Islamic Character Youth

5 Marks of Exceptional MSA Leaders

By Mohamed Abutaleb

If you missed the earlier article on 5 Mistakes of Young MSA Leaders, check it out here.

When I was first handed the reins of our MSA (Muslim Student Association) at the age of 18, I never imagined that it would lead to some of the most powerful leadership experiences I’d share at job interviews for more than a decade to come:  difficult personalities, budgets, crisis management, media, public speaking, and mediation. Many of my cabinet and successors shared the same experience. More than one credited his/her MSA experience in landing a great job.  Here are 5 tips on how to hone exceptional leadership experience throughout your years of service:

1. Become a Remarkable Listener – Whether in families, marriages, or MSAs, many of us are already busy preparing our rebuttal while the other person is still speaking to us. Resolve to become a remarkable listener. Hear not just what the person is saying, but what is beneath their words. Pause a lot, repeat what the person is saying, and let others do most of the talking. Be open to being wrong. So many times, the Qur’an reprimands people who “would not hear.”

2. Learn to be Loved and Hated – This is a tough one. Effective leadership commands respect and comes with honor but that also means it is a weighty responsibility and attracts jealousy, envy, and hatred. Find that tough balance between self-righteousness and stardom. Don’t be fooled into thinking every time someone disagrees with you, you’re the only one on the truth and Islam’s last defender. Moderate your opinions with mentors and a wise inner circle. To lead, you must also give up your dream of being popular or everyone’s best friend. If everyone’s always singing your praises, then you’re either insincere or not doing anything worthwhile – even the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) himself had those who opposed him.

3. Shift the Spotlight – The Prophet ﷺ says, “He who does not show gratitude to people, has not been truly thankful to Allah (subhanahu wa ta`ala – Exalted is He).” When you appreciate the investment of your team, you embody a small, human manifestation of the attribute in Allah’s Name As-Shakoor (The Appreciative) – the One who rewards His servants’ deeds beyond measure. Be quick to volunteer for the most difficult and least glamorous tasks, and the last to claim credit or seek worldly fame.

In our MSA, there was a brother who would pick up all the date pits during Ramadan and take out the trash before the assigned committee could ever get to it. None of us could figure out who he was. When that unknown brother broke his arm, all of the sudden, the date pits piled up and the trash bags weren’t collected. He never shared it with anyone, and I don’t think anyone figured it out but me. Forget the likes, fame, and people’s adoration – seeking to please Allah is true leadership.

4. Treasure Your Time – To truly excel, you must cultivate not only the discipline to avoid the prohibited (haram), but the courage to let go of some of the halal. We all only get 24 hours a day. Al-Hasan al-Basri says, “You are but a collection of days – when a day departs, so does a part of you.” Great leaders treasure their time more than others while remaining balanced, they spend less idle moments, turn off notifications, and moderate their consumption of entertainment. Beyond the x’s and o’s, they beg Allah to place baraka (blessing) in their time. Reading the stories of scholars is a great place to see this trait in action.

When I was 21, people told me that I was one of the stronger public speakers in the DC area. I was in trouble. I heard people calling me “scholar” when I didn’t even qualify as a student, and I was one of the more driven individuals in my circle of friends. Then I met a passionate speaker with few as equals, with a stronger command of both the Islamic and worldly sciences than I. Essentially, a person who made me feel he had accomplished more with his time in every facet that I was praised for. Great leaders have to find the self-security and courage to surround themselves with people who are better, faster, and smarter than them.

5. Renew, Restore, and Reinvest – It seems like the more technology we have, the less productive we are; the more messaging apps, the worse our actual communication; and the more stuff and clutter in our lives, the less focused we are on our actual purpose in existence. Do you realize that your great-grandparents lived in a world without television, personal computers, the Internet, and laundry machines? Do you know that just 12 years ago, neither YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, nor Snapchat even existed?

The five prayers give a natural structure to the day, and this ummah (global community) is blessed in the time of the early morning hours. Make a sincere intention to wake up for fajr prayer and stay up, and discipline yourself to structure your day. To do that, you have to sleep at a reasonable hour. Don’t start or end your day with emails or texts.  Don’t touch your phone, Facebook, Twitter, or whatever for at least the first hour. Start with a spiritual breakfast (prayer/dhikr – remembrance), exercise, and a healthy meal. Remember that to give back to others, you must first be healthy and whole yourself.

I ask Allah to grant you sincerity, patience, and fulfillment in carrying the trust and responsibility of MSA leadership.  I pray that it is a means of growth and development for you and those you serve, and a joy on the day you meet Allah (subhanahu wa ta`ala).

Mohamed AbuTaleb serves as the Imam of the Islamic Association of Raleigh. He is a lifelong student of the Quran and Islamic studies and also shares a love of science and reason, having completed his Ph.D. and Master’s degrees in electrical engineering from MIT along with degrees in physics and mathematics from the University of Maryland.  Mohamed has traveled the United States extensively as a lecturer, trainer, and educator.  His style focuses on enabling audiences to couple transformative understanding with relevance to daily life, and to cut across labels and divisions through scholarship and dialogue.  You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube or on his website

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  • Dear brother
    Thoughts propel from my biblical roots as if all the prophets come before us with
    unanimity in mind.
    Roots of vegetation,trees carry their respective seasons and fruit of spirit within
    intentions cause the very roots of our persona to gravitate towards the foundation unequivocally monotheistic and very much Islam in nature.
    Comprehension as a gift to being human showers the flora of language for the purpose of understanding especially when choice dictates pick of the crop.
    You are in the farmer’s field cultivating and pruning fruit of the tongue for harvest.

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