and say "There! *I* did that." It is a strong trait in politicians, but present in most people given the chance. Just think about footsteps in wet cement (source).

You might want to read that passage one more time before continuing. Let it sink in.

Check out the Wikipedia entry on Parkinson's Law of Triviality if you need more.

Here's how the story plays out (if you really want to have fun, pretend they're talking about a Masjid construction project),

The scene

The chapter is a transcript of a meeting of a finance committee. The participants are about to discuss the last three items on their agenda: the budget for building an atomic reactor, building a bicycle shed for the use of the clerical staff, and finally the refreshments supplied at meetings of the Joint Welfare Committee.

Let’s build an atomic reactor

The treasurer presents the 9th item on their agenda: approve the ten million pounds budget for building an atomic reactor. He distributes the plans and the related documents, and shares the concerns of the consultant engineers who previously stated that the reactor could not be finished before the deadline the sub-contractor signed for that there were details that were overlooked during the planning. The chairman thanks the treasurer for the detailed introduction and asks whether anyone has any questions. The committee has eleven members, and out of these eleven members, four - including the chairman - have no idea what a reactor is. Three don’t know what its purpose is. There are only two persons from the rest, who vaguely know how much it costs to build a reactor. Fortunately, both of them can speak up. So the first member suggests giving the assignment to another sub-contractor - a more reliable one - and involving other consultants.

The chairman thanks him for speaking up, but he says that it is too late to involve others in this project, and a significant amount of money has already been paid for the plans. If the committee decides to re-do the whole planning phase, it will cost a lot. Several members of the committee nod. Finally, the chairman asks the other person - you remember, the one who vaguely knows how much it costs to build a reactor - to speak up.

As it turns out, he is the only one who really knows something about building an atomic reactor, and not just vaguely. He also knows that the actual sub-contractor cannot be trusted, the ten million pounds is very strange, and has no idea how it was actually calculated. But he knows something else: the other members. He knows that it would take him a lot of time and effort to teach them the basics of nuclear physics so that they have a basic understanding of how atomic reactors work and what it takes to build one. So instead of speaking up and making this effort he simply says that he has nothing to add.

Since nobody disagrees, the chairman signs the document and moves to the next item on the agenda. The discussion of the 9th item took almost 3 minutes which doesn’t include the time that was necessary for distributing the documents. They are on schedule.

The bicycle shed

The next item is the budget for building a bicycle shed for the use of the clerical staff. But before the chairman delineates it, some of the members feel bad. They are not sure that they have made a good decision, and they promise themselves that they’ll prove later in the meeting that they are valuable members of the committee. The cost of building the bicycle shed is 350 pounds.

One of the members thinks that the price is too high, and suggests building the roof of shed from asbestos instead of aluminum. The other “roof experts” jump in, and one of them even suggests cancelling the project, because the staff doesn’t deserve a new shed.

The debate continues, because most of the members are able to understand what 350 pounds represents, and almost every one of them has seen a bicycle shed before. The whole debate takes 45 minutes with the prospective result of saving about 50 pounds. Now, everybody is happy, because they feel that they did something important, something that also provided results.

It's about spending a disproportionate amount of time on the things that don't matter versus the things that do. It's about shying away from the things you don't understand, and instead focusing on the things where you can take credit.

People who have no expertise in construction will take on masjid construction projects (and proceed to waste hundreds of thousands of fund-raised dollars unnecessarily) while actual experts are excluded or silenced. Why is it that a doctor will never entertain the medical advice of an engineer, but considers himself or herself an overnight authority on Masjid construction?

Why is the architect for a masjid construction project put through a more rigorous interview process than a potential imam - someone who is going to be spiritually raising the community's children for years to come?

The reality is, most of the time, board members aren't equipped to understand the community's problems. They are put in a position of trust to make decisions for the benefit of the community. This means finding an Imam who can lead them, spiritually nourish them, and help them grow. It means making sure you have a khateeb every single Friday that will deliver a positive and effective message. It means actually involving sisters, youth, and different ethnicities in a meaningful way without feeling threatened. These are the insecurities that caused everyone to debate the bicycle shed.

Hiring a youth director means acknowledging that youth have spiritual issues. It means admitting that your own child might be one of them. It means you have to find someone to entrust the community's youth to for guidance, direction, and mentorship. It means that the masjid might need to learn how to start dealing with drugs, alcohol, pornography addiction, teen pregnancies, physical and emotional abuse, and other such issues.

It's why board members will argue over things like how much to pay the cleaning staff, the budget for inviting a guest speaker, and where new classrooms should go. And it's exactly why while lost in all of that, they'll never pay attention to who is actually giving the Friday khutbah.

The incessant focus on Masjid expansion is a crutch for these types of people. It insulates you from actually dealing with real community issues. It gives you a wall to hide behind when trying to tell the community why you can't provide them qualified spiritual leadership. But most importantly, it gives board members something to point at.

They can point at a masjid while driving by and say, "I built that."

And that is all that it comes down to. All the money, all the elections, all the nasty politics. It's to be able to say in the end - I DID THAT.

Why don't board members attend halaqahs? Because it doesn't let them point at something. Why won't they hire people to help save their kids? Because that's not something you can point to (at least not in the immediate future - i.e. before the next election).

The most telling example though is moon-sighting. Masjid boards want to remove the Ramadan/Eid decision making from the imam, and instead adopt their own "policy" that is in agreement with their peers. Removing the decision making from the imam is the key point here. They simply don't have the knowledge to actually defend their stance, especially not with a scholar (or even a beginner student of knowledge).

Engaging in that conversation at a real level means that you have to get out of your comfort zone. You have to either acknowledge that you lack expertise, or you have to put in more work. Either way, it's like the example in the beginning of the atomic reactor. Figure out a way to make a quick decision and spend your time on something else. Don't worry about what's Islamically correct, or the fact that you're undermining the Islamic scholarship in your community - focus on which hall you want to make Eid in and on which day.

Once you understand this, you understand why communities stagnate. It comes down to one word - fear.

parkinson-e1365382620306Fear creates busy work. Instead of transformative work, work is created to fill time.

People are afraid of making change. They're afraid of putting themselves out there to actually transform the community, much less change the world. If you can't take the risk, if you can't be comfortable with your own shortcomings, then you'll just spend all your time arguing over the color of the bicycle shed. That's what happens when an imam's vision for a community exceeds that of the board. It gets into uncomfortable territory, and the imam is either let go or forced to move on.

Mediocrity is comfortable. Change causes fear.

Discussing handing over the reigns to the next generation takes work, and skill that might not be there. Pretending like it's not a problem to the point that the next generation gets skipped is easy. You can fill that time by coming up with another expansion project and the requisite fundraising for a few more years. And then when it's done, you can point to 3 new classrooms and let everyone know - "I did that."

Overcome this by rising to the challenge. Assess the actual needs of the community and start figuring out ways of addressing them. Don't let fear get in the way. It's ok if it will be unpopular, and it's ok if you're going to lose your position. It's even ok to let someone else take credit when things go well. Acknowledge that you're in a rut and take the uncomfortable steps to break out of it. Put in the time to learn the ins and outs of the tough decisions and stop filling your time with easy.

Anyone can do easy. You really want the reward of serving the community? Then actually serve the community. Let their needs shape your projects and decisions - not your own insecurities and need to feel involved or in control.


The One Fail Safe Way Communities Can Hold Leadership Accountable


Sometimes it seems that bad leadership in our communities is like a runaway train. Not only runaway, but runaway on a one way track. Sometimes the problems seem so deep that we lose sleep and begin to weep. There's no way out. We become so jaded that it no longer seems worthwhile to be involved. No matter what I do, no matter what I say, nothing will change.

There may be lots of politics at play and myriad external factors preventing things from getting better. We simply reach the point of giving up.

Many times even a few individuals can be marginalized despite being in the right. The larger problem is that the community at large is apathetic. This creates an environment where the leadership of such a community can do as they please, because the one body that can hold them accountable, the community, will not.

Outside of meetings, and elections, and all the usual things, there is one fail safe way to cause change. Accountability.

As long as community members insist on holding boards and leadership accountable, they will not have a way out. We saw this just this week in the NFL. With the league locking out the referees, the game suffered with replacement refs. The leadership of the league (commissioner and team owners) looked like a group of bullies who could do as they wanted. No one, it seemed, could take them to task.

Eventually it reached a tipping point once enough people raised the issue. This is both the key to change, and the hardest part. The community at large must care enough to hold someone accountable. Bill Simmons explains this concept in the context of what they refer to as the Doorman Rule:

Now that it's settled, wouldn't you say we used our leverage? We complained and ... moaned until the NFL finally sucked it up and did something. The biggest thing we had going in our favor was something Peter Berg once referred to on my podcast as the Doorman Rule. Berg always worried that NBC was going to cancel his Friday Night Lights show, but his biggest asset was the interactions that everyday people had with NBC's higher-ups. As Berg described it (I'm doing this from memory), there was a two-minute stretch from when then-NBC honcho Jeff Zucker left his fancy apartment, rode the elevator, walked out his apartment complex's door and climbed into his limo en route to work. During those two minutes, he might run into three or four people — someone in the elevator and/or the lobby, the doorman, maybe someone outside as he's waiting for the limo to pull up. And at least one of those people might make small talk with him and say, "Hey man, I love Friday Night Lights." For someone like Zucker, those comments would carry a ton of weight because it's really one of his only chances to cross paths with real people. So Berg was saying that, as long as you're a Doorman Show, you always have a chance no matter what your ratings are.

OK, now flip that around — let's say you're Goodell or one of the 32 owners. Imagine it's Tuesday. Do you want to run into anyone during that two-minute walk to the limo? Aren't you dreading the fuming guy in the elevator, or the doorman who's thinly smiling at you while hoping deep down that you get run over by a car? That's the biggest reason this lockout got settled — as soon as the commissioner and these owners were put in the position of dreading interactions with everyday people, this was over. So I'd argue that we DID have leverage, and we used it the old-fashioned way.

Community members must take a vested interest in caring about the outcome. They must be in the ear of the decision makers voicing their opinion. Apply the pressure to make sure the best interests of the community are served.



Leadership: The Power of Vulnerability


When we think of characteristics of a strong leader, they usually orient around qualities like assertiveness, confidence, and talent. How is it then, that vulnerability is so important? Our boards and administrations are seemingly in a race to be the best. But not the right kind of best. How much of this rhetoric sounds familiar (even if it's normally left unstated)?

"When I take over, I'm going to show them..."

"I want to prove I can do this without that person's help"

This leads people down a brazen road where board members who aren't qualified for something stubbornly take control over it. Someone that is not detail oriented, and has never done accounting work before, suddenly wants to manage all the masjid finances. People with no formal religious training want to take away religious authority from their imam (think moon-sighting), and micro-manage what classes or programs will be done for the religious benefit of the community at large. One of the most lamentable examples is when a board member suddenly deems themselves worthy of giving khutbah despite not having training, knowledge, or even basic speaking skills.

This inability to admit - and deal with - one's own weaknesses breeds resentment from those in the community who are more qualified. In the examples above, think about the reaction that someone who is qualified in these areas will feel? Especially when they share in leadership positions. A person may be well experienced in a certain arena, but will be ignored due to some kind of petty politics or a power play.

This resentment erodes unity, and destroys loyalty. This is a perfect storm for nasty politics.

The problem comes back to leadership. Vulnerability is, as Patrick Lencioni says, the most important leadership trait you shun:

Whether we're talking about leadership, teamwork or client service, there is no more powerful attribute than the ability to be genuinely honest about one's weaknesses, mistakes and needs for help. Nothing inspires trust in another human being like vulnerability -- there is just something immensely attractive and inspiring about humility and graciousness.

When a manager can admit that one of his employees has better skills in a given area than he does, or a team member acknowledges that she needs help from a peer, or a consultant admits that he doesn't know the answer to a client's problem, it sends a powerful message about their confidence and trustworthiness. It builds loyalty and commitment more than anything else. That's not to say that competence isn't important; it's just that without honesty and humility, it has limited potential.

And yet, few business people actively strive to grow in vulnerability, wanting instead to project strength and confidence to the people they lead, work with and serve. Ironically, they are limiting their potential for success. That's because it's not the smartest or most competent leaders, teammates and service providers that are the most successful ones. If that were the case, success would be much easier to predict than it is. In reality, the most successful people are those who achieve a required or minimum level of competence, and then enhance that with as much trust-inspiring vulnerability as they can.

For those who are skeptical about the power of vulnerability, it is helpful to apply the concept to matters of social and interpersonal effectiveness. We all know someone who is immensely talented or intelligent but who is too insecure to recognize and acknowledge his limitations. Being around that person is painful, and he ends up having a minimal impact on friends and family in spite of his considerable talents. If you could redesign that person for maximum happiness, success and impact in life, you'd gladly trade off much of his skills for a greater sense of vulnerability. Deep down inside, he would too.


Today, we are reminded constantly of the power, and fear, of vulnerability. In business and politics we watch leader after leader defend themselves, deny responsibility for mistakes, and reject offers of assistance seemingly unaware that the long term impact of their defensiveness is a growing distrust among the very people whose support and loyalty they need.

Leaders are not courageous because they spend hours volunteering and trying to do things they can't truly handle. Leaders are courageous when they're able to acknowledge their own shortcomings, give up some control, and ask the right person for help no matter how it makes them feel.

Leading Volunteers: Unity and Gossip

It goes without saying that most Islamic organizations suffer from a lack of unity.

