Servant Leadership in Islam Religion and Confucianism


A prevalent leadership style among effective organizational leaders is servant leadership. Notably, servant leadership is a model underpinned by the philosophy that effective leaders are servants of the people they lead. Servant leaders focus on their followers’ needs and in turn, the followers reciprocate through increased engagement, better performance, and improved teamwork. Servant leadership is often associated with Christianity and the Bible, with Christians citing Jesus as the ultimate example of a servant leader. However, one can argue that it is compatible with most religions and philosophies; it transcends cultures. This paper explores transactional leadership in the Islam religion and the Confucian culture. In both Islam religion and Confucianism, servant leadership has proven conceptually popular.

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Servant Leadership in the Islam Religion

            Within the Islamic worldview, a leader should serve the welfare of his/her followers as a guardian or trustee. According to Gonaim (2016), the ideal leader in the Islamic view is moderate, forgiving, honorable, consultative, honest, humble, abiding by his promises, holds non-materialistic and ascetic values, et cetera. Muslims cite Prophet Mohammad as the ultimate example of a servant leader. Gonaim elucidates that the Prophet’s leadership style was instrumental to the spread of Islam across the world. Prophet Mohammad served as a guardian for his follower’s welfare. His approach to leadership demonstrated genuine concern for the wellbeing of humanity rather than for an egoistic interest. The Prophet believed that three key foundations must underpin leadership: (1) mercy, (2) kindness, and (3) justice. Moreover, he perceived leadership as a process of sharing influence as opposed to an opportunity to exercise power/authority.

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            Muslims strive to model their approach to leadership per Prophet Muhammad’s teachings. Traditionally, Muslims strongly believe that leadership starts with the natural feeling of serving others first and then the conscious choice that inspires one to lead (Gonaim, 2016). Hence, a leader should be a servant first. Gonaim explains that there does not exist an exact list of characteristics that qualify an individual as a servant leader. However, there are fundamental characteristics that are associated with servant leadership. The characteristics include listening, healing, empathy, persuasion, awareness, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, building community, and commitment to the growth of this community. The characteristics define an individual who is committed to building effective relationships and balancing self-interest with common goals.

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Muslims, as demonstrated by Prophet Muhammad’s approach to leadership, place the above-described characteristics at the heart of their leadership philosophy. According to Abdallah et al. (2019), the above-described ten characteristics can be summarized by four key premises. To start with, having the natural feeling to serve first. Prophet Muhammad exhibited a natural desire to help and serve. Abdallah et al. explain that even before prophethood, the Prophet established love and care by sacrificing and serving to ensure the fulfillment of other people’s needs. Secondly, he was committed to facilitating followers’ progression. Despite the meanness, vindictiveness, and cruelty that the Prophet faced, he was persistent in delivering his message aimed at raising a healthy community.

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Thirdly, he served people’s highest priority. The Prophet addressed the needs of all the people he interacted with; even those who contradicting views. For instance, the Bedouin, who were known for their profound love of money and harsh language. Lastly, becoming a leader while remaining a servant. It is worth noting that the Prophet was always amongst those he led helping, guiding, and teaching them; he never pursued a high position over the people he led (Gonaim, 2016). Thus, analyzing Prophet Muhammad’s approach to leadership depicts that servant leadership transcends cultures.  

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Servant Leadership in the Confucian Culture

            Servant leadership has also proven conceptually popular in the Asian culture as demonstrated by Confucianism. Notably, Confucian is an ancient Chinese philosophy and belief system, whose focus is personal ethics and morality. In the Confucian culture, concepts such as humanness (ren), appropriateness (yi), conscientiousness (zhong), ritual (li), and mutuality (shu) provide a normative behavioral pattern for leaders. Each aspect contributes a crucial facet to servant leadership. To start with, humanness underlies an individual’s sense of significance and concern for others. Secondly, appropriateness focuses on the interaction between the individual and the context. It, as such, requires both contextual understanding and self-understanding coupled with the capacity to act on self-contextualization.

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Thirdly, ritual provides a set of ground rules that underlie the desired manner of behaving in relationships with other individuals. Fourthly, conscientiousness describes the degree and depth of an individual’s level of sincerity in demonstrating humanness. Lastly, mutuality consists of a person’s efforts to be authentic (Yang, Fu, Beveridge, & Qu, 2020). The five concepts underlie the Confucian’s perspective of servant leadership as discussed below.

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            The core element of servant leadership is serving others. This can be fully illustrated by the concept of humanness in the Confucian culture. A leader helps the followers to embrace a common goal and work together towards actualizing the said goal (Schenck & Waddey, 2017). According to Schenck and Waddey, many virtues that define a servant-leader such as love, tolerance, honesty, deference, forgiveness, filial obedience, loyalty, reciprocity, trustworthiness, courage, et cetera are an expression of humanness. Humanness provides the cultural basis for the attributes of servant leadership. Moreover, humanness and appropriateness in the Confucian culture have a significantly strong collective orientation as they advocate for self-sacrifice for the benefit of others and self-restraint in the pursuit of an individual’s self-interests. Confucianism, therefore, advocates for a leader who embraces selfless and sacrificial roles geared towards making a positive difference in the lives of the followers. Humanness and appropriateness translate to being clearly aware of the surroundings and doing appropriate things according to the proper situation; this implies the wisdom of a servant leader Yang, Fu, Beveridge, & Qu, 2020). Therefore, the dominant Chinese culture, Confucianism, advocates for servant leadership.

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Similarities and Differences between Servant Leadership Philosophies and values in Islam and Confucianism

Islam and Confucianism advocate for servant leadership. Both insist that leaders should focus on serving others first. Additionally, they are both underpinned by concepts such as stewardship, conceptualization, listening, building community, commitment to growth et cetera. The teachings of Prophet Muhammad emphasize leaders should focus on serving their followers as opposed to viewing leadership as an opportunity to demonstrate authority or serve personal interests. Similarly, Confucius insisted that leaders practice humanness, appropriateness, conscientiousness, ritual, and mutuality. The practices are essential to establishing servant leadership.

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The only difference between Islam and Confucianism’s approach to servant leadership is their perspective. Whereas Islam takes a religious approach, Confucianism takes an ethical/morality perspective. Nonetheless, the fundamentals are the same and both agree that the most effective leaders are servants of the people they lead. Both Confucianism and Islam concur that a leader should primarily focus on the well-being and growth of the people and community that they lead. A servant leader must share power and put the needs of others first; consequently, this helps the followers develop and perform optimally.

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To sum up, servant leadership is a leadership approach that transcends cultures. Often, servant leadership is associated with Christianity and the Bible, but analysis of leadership styles demonstrated in other religions and cultures demonstrate that it transcends cultures. The Islam religion and the Confucian culture are good examples that demonstrate how deep-rooted servant leadership is. The teachings and life of Prophet Muhammad as narrated in the Quran demonstrate that the Muslim religion favors servant leadership. Similarly, the Confucius teachings advocate for leaders to be servants first. It is only by serving others first that one can effectively lead them to the desired level of success. Therefore, despite Confucianism taking an ethical/morality approach to leadership and Islam adopting a religious perspective, they both agree that servant leadership is an effective approach for leading teams, organizations, and communities.

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