8 Key Principles for Success

What Leads To Success?

Richard St. John has spent years of his life interviewing successful people to see what characteristics are common to them. The culmination of his research is succinctly presented in this 3 minute video below. The points may seem like common sense, but reflecting on them – better yet, acting on them – shows how valuable they are. It is also not surprising that these themes are outlined in the Qur’ān. This provides further motivation for us to implement them in our Dawah work.

1. Passion

Even so, there are some who choose to worship others besides God as rivals to Him, loving them with the love due to God, but the believers have greater love for God’ [2:165]

It goes without saying that you cannot successfully accomplish a goal without having the passion inside to reach it.  If you want to be successful at memorizing the Qur’ān, it requires an inner drive to stick with it. If there is no passion, if there is apathy, then this goal will never be reached. Passion is the key ingredient that drives us forward. You have to want to be successful at a particular venture or it will not happen.

2. Work

You who believe, be steadfast, more steadfast than others; be ready; always be mindful of God so that you may prosper [3:200]

No matter how passionate or talented you are, you have to be willing to put in the work to make something happen. Malcolm Gladwell popularized the theory that it takes 10,000 hours of work to become an expert at something.  In regards to Islamic work it is also necessary to understand that there is glamorous work, and behind-the-scenes dirty work. A true leader, and a truly successful person, does both.

3. Focus

So proclaim openly [connotation of going through something, like to split the desert in two with your trail] what you have been commanded (to say), and ignore the idolaters’ [15:94]

Indeed, Abraham was a [comprehensive] leader, devoutly obedient to Allah , inclining toward truth [ḥanīf], and he was not of those who associate others with Allah . [16:120]

The second ayah indicates Ibrahīm being focused on the characteristic of being ḥanīf. Success requires a laser like focus on the task at hand. Consider the following scenario to understand how a lack of focus can make a program unsuccessful.

What Leads To Success?

What leads to success?

There is an organization devoted to teaching Islamic history full time. Their focus is teaching this subject from an academic point of view. Many of their students become drawn to the program and its instructors, and thus begin requesting personal counseling. If the organization allows itself to make that a part of its program, despite the good intention, it will end up detracting from what is the strength of the program to begin with. In the long run they will over extend themselves and be unable to perform either task properly.

In the personal sense, you know that you have limits to what you can accomplish in a certain amount of time. If you want to study Arabic, then this would require focus in the sense that you can no longer devote time and energy to other subjects until you master this one. The lack of focus is what creates the phenomenon of ‘jack of all trades, master of none‘. Successful people, even those excelling in multiple areas, are usually most recognized for the one thing that initially made them successful.

4. Push

But We shall be sure to guide to Our ways those who strive hard for Our cause: God is with those who do good [29:69]

Every project will hit a wall where it becomes easy to give up. This applies to studies, work, building  a masjid, or any other kind of activity you may think of. You have to push through that wall when it comes. The passion and hard work mentioned above are the key ingredients that enable you to push through the obstacles you encounter.

5. Ideas

And consult them in the matter [3:159]

And whose affair is [determined by] consultation among themselves [42:38]

Successful people constantly come up with new ideas, new projects, and new and innovative ways of helping  others. They also test the veracity of these ideas from consulting with others, and take others ideas as well. Every great project and success story starts with a simple idea, sometimes even hastily scribbled onto a dinner napkin.

6. Improve

Seek the life to come by means of what God has granted you, but do not neglect your rightful share in this world. Do good to others as God has done good to you [28:77]

Is the reward for excellence (iḥsān) [anything] but excellence (iḥsān)?

This is a constant process. If you want to be successful, you must continue to hold yourself to a higher standard than anyone else. Many times an organization or person will be successful, but then drop off. A person may become lazy, and an organization may succumb to weaknesses or competition. Continued success means continually improving even if others may not see a need for it.

7. Serve

[Believers], you are the best community singled out for people: you order what is right, forbid what is wrong, and believe in God. [3:110]

True success means that your aims and objectives also help benefit others as well. This is especially the case with Islamic work. Your success is directly tied to how well you serve your community.

8. Persist

Believers, why, when it is said to you, ‘Go and fight in God’s way,’ do you feel weighed down to the ground? Do you prefer this world to the life to come? How small the enjoyment of this world is, compared with the life to come! [9:38]

This is a combination of the ‘push’ and ‘improve’ principles above. It is not enough to keep doing the steps above, but to make sure they are continually repeated no matter how tough. Every time you feel like you have improved yourself or your organization, you have to consistently try to take it to the next level. You also have to persist through any negativity and setbacks that you encounter.

Criticism, Rejection, Adversity, Prejudice

This forms an easy acronym to remember the main obstacles you have to overcome no matter what the endeavor.

Criticism: Every project and goal has its critics. They key is being able to differentiate which criticisms are constructive and which ones are destructive.To overcome the ‘criticism hurdle’ you have to find a way to cast aside negativity from destructive criticism and subdue your ego enough to benefit from constructive criticism.

Rejection: Even the Prophet (s) faced rejection initially, and from his own family at that. Being rejected by some should be an expectation. Sometimes the rejection will come from peers, and sometimes it will come from those who hold some authority over you. The key is to not let the rejection be the reason you give up.

Adversity: Simply put, nothing good ever comes easy. The adversity can come in different forms. It can be a decrease in the amount of time spent with family, it can be financial, it can be emotional, and sometimes a project that has spiritual goals may present itself as a test on your own spirituality. Overcoming this adversity requires a good dose of wisdom, patience, and persistence.

Prejudice: This is when the negativity is no longer about your project, but about you personally. People will judge you and say things about you that are extremely hurtful, but you must remember that it comes with the territory.

Concluding Parable

Take the example of a masjid building project in America. When it starts out, the members starting it are often criticized for even wanting to build one in the first place. They are told that its unnecessary, and that it is too much work. They may face rejection from the local community who refuses to donate money. In fact, they may even face rejection from other local masjids who refuse to support this project out of fear that it will somehow hinder their own projects.

Those involved will face countless moments of adversity. They may face unexpected obstacles with the local city. They will face adversity within their family due to the amount of time the project takes. They will face adversity when finances run out.

Prejudice is also a big factor. We see it in our times where people protest against a masjid being built. In other places the Muslim community becomes prejudiced and accuses the people starting a masjid of having ulterior motives or a faulty ideology.

A number of projects that fail to overcome these obstacles, and yet others are able to finish out and build successful masjids and community centers. The people involved in these projects are driven by a passion for having their own masjid. They wake up and go to sleep every day thinking about having a place to make their daily prayers and take their children.

They work hard to get the project done. They run around finding architects, engineers, and contractors. Many times they have to immerse themselves in issues they have not dealt with before, and therefore have to put in double the amount of work to catch up.

They focus on the end result. They are not distracted with other projects, nor do they let anything else get in the way. A completed masjid is always the end goal that they use to focus their efforts.

They push through obstacles that come. They consult with one another and look for innovative solutions [ideas] to any issue that arises. They may be halfway through the project when they realize they need to change it around to meet a city regulation, but this does not hinder them. Moreover, they do not settle for simply finishing. Throughout the process they work as hard as they can to make every minute detail of this masjid the best it possibly can. They persist and persevere and let nothing get in their way.

Finally, they remember that this masjid is meant to be a service to the community. It is meant to help bring people closer to Allah, and Allah blesses them with bringing this project to successful fruition.

Omar Usman8 Key Principles for Success

Quickreads: Motion vs. Progress

“Don’t confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but doesn’t make any progress” -Alfred Montapert

This is especially the case where the majority of the effort comes from volunteers. It is easy to for organizations to get stagnant, and thus be excited when any kind of activity starts up again. Forward progress requires not settling for activity, but having a vision that the movement is working toward.

Omar UsmanQuickreads: Motion vs. Progress

Joining a Dawah Organization: Level 2 – Permission/Relationship


The first post in this series discussed joining into an organization at the ground level and doing the duties assigned to you. Level 2 is, “getting people to work for you when they are not obligated.” John Maxwell says that on this level, “time, energy, and focus are placed on the individual’s needs and desires.” Becoming a leader requires building strong interpersonal relationships. Consider this level the glue that can hold an organization together. Maxwell quotes one of his staff members as saying,

If level 1, Position, is the door to leadership, then level 2, Permission, is the foundation.

People who try to ascend the leadership ladder without properly mastering their relationships with others set themselves up for failure. It would not be far-fetched to say that the lack of strong relationships between community and organization members often contributes to the acceleration of groups falling apart due to personal politics.

Possess a genuine love for people.

While somewhat obvious, this is also a difficult point to internalize. If your love is not genuine, if your intentions are corrupt, then your actions and aspirations are built on a faulty foundation which will inevitably crumble. Building relationships, building brotherhood/sisterhood, requires a vested and loving interest on your part in someone else.

One of the trickiest parts of working on an organization made up of volunteers is that it is difficult to delegate tasks. There may be many situations where it is difficult to ask someone for help, or even if you do ask they will not be responsive. Strong relationships and strong bonds actually make it easier to help one another.

Often times people who crave leadership are stuck on level 1. This causes them to become territorial and then try to lead by intimidation. The love described here is the key facet that takes the leader to the next level.

Make those who work with you more successful.

This is a way to show your love for others while also increasing your level of leadership in the organization. To understand this, take the example of a masjid board. The Treasurer may approach the Vice President seeking assistance on some task. If the VP is still stuck on level one, then he or she will stick to their territorial job duties and not step out of those bounds. This can also plant the seed for a later conflict (major or minor).

If the VP is on level 2 however, then they will make sure to go out of their way to help the Treasurer in the best way possible. This would be done not just for the spiritual benefits of contributing to the masjid but also out of a love for the other person. It is not done to gain the upper hand over the other person in terms of having a favor owed later, but out of a genuine desire to see the Treasurer succeed at their position.

See through other people’s eyes.

Conflicts often start when one person cannot understand why another person acted in a certain way or made a particular decision. In order to transcend these conflicts and truly be a leader, you must allow yourself to see why a person acted in a certain way. Put yourself in their shoes and see what may have motivated them.

If they did act incorrectly, you are now in a better position to speak with them. You can preface your conversation with, “I understand you thought/felt …” and then proceed to, politely, explain why that course of action was incorrect. What ends up happening in many organizations is that people skip this level of understanding and let criticisms start flying. Those on the receiving end feel unjustly attacked, misunderstood, and will often times react negatively themselves. This then degenerates into a what is often termed, “nasty and complicated politics.”

Love people more than procedures.

There is a saying that the true scholar is not necessarily the one who knows all the rulings, but knows the exceptions to those rulings. The wise leader is the one who understand the true importance and worth of the individuals around him or her.

In the workplace, a company may not have any job openings, but when the right person comes along they will create an opening just for that person. This is because they know this person is worth whatever difficulty they face trying to bring them on their team. Rules and procedures must be followed, but sometimes when you come across a special and talented person, as a leader, you must know when to make exceptions for the greater benefit of the organization.

Include others in your journey.

Not everyone is interested in becoming a strong leader. As you progress through this journey, you will find a number of people wanting to be involved with your projects in some capacity. This is especially the case with Muslim organizations where everyone wants some share of the immense spiritual benefits of working with these organizations, but many times may not know how they can specifically help.

Including others in your journey means including others in the good work you are doing. One example that comes to mind from the corporate world is the case of someone who has perfected a particular skill that is of benefit to the company. Out of fear of becoming less valuable, or wanting to strengthen their own particular job security, a person may refuse to train anyone else on how to do a certain task. To put it another way, do not let yourself become the computer programmer who intentionally makes a bug that only he knows how to fix.

Deal wisely with difficult people.

One of the most common tests of working with any kind of Islamic organization is that you have to deal with difficult people. People will place higher expectations on you because you are working for the sake of the Hereafter. And because you are working for an organization that seeks to serve the religious betterment of people, you will find yourself being forced to deal with all different kinds of people and situations.

Some of the most difficult people you encounter may be within the organization itself. The true test is seeing if you are able to learn how to work with such people. As a leader, you must be able to find some kind of common ground. The way to do this is through the steps above – love them, see things from their perspective, and include them in your journey.

These are general guidelines for helping you have better relationships with those you work with. This is perhaps one of the toughest parts of becoming a leader, but without this foundation you will never be able to move forward. There are many common sense and religious teachings that should also be mentioned here but are left out for the sake of brevity. One characteristic, though, warrants special mention. A true leader must constantly forgive and pardon others. A part of your love for others, a part of your building a strong relationship with others, is not letting minor (and sometimes major) things get in the way of those relationships.

Level 3 will look at production and results.

Omar UsmanJoining a Dawah Organization: Level 2 – Permission/Relationship

Humor: Social Media Marketing, A Bajillion Hits

There’s a fine line between people who can reasonably help you with effective social media marketing, and over the board self-proclaimed gurus.

*Background music in the video

Omar UsmanHumor: Social Media Marketing, A Bajillion Hits

Introducing MSI QuickReads

Topics in organizational development and personal development and leadership development often require long discussions, a series of articles, or a book to cover properly.  But some days, when you have six meetings, three deliverables and not enough time to digest your food properly you can’t really take long to read and philosophize over long musings.  Fear not!  We’ve introduced QuickReads.  Small, bite-sized, actionable reminders on the topics you love reading about and the strategies you love applying.  In the next few days look for us to start posting short, to the point articles to help you stay in the organizational flow… even when life doesn’t afford you the time.

Imran HaqIntroducing MSI QuickReads

Joining a Dawah Organization: Level 1 – Position/Rights



This article is the first in a 5 part series aimed at discussing the qualities needed to help advance a dawah organization of any kind. The five levels are taken from John Maxwell’s book, [amazon_link id=”1400280451″ target=”_blank” ]Developing the Leader Within You[/amazon_link]. The levels are Position, Permission, Production, People Development, and Personhood. This post focuses on the first and fundamental level – your personal leadership when joining an organization.

The first step in joining any Muslim organization is to get your foot in the door. This is normally done by joining in as a volunteer or accepting a formal task-oriented role. As in any other facet of life, leadership is earned and is not offered to someone without a solid track record. The characteristics outlined in this article must be mastered in order to not only be effective in their role, but also to be prepared to move to the next step.

Know your job description thoroughly.

This is one of the most difficult tasks for Islamic organizations due to the overwhelming lack of human resources that most have to work with. Random volunteers will find themselves wearing multiple hats, and full-time employees (not even the Masjid Imam is exempt) are often thrown every duty available from cleaning the bathroom to designing fliers or organizing fundraisers with expected revenues in the millions of dollars.

Without clearly defining a job description, it is impossible to succeed in any position. People joining an organization will find failure inevitable because undefined expectations can never be met. Organizations who fail to give direction will find confused and unproductive volunteers who have no idea what to do.

As a rule of thumb, the more specific the role can be, the better. This not only keeps a person from being spread thin with too many responsibilities, it also tangibly defines criteria for success within that position. A good example is instead of giving someone the job of “marketing” a program, they are told that they are responsible for marketing the program and that includes “creating an event on Facebook, contacting masjids in the area to make announcements, distributing fliers…”

When joining a project, make sure to ask questions that clarify your role. An example would be: What do I need to do in order for you to consider that my job was done properly? If working in conjunction with a team make sure to ask what responsibilities fall on your shoulders and specifically what others are responsible for.

Be aware of the history of the organization and be able to relate to it (be a team player)

This is one of the toughest struggles that a motivated person faces. The typical example is that of the younger generation trying to get involved in the masjid while blatantly disregarding the effort put in by the older generation (i.e. ‘Uncles’ and ‘Aunties’). This also happens with other Muslim organizations as well. It is especially the case when an organization has been around for a while, the initial zeal has died down, and the organization is attempting to recruit some new and energetic people to help revive it or push it forward. A new person may come in and see others at a lower level of energy and productivity and immediately become frustrated. They will feel that their level of effort suddenly entitles them to want to run things the way they want. The organization sees this person as stepping on their toes and disregarding all the hard work that was put into establishing this organization in the first place.

To avoid this conflict, familiarize yourself with the organization’s history and give proper respect to the people who have preceded you. Remember that you joined on because this organization held some kind of positive value – value that was initially created by the hard work of others. Disregarding history is disregarding the hard work and dedication of the people who helped establish the organization. The history of an organization also includes its culture. Whether you agree with the organizational culture or not is irrelevant. If you want to succeed in that organization then you must work with it.

Work together as a team, work within the system, and work respectfully. By showing yourself as a respectful member of the team, you will actually be given more leeway to establish any changes that may otherwise have met opposition.

Work with iḥsān (excellence).

This is an essential Prophetic advice. This goes beyond simply performing the duties of a position. It means accepting responsibility and taking ownership of whatever is assigned. It means reaching the point that others do not even need to follow up you to see if something was done, because you have made that level of excellence the expectation.

Offer creative ideas for change and improvement.

Once you entered into an organization and developed a reputation for teamwork and hard work, then you are in a position to begin offering suggestions for improvement. This is drastically different from what was outlined earlier where some people feel entitled to making changes simply because they are working hard. Ideas for change should overtly show a care and concern not only for the organization, but the others involved in it.

The next level of influence in an organization after this is that of Permission, and will be covered in the next installment.

Omar UsmanJoining a Dawah Organization: Level 1 – Position/Rights

Building Trust



In our last post we talked about what trust means to a team.  Understanding the value of trust is the first step in building it.  There is no team without trust.  But we can’t buy it, or create it over night.  We may have spotted a need for it, but it may feel like if there is nothing you can do about it immediately, there isn’t anything that can be done about it at all.

Trust is a phenomenon that develops over time.  Think of the first time you met your best friend or spouse.  Did you trust them completely right at that moment?  Probably not. It took some time and some work to build that trust.  You can’t trust someone you don’t know.  You may have been working with the same MSA core, or same board of directors for the last few years, but you may have no idea what they’re really all about.

To build trust there are a number of different exercises you can try.  You can try the fall-backwards-off-a-table-blindfolded-and-hope-your-team-members-catch-you-before-you-break-your-neck trust exercises.  Or, you can try to build trust organically.  The key to working better with your team members is to start to build trust the same way you would in any other relationship.  By getting to know them.

Doing a small personal histories exercise can go a long way. On your next agenda, slot in some time for a personal history exercise.  Go around the table and have everyone answer four or five questions.  Not simply “What are your hobbies?” but try something a little more pressing like, “What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever gone through, and how did you get through it?”  You’ll be surprised at how much you can learn about a person in scenarios like this.  Keep in mind you want to keep the questions appropriate for your environment and the smaller the group the easier this is.  It won’t work if this is a 30 person meeting.

I’ve found in my work that simple realization that you need to have a trusting relationship with your peers, as opposed to a “Hey I just know you from 9-5” type relationship is the start of a very big difference in your work environment.  You then need to subsequently start to change your behavior.  You’ll find yourself going from “Can you do this task for me?” to “Can you get this project done by next Tuesday?  Are you sure?  I know you’ve got X, Y, Z going on, but if you say it, I’m trusting you’re going to have it done.”

Another note about trust, it takes a lot longer to build than it does to break.  If you ever notice you or your team members saying or doing things that might make trust erode, be sure to stop them.  Trust has to be protected.  Defended even.  Once you have it, don’t ever violate it, and don’t let anyone else violate it either.

Imran HaqBuilding Trust

Do you trust me?



Whether you’re working for your local MSA, volunteering at the Masjid or even getting involved with a charity focused on social work, you will inevitably be part of a group of like minded individuals all performing various related functions in order to accomplish the same objective.  You’ll be working on a team.  Unfortunately, the dynamic in many places is more “we’re all here doing different things to accomplish something” and less “we’re in this together, we’re a team.”

Teamwork is one of the great intangibles.  If you (and your team!) can master it, you’re going to be successful.  Very successful.  It’s ironic though, how many organizations fail to master this ability.  The lack of teamwork in Islamic institutions is often based on the same reasons there’s a lack of teamwork in the corporate or business environment.  Because the group of people that are all in the same place working towards the same things have different beliefs than one another and worry more about themselves than they do about each other and about the goal at hand.

This post, and a few after this one, will discuss teamwork from the “why can’t we make this work” perspective.  Borrowing from Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, we’ll go over the root causes of poor teamwork and apply them to Muslim organizations. Lencioni’s book is a must read for those taking their first positions leading teams and would even serve as a good aid for those who have lots of experience with “teamwork.”

The first ingredient, or the base of the teamwork pyramid, as Lencioni frames it, is trust.  It’s the absence of trust between team members that often causes both the team and its morale to erode.  To put it in context, if we were looking at this from a corporate perspective, we’d say “Of course people don’t trust each other at my huge company, everyone’s out to back-stab one another anyways and people only want to get ahead themselves.”

It’s a shame though, that the same problem exists in Muslim organizations.  By trust, we’re not talking about “Hey, can I trust you to hold onto some jewelery while I’m on vacation?” we’re talking about the kind of trust that’s required for people to take risks in front of one another without worrying about the consequences.  Essentially, it is the ability to be vulnerable around one another.

Willful vulnerability – as much of an oxymoron as that sounds – makes for the basis of a good team.  If I’m willing to be vulnerable around my team members, it means I’m willing to make a mistake in front of them, I’m willing to fess up to what I don’t know about the current project or willing to admit that I may not be the best person for a particular role.

This form of trust facilitates an environment where people can focus on their strengths.  When everyone is honest about what they’re good at and what they’re bad at, it allows the best person to fill the role every time and for the best idea to rise to the top of a discussion every time.  The reason we don’t generally trust one another is because many of us have been in situations where admitting a fault, or suggesting something a little too outside of the box is considered reputation suicide.  If you feel like the people around you will pounce on you for making a mistake or humiliate you for not conforming, then you don’t trust them.  This is why it’s so hard.  Inherent in trust is risk.  A good team facilitates risk taking and ensures the environment is better for it.

Trust is a funny thing, it takes time to develop and can look quite different than we expect it to be.  In the second article of the series we’ll talk practically about how to build trust in teams.

Imran HaqDo you trust me?

Welcome to MSI!


After much thought, deliberation, shura, and planning, we’ve finally launched! The Muslim Strategic Initiative is a fresh new approach to organizational development for Muslim Organizations.  Whether you’re part of a Masjid board, a community oriented non-profit, or a university MSA Read More

Imran HaqWelcome to MSI!