There are 3 main causes of disunity within Islamic organizations:

  1. Poor Communication
  2. Gossip (highlighted due to its prevalence in our communities)
  3. Lack of a Shared Purpose [Video: Role of the Masjid]

Communication is an easy indicator of unity. When people don't know what's going on, strife will set in.

The lack of communication creates an environment that nurtures gossip. People are not involved because of a paycheck or something else that ties them down. When they don't feel part of the process, they will talk. Unresolved disagreements also play a role. When leadership is unaware of disagreements, or leadership tries to simply avoid confrontation, then there is a communication breakdown. Gossip then usually becomes the outlet by which people release that pressure and frustration.

This does not mean that frustration is a bad thing - actually, it shows that people care. But there is a line between frustration and gossip. Confrontation can (and should) be dealt with quickly. Wounds can be patched up and people can make up and move forward on a unified front.

Gossip occurs when a negative issue is discussed with someone who cannot help solve the problem. It is, hands down, one of the most destructive things that any organization or community can face. For example, a board member should not be raising complaints about the imam with the masjid treasurer.

Anas related that the Prophet (saw) said, "Do you know what calumny is? .. [It is] conveying the words of some people to others in order to create mischief between them. [Adab al-Mufrad]

Unity can never be achieved when people speak ill of each other. It creates negative feelings in the heart, and an environment of distrust and animosity. When teammates in sports fight with each other, it makes it difficult for them to perform well together on the field. Gossip in an Islamic organization is the same principle, but with much worse consequences.

We should seriously consider implementing decisive consequences for gossip. How quickly would our organizations change if there was immediate termination for gossip? Board member found gossiping about the masjid president? Immediately kicked out.

It's true, you will lose volunteers that are hard to find in the first place - but I would contend that losing a volunteer is better than having a volunteer that spreads something as destructive as gossip.

A team must be cohesive. They must share a purpose, and have the autonomy (and dignity) to do their work. In football, when the ball is snapped, all 11 people on the team know exactly what they need to be doing. Every receiver knows which route to run. Every lineman knows who to block and in which direction. They don't even need to talk to each other, they know what to do. Even when the play breaks down, and something unexpected happens, it does not shake them. A lineman, whose only duty is to block, may suddenly recover a fumble and be in possession of the ball. He has never gotten the ball in a game before, but because the team shares the same purpose (move the ball down the field), he knows to start running the other way. His teammates know that they need to run and block for him.

In the above example, the unexpected happened. Someone ended up being forced into something they're not used to. Did they need to hold a board meeting to figure out what to do? Did they need to call time out and exchange 25 emails to develop  a new policy and procedure for what happens when the lineman is forced to recover a fumble? Did they stop and have a fight and yell at the guy who fumbled the ball?

No. They had a shared vision. They had a shared purpose. Their communication before the game was so good, that they didn't even need to speak. They simply saw what happened, and every individual knew exactly what their response to the situation should be.

That's unity.

Leading Volunteers: How To Treat Them With Dignity


"None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself." (Bukhārī)

Building loyalty within a team at work, a place where people's livelihoods depend on the job, is already difficult enough. So how about when that team consists of volunteers who are only there out of their own free will?

This, like many other issues, is a leadership issue. Volunteers are reporting to a board or committee. The board and committee are often reporting back to a president or amīr of some sort. Even with small and loose volunteer groups, there is still some level of hierarchy and leaders are responsible for those volunteers 'under' them.

Even if you're not in leadership, these are still important tips to help those who are volunteering - and building loyalty within your community or organization.

The rules for this are simple, and don't require much elaboration.

People are humans. They have dreams, fears, and families. They have jobs, they have responsibilities, and they have life in general to deal with. Stop treating them like units of production. Treat them with dignity by showing them that you care. Know their names, know about their families and their kids. Ask about them (sincerely). If you can't show them that you actually care about them - as a person - then don't expect any loyalty from your volunteers.

When you see someone do something you would expect praise for, then praise your volunteers.

Whoever does not thank people (for their favors) has not thanked Allah (properly). [Ahmad]

When you make a mistake, you would expect people to overlook and pardon you. Do the same with your volunteers. The second you get up and berate or rip a volunteer is the same second that they will make the decision to never come back.

So when it comes time for reprimanding someone for making a mistake, give proper naṣīḥah. It needs to be prompt and private. And it needs to be done with mercy - hoping for rectification and hoping for the best for your brother or sister.

When you know you are competent enough to do a task, you usually hate it when someone micromanages you. Leave your volunteers alone. Let them work.

Above all, put yourself in their shoes. Treat them the way you want to be treated.