Leadership of Muhammad (SAW): Lessons for CEOs

Model Leadership of Muhammad (SAW)

By Wali Zahid, a student of Seerah | ceo, SkillCity

In a survey of 150 chief executives on ranking key leader skills and abilities, decