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Seeking Leadership: A Rewards-Based vs. Responsibility-Based Approach


Abu Dharr (rA) once asked the Prophet (s), “Will you not appoint me as a leader?” He replied, “O Abu Dharr, you are weak and it is a position of public trust. Verily, on the Day of Resurrection it will only result in regret, except for one who takes it by right and fulfills its duties” (Muslim). 

This hadith contrasts the desire for leadership against the responsibility associated with it. 

The Prophet (s) highlighted the desire of leadership as directly linked to losing the help and assistance of Allah, “Do not ask for authority. If it is given to you at your request, you will be held fully responsible for it. If it is given to you without your request, you will be helped by Allah in it” (Bukhari and Muslim). 

If we extrapolate this concept a bit further we can frame the idea of leadership into two competing approaches (or intentions): 



Rewards-Based Leadership

There is a dangerous caricature of rewards-based leadership - the unqualified, incompetent, and egotistical individual who thinks they deserve a certain position despite lacking qualification and ability. It’s a dangerous narrative because we have the image of a certain person in our heads, and it’s not us. So we think we are safe from it. 

The reality is that a rewards-based approach cuts much deeper than this. 

It always strikes me when I hear interviews with athletes after they win a championship. They almost always mention how hard they worked for it. 

Hard work. 

That’s a phrase I have thought about a lot lately. It’s a seemingly innocuous phrase but it carries a lot of baggage. I worked hard for this ... therefore I deserve it. 

This is an ideal ingrained within the American psyche. A land of opportunity that rewards those who work hard. Someone with nothing can fulfill the American dream and ‘make it’ if they work hard enough. 

This may appear straightforward, but it has two particularly devastating consequences. First, it erodes the ability to have empathy because of the built-in assumption that those who have not progressed forward deserve whatever fate they have because they did not work hard enough (a concept detailed in the books Tyranny of Merit and The Meritocracy Trap). Second, it posits success (however it is defined) as a prize to be attained as a reward for this hard work. 

Professional progress is measured in exactly this manner. Work hard for years until you get promoted to a leadership role. If you are a top performer, you may feel that you need to be given a certain level of leadership to validate it. Once someone attains this prize though, the problems begin. Implicitly, they sometimes feel that their work should be fun, or that it should now be easy. Complacency can kick in, and the same work ethic that propelled someone forward starts to dissipate. 

When people with this mindset move up, the organization begins to suffer. These leaders have no incentive to work hard at the problems they do not enjoy or that do not align with a personal incentive. Consider the example of a software company where a marketing person takes on a senior leadership role. They will be excited to tackle issues related to sales or advertising, but what happens if there is a major technology issue they need to address? Will they work at a ‘top performer’ level on this issue if it holds no promise of furthering their career? Most likely not, they will probably abdicate responsibility by passing it off to someone else (that should not be responsible for it), or they will sweep it under the rug because they don’t feel like dealing with it. 

The dangerous part about a rewards-based leadership perspective is that it can originate from a place of sincerity. We see this all the time in Islamic organizations and Muslim communities. 

When we see someone volunteering regularly, our natural inclination is to ‘reward’ them by giving them a more formal position, one with more authority. 

People who are large donors or founding members of an organization may feel they are owed some level of deference even if they no longer hold a formal position. How many communities are bottlenecked by a founding member or large donor that calls the shots even though they do not hold formal decision-making power? 

Corporate environments are much different from community environments. Yet, the same patterns of behavior exist. Once people are awarded a position, they are often motivated to tackle the issues they have a personal interest in as opposed to the needs of the community. This is one possible explanation as to why there is so much focus on construction projects and not enough on human resources, personal and spiritual development, and outreach within the community (and this is another possible explanation).  

Treating leadership as a reward makes people compete for it. They will turn its attainment into a goal, and will be tempted to bend the rules to get it. They will play politics to move ahead, especially because success in a rewards-based paradigm is predicated on someone else’s failure. This is unhealthy for the culture of any type of organization - particularly so for masjids. 

Responsibility-Based Leadership

This approach is known more commonly as servant leadership. It is driven by a sense of fulfilling the duties of the role rather than personal achievement. It focuses on prioritizing the needs of the community over our own. 

The Prophet (s) said explicitly that  “The leader of a people is in their service.” When this is taken in context with his (s) description of leadership as an amanah -a trust-, it becomes clear that this is the only way we can view leadership. This idea is further reinforced in the famous hadith that “Every one of you is a shepherd and is responsible for his flock. The leader of people is a guardian and is responsible for his subjects.”

Patrick Lencioni, after explaining a rewards and responsibility-based approach in The Motive, concluded that the term servant leadership should be retired with this approach being the standard by which we define leadership itself. 

When we look at the examples of the prophets, we understand that leadership was always a means rather than a goal. When the Quraysh offered to make the Prophet (s) their ruler in exchange for not preaching Islam, he refused. Sulayman (as) asked for authority, and it was a means of spreading the truth. Yusuf (as) asked to be put in charge in order to fulfill a greater good.  

People under a leader operating from a rewards approach may feel a sentiment that the leader does not have their best interests at heart. Such a leader will cultivate a reputation of only caring about things that hold a personal interest, or being selfish. 

A leader who approaches the position with an understanding of the responsibility and acts accordingly will cultivate the opposite reputation. People will consider them to be selfless, humble, and caring. 

In a professional environment this is a bit easier to implement. There is organizational structure that reinforces the fulfillment of your responsibilities. Having that reputation of being selfless opens doors and facilitates a person finding a position where they can serve while also thriving professionally. 

It is more challenging in a community setting. The various hadith we find pertaining to leadership in Islam are more petrifying than they are encouraging. This fear may sometimes push the right people away. Leadership from an Islamic perspective requires at least four characteristics: 


    Required knowledge for the position

    The ability to influence and persuade. 

    A personality that is not easily swayed (fickle). 

If those that have religious grounding and God consciousness keep avoiding positions of leadership in our community, the leadership conundrum will never resolve itself. 

Leadership requires questioning your intentions, being in the service of the people you lead, and continuing to grow your skill set. Abu Bakr (ra) did not feel ready for the position he was walking into, but what a formidable leader he was when he passed away.  

Check Your Intention Before, During, and After Any Deed

Whether we are given a position of leadership or pursue it, the danger lies in how we self-rationalize our intentions. 

Someone may truly be selfless and acting as a true servant leader. Yet, as people continue to give that feedback and praise them, it can become natural to believe “I am a great servant leader” and then slowly start to desire a reward for doing that good job. 

A person may pursue degrees and certifications to make them further qualified to fulfill the responsibilities of a role, but without the right intention, they will grow frustrated if not given their desired position. Similarly, someone may pursue religious knowledge with the intention of coming closer to Allah, but then also feel some sense of entitlement to lead the community because of the sacrifices they have made and the knowledge they have attained. 

Intentions are not always clear-cut, and they can change depending on the circumstance. This is why a high level of vigilance is required in self-assessing our intention. 

“What about those whose evil deeds are made alluring to them so that they think they are good?” (35:8).

We must constantly be on guard against doing something bad while thinking we are doing something noble. 

“Say [Prophet], ‘Shall we tell you who has the most to lose by their actions, whose efforts in this world are misguided, even when they think they are doing good work?” (18:103-104). 

Self-assessment means constantly asking yourself questions. As your leadership responsibilities increase, what does it do to your relationship with Allah? How willingly would you step aside if someone more qualified came along? Are you acting in the best interests of the organization even if it goes against your personal interest? How does it make you feel if you do not receive credit for the work done? 

Beyond self-assessment, it is vital to have a strong inner circle that gives you feedback and holds you accountable.