The predominant culture today idolizes the “charismatic” leader; a leader who possesses a larger than life persona and carries a certain appeal that attract followers in droves. These leaders have a natural ability to inspire and motivate followers; think Martin Luther King, Oprah Winfrey, John F. Kennedy, Nelson Mandela – all individuals whom fit this bill. These individuals displayed great leadership and made great contributions to the betterment of society, and humanity at large.
But that isn’t always the case with charismatic leaders.
Many leaders who fit this archetype leveraged their magnetic personalities for ulterior motives; motives that resulted in death and destruction. This points to an inherent flaw in the charismatic leadership model: it’s not inherently good.
The natural ability to inspire can be used for evil just as much as it can be used for good. Hence, societies reverence for these types of leaders has in fact hindered our understanding of true leadership, because true leadership is morality-centric. This is an important distinction to make because it underscores the chasm between leadership and moral leadership. Yet society often fails to make that distinction, and as a result, we continue to prop up ‘leaders” who are not deserving of their position. This is what happens when we confine leadership to personalities, rather than values. True leadership extends beyond the bounds of charismatic leaders who can galvanize followers by virtue of their alluring personas.
True leadership, in its simplest form, is value-based.
Values-based leadership is the practice of leading individuals from a set of shared core moral values embodied in the leader’s behavior and actions. Value-based leadership is simply leading by staying true to one’s own values. And one need not look further than Imam Ali (as) to see the embodiment of this leadership model.
Imam Ali (as) exemplified value-based leadership in all its forms. He never strayed outside his moral parameters, irrespective of the consequences. He was astute in his principles, never shying away when attempts were made to undermine those very principles. Arguably the most precise advice on responsible leadership is contained in Imam Ali’s directive to Maalik al-Ashtar, upon taking governance of Egypt. Imam Ali’s letter to Malik is a fascinating piece of literature that provides valuables insight about true, value-based leadership.