Prophetic Leadership11 Qualities that Changed the World
by Nabeel Al-Azami
What kind of leadership do we want to see in the world today? And why are so many leaders falling short of our expectations?
As we suffer the consequences of poor leadership worldwide, questions are increasingly being asked about those in power. Abraham Lincoln famously said: ‘Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.’
There is something about power that affects the human condition unlike anything else. It has an uncanny ability to change people, their behaviour and their actions, which in turn says something about their character. Power placed upon a weak character corrupts absolutely. And there seems to be no shortage of weak characters seeking and acquiring leadership and power.
Power can take many forms and can come about through many means. Power is not just political or organisational, but can also be economic/financial, social and even religious. Each can test our character (if you think religious power doesn’t test one’s character you are mistaken!)
A person once described a leader as an honest man, only for his friend to ask, ‘honest up to how much?’ One is hence left to wonder whether everyone’s character has a price tag.
We clearly live in a time when the world is demanding better leadership, whether one looks in the ‘East’ or the ‘West’. Widespread dissatisfaction with corrupt and unjust leadership and the breakdown of trust in many leaders and institutions is clearly visible through the media, and in society generally.
One of the world’s most widely referenced measures in this regard is the German based Transparency International, and their ‘Corruption Perception Index’ (CPI). At the end of each year, some 180 nations are ranked in order of how low and high their corruption levels are. This matters, not only because of extensive Islamic exhortations about general and financial honesty, honouring contracts and so on. Indeed the longest verse in the Qur’an (see Baqarah 2:282) is concerned with this subject.
It matters because, corruption is linked to injustice, oppression, poor wealth distribution, loss of life among other tragedies. Indeed all of the essentials of the ‘Maqasid ash-sharia’ (higher objectives of Islamic law) which must be preserved (from preservation of life and intellect, to the preservation of freedom, dignity and justice) are compromised in a corrupt environment.
A look at the results in the Muslim world, show some nations making progress but the over-arching picture is incredibly worrying and depressing. How can this be changed? The answer is good leadership.
The need for good leadership is not unique to theMuslims but is a global problem. The words of Martin Luther King Jr ring true, when he famously lamented at how our scientific (and technological) advancements have outstripped our human and spiritual advancement, hence ‘we have guided missiles and misguided men’.
However this anathema faced by people the world over, is not due to the non-existence of knowledge about what makes a good leader. When the world’s first leadership professor—John Adair asked former British Prime Minister Jim Callaghan if he had studied leadership, the response was ‘I haven’t, and perhaps if I had, I might have been a better leader’.
There is hence an urgent need for education, cultivation and coaching of current and emerging leaders at all levels, from socio-political to organisational leaders, on how to be a good leader, if we are to build better organisations, societies and a better world. And of the many leadership qualities one might be educated on, of foremost importance is integrity, which involves the imbedding of ethics into one’s character.
Our opening quote revealed how notable leaders like Lincoln understood the importance of character and integrity when one steps into the arena of leadership. There are too few leaders today who have managed to embody this. But among those who were marked by greatness due to their integrity in recent history include the likes of Mandela, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Luther King Jr and Malcolm X.
But when considering the greatest leader of all times, the name of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ must come to the fore, not just in the eyes of Muslims worldwide, but even to noted non-Muslims researchers and historians such as Michael Hart, who named Prophet Muhammad ﷺ as number one in his compilation of the hundred greatest leaders in history.
We know that the idea of leadership was important to the Prophet ﷺ. He ﷺ famously said: ‘Each of you is a shepherd, and each responsible for his flock’—Bukhari and Muslim
The great Prophets were known to have been shepherds at some stage in their lives. A simile is drawn from this fact, where the shepherding was a training process to enable the prophets to lead people. This hadith teaches us that beyond the great Prophets, we are all shepherds, one way or the other. In another well known hadith narration concerning leadership, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘When three are on a journey, they should appoint one as a leader’—Abu Dawud
This is fascinating as it shows that even in a small group, where one may otherwise have thought that leadership is not required, the Prophetic and hence Islamic exhortation is to still appoint a lead person.
However, what kind of leader should one seek to be? What are the qualities of leadership that was exemplified by the Prophet ﷺ?
The 11 Prophetic Leadership Qualities
Drawing on our analysis of the Sirah, and integrating the work of multiple researchers worldwide, most notably that of John Adair—the world’s first professor of leadership, who wrote on the Leadership of Muhammad in 2011, we identified a comprehensive list of over 50 prophetic leadership qualities.
We then critically reviewed these to seek the top 10. After extensive filtering, merging and examining the list against Sirah based evidence, we arrived at 11 qualities, and concluded each of these 11 were vital, and hence would form our definitive list.
That list is as follows:
- Integrity & Trust—built a reputation for honesty and truthfulness; role modelled
- Vision—a strategic mind offering vision and direction through inspiration
- Courage—showed incredible bravery and confidence in the face of adversity
- Competence—was effective, reliable and made an impact
- Fairness—was just and meritocratic in dealings including with non-Muslims
- Decisiveness—would not sit on the fence, but consider options then make a clear decision
- Servant-leadership—led by example; faced hardship with the people; action not just words
- Wisdom—able to make considered judgement drawing on knowledge and long-term view
- Patience—showed deep resilience, forgiveness and ability to go all the way
- Compassion and Warmth—radiated heart, affection, appreciation and gentleness
- Emotional and Spiritual intelligence—able to inspire hope; give people purpose and meaning
It is not difficult to find an abundance of examples of the above qualities in the life of the Prophet ﷺ.
His integrity was established from a young age given his consistent display of honesty and truthfulness in his dealings with everyone. During the dispute of the blackstone, when the young Muhammad ﷺ walked in, the Makkan leaders declared ‘Al-Amin has arrived’ and accepted him as their solution provider.
His strategic vision was apparent during the treaty of Hudaiybiyah when he framed an agreement with the Makkans which his followers felt disappointed with in the short term, but which saw Makkah conquered in the long term.
His courage was apparent during every battle and every challenging period faced by his people. Once at night during the Madinan period, the companions were awoken by a frightening loud noise. As they cautiously stepped out of their homes to see what was going on, they saw it was an out of control horse, but luckily someone brave had swiftly come out and brought the horse under control. It was none other than the courageous Prophet ﷺ.
He embodied the Quranic framework of Al-Qawi Wal Amin. Hence strong, competence and able, while being trustworthy. Today we find that sometimes good people aren’t the most competent, while the most competent aren’t always being good. The Prophet ﷺ role modelled the need to be both. He was known to be an able communicator who had the gift of ‘jawam’ul kalim’—a poetic way with words enabling him to say much with only a few words. He was an expert swordsman, with excellent equestrian skills but also had day to day practical skills from construction to sewing.
He was scrupulously fair, and just, such that during a dispute between a believer and a Jewish person who had been framed, he gave a verdict in favour of the Jewish person in light of the evidence. He similarly declined to given leadership roles to companions whom he felt would not be sufficiently just in their leadership.
He was a focussed decision maker who moved to action soon after his mind was made. He was an advocate of consulting (shura) and drew on the expertise of those around him. Then he would decide and act. Once as he was making defence preparations and putting on his armour for a military expedition, a companion came to question the plans in relation to the military move. The Prophet ﷺ knew when the time for discussion and when the time for action was. He said to the companion, when a Prophet puts his chainmail on there is no turning back.
The Prophet ﷺ once said ‘the leader of a people is their servant’. He demonstrated this throughout his life from personally building his mosque to partaking in digging during the battle of the Trench. He was not a self serving leader but in service of a higher cause. This was accompanied by humility and living a simple life. He didn’t have a thrown and sat among his people as one of them, such that when foreign visitors came, they could not immediately tell from a gathering who the Prophet ﷺ was.
He was wise but practical at the same time. Once a Bedouin came to the mosque of the Prophet ﷺ and when the call of nature came he began urinating within the mosque and prayer area. Naturally this infuriated the other worshippers and companions of the Prophet ﷺ who started marching towards him in anger. The Prophet ﷺ intervened, not only by stopping the possibility of the Bedouin getting beaten up, but actually told the worshippers to let the Bedouin finish urinating!
This was not only very considerate of him but most wise. He ﷺ recognised that this was not an act of aggression but rather the simple Bedouin did not know about the etiquettes of the mosque and needed to be taught. This was the wisdom of the great teacher—the Prophet ﷺ, who proceeded to counsel the foolhardy Bedouin.
One of the most apparent qualities of the Prophet was his incredible patience. For 13 years he endured abuse and persecution at the hands of his fellow Makkans, including times when his companions were beaten, tortured and in some cases killed. Even the Prophet ﷺ wasn’t spared having animal entrails thrown at him as he prayed. One of his most perilous moments was in Ta’if when the people and their children stoned the beloved Prophet ﷺ until he was bleeding extensively.
Yet he had to remain patient and resilient through the suffering while painfully seeing his beloved followers grossly mistreated. His internal strength and patience, gave his followers strength and patience until God gave them some ease.
Compassion and love was in abundance in the Prophet ﷺ who sought to reflect the compassion of the divine. Once, an elderly neighbour who would regularly throw rubbish in the pathway of the Prophet ﷺ fell ill. In seeing this, the Prophet ﷺ did not celebrate this situation rather showed care and compassion by going to visit the old woman, and preparing food for her.
Emotional intelligence is about regulation of one’s emotions and that of others, to harness good relationships. The Prophet ﷺ taught that even ‘smiling was charity’. Hence he taught to project positive emotions hence keeping oneself happy and making others happy as well. Spiritual intelligence is the next level from the emotional realm. It is about directing oneself and inspiring others towards a purposeful end. It’s about leveraging the power of values to create meaningfulness and seeking to make a difference.
The Prophet ﷺ always warned against living life in a meaningless fashion and called for follower to be great people. Once when an Arab chief called Thumama Ibn Uthal was captured and set for execution on account of his murder of countless Muslims, the Prophet ﷺ surprised him with hospitality and leniency instead. In the process he ﷺ repeatedly enquired into Thumama’s heart, asking him to open up and say something. Thumama felt the power of the Prophet’s ﷺ presence and heart. He could sense the presence of the great man ﷺ and his heart. The Prophet ﷺ then released Thumama unconditionally, but Thumama found himself warming to the divine purpose and immediately made his declaration of faith without much being said between them. The prophet (pbuh) was less concerned with winning arguments and more concerned with winning hearts. This is what Spiritual intelligence is about.
The 11 Prophetic leadership qualities are authentic, timeless and universal. They mattered in the past, are needed today and will continue to matter in the future.
These qualities relate to the wider Islamic notion of character development and spiritual development, something of critical importance for leaders and the key to mitigate against corruption and other pitfalls of power. It is no wonder, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘the best of you are those best in character’.
Al Ghazali—a master of character development, who deeply understood Prophetic leadership, recognised the need to set an example as a leader. He said in his famous advice to rulers: “If a king is upright… his officials will be upright, but if he is dishonest, negligent, and comfort-seeking… officers implementing his policies will soon become slothful and corrupt.”
Battle of Hunayn: Authentic Leadership in Action
One of the most remarkable events in the Sirah is found in the famous battle of Hunayn. It is an event that Adair notes as being an impressive example of managing multiple stakeholder demands with integrity. Hunayn was a difficult and challenging occasion in which the Prophet ﷺ showed great judgement, astute leadership and arguably all of the 11 leadership qualities in one event. As the saying goes , ‘leadership is like a tea bag, you don’t know how good it is until it’s in hot water’. And in the hot water of Hunayn, the Prophet ﷺ demonstrated why he was the greatest of leaders.
After the peaceful liberation of Makkah, some neighbouring tribes became enraged at the growth and success of the emergent Muslim community. The Bani Hawazin in particular set out on the war path in an attempt to destroy the Muslims. The battleground was the valley of Hunayn, near Ta’if where some 12,000 Muslims would meet some 4,000 enemies. In outnumbering the enemy for once (in contrast to Badr where Muslims were outnumbered yet won) many among the ranks felt over confident, complacent and thinking it would be an easy battle.
However, as the Muslims set up camp, they faced a surprise ambush, as the enemy charged forth earlier than expected, leading many of the Muslim soldiers to flee, leaving the courageous Prophet ﷺ in danger as he ﷺ continued to stand his ground before the oncoming attack.
As the Prophet ﷺ and his steadfast companions called the fleeing Muslims to return and stand with the Prophet ﷺ, the Muslims eventually regained control and overcame the Bani Hawazin. The lesson to be learnt for those who fled was revealed in Surah Tawbah reminding us of the need to both take preparation and rely on God; and not to assume victory solely based on dunyawi (physical worldly) and numeric considerations, but to invoke the metaphysical world and seek the help of God as only He can grant success. It is also the case that one can only be deserving of God’s help and blessing if one is of good character and is al-amin.
The great leadership of the Prophet ﷺ becomes even more apparent when observing the way he managed different stakeholders and emotions in spite of being in the difficult environment of the battlefield. For example, it emerged that one of the captives was Shayma bint Halima—the long lost foster sister of the Prophet ﷺ who happened to get caught up in the battle. Her claim of relation was not initially believed but she asked to see the Prophet ﷺ and he ﷺ agreed, but when she came forth he ﷺ did not recognise her until she showed him a bite mark he ﷺ left on her arm when he was a child. The Prophet ﷺ then welcomed her warmly and laid down his cloak so they could both sit and catch up—a wonderful example or warmth, patience and emotional intelligence in the midst of the harshness of war.
Another defining moment was when the defeated and captured Bani Hawazins pleaded for mercy from the Prophet ﷺ. This was difficult for the Prophet ﷺ to grant as his soldiers had an established right to the spoils of war which included booty and captives. However as Adair notes, he creatively found a win-win approach (Covey concept ) by calling upon his men and asking for volunteers to come forward in public and forgo their right (Ihsan concept ). The opportunity to exchange booty for honour by being recognised by the Prophet ﷺ before their peers was too good an offer to resist for many, hence allowing the Prophet ﷺ to grant clemency to those who pleaded. To others he ﷺ offered camels and goats in exchange for captives, leaving stakeholders satisfied—a great example of wisdom, integrity and fairness.
However there remained one group—some of his closest companions from amongst the Ansar who felt they had missed out completely—gaining little by way of honour or booty. This slight discontentment reached the Prophet ﷺ, and rather than ignoring the feelings of his people, as some leaders do, he went to find them and ask them about how they felt and why. The hesitant companions eventually expressed how they felt they had missed out while others gained much, even though they had sacrificed the most. This is where the spiritual intelligence and vision of the Prophet ﷺ really showed, as he ﷺ reminded them that while others went home with goats and camels, they the Ansar are the favoured ones who get to take Allah and His Messenger home! The companions wept at this great realisation and felt embarrassed at their earlier feeling of discontentment.
The Prophet ﷺ thus applied almost all the 11 qualities in this one event, and solved immense challenges with incredible integrity.
Good Leadership & Respectful Pluralism in Today’s World
The 11 prophetic leadership qualities listed above make for an incredibly good and worthy leader no doubt. Indeed embodying even half of them would make one stand out in today’s leadership vacuum. But cultivating these qualities is not easy, which is why true leadership is ultimately hard won.
Hence we return to the issue of character as outlined in our Lincoln quote at the beginning, and note that this is man’s greatest frontier. Man’s greatness or grotesqueness depends acutely on their character and qualities.
While the aforementioned leadership qualities have strong references in Islamic tradition they are also universal in nature, hence making it globally applicable and useful to any leader Muslim or Non-Muslim.
In today’s plural, multicultural and multi-faith environment, universality is gold dust. And there is a desperate need for people to be able to offer leadership across beliefs and boundaries. Muslims need to be able to act as ethical beacons in society, living up to the prophetic (and universal) values. They need to be inclusive and able to serve causes that benefit wider society not just Muslims.
It has often been asked ‘where is the Muslim Mandela?’ It is indeed a pertinent question. In Mandela we see one who embodied many of the prophetic leadership qualities, yet we struggle to find Muslim leaders today who have even some of these qualities. This is of course not just a Muslim problem as the world in general has not replaced Mandela with an equal.
Muslims believe that there will never again be a leader like the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, but there is nothing to say there cannot be another great leader like Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman or Ali. There is hence certainly no reason why there cannot be another Mandela, if we find it in ourselves to be great people. Let us embody the leadership example of the Prophet ﷺ, and let the 11 qualities unlock your talent. The world is waiting for you.
Nabeel Al-Azami is Managing Partner of Murabbi Consulting (UK) which specializes in ethical leadership. He is a senior HR specialist, an executive coach (NLP & MBTI practitioner) and Adair Accredited Leadership trainer, who won the Chairman’s Leadership award (2007 & 2008), while working at one of the world’s largest automobile firms. He has also been a finalist for the CIPD ‘HR Professional of the Year 2015 and led a global department to win ‘HR Team of the Year 2015’.
Al-Azami has been listed as a leading global leadership trainer by the OIC’s Islamic Development Bank (IDB) where he has been a regular guest leadership trainer since 2010. He has also been endorsed as a leadership protégé by Prof. John Adair—the world’s first leadership professor. He is author of ‘Muhammad: 11 Leadership Qualities That Changed the World’ published by Claritas Books, and tours the world running workshops on leadership. Visit www.murabbi.com
1 From Al-Ghazali’s work titled “at-Tibr al-Masbuk fi Nasihat al-Muluk” or Ingots of Gold for the Advice of Kings.
2 Based on Adair, John (2010) p.73-75
3 This quote exists in variant forms and has been quoted by multiple figures over the past hundred years, with no definitive author.
4 Based on numeours books of Sirah including Sharif M.H.A, Sirah of the Final Prophet (2002) p.159.
5 See Qur’an: Surah At-Tawbah 9:25-27
6 See—Covey, S. (1999)
7 This is one of the many meanings of Ihsan. Other meanings include excellence, doing good, best practice and forgiveness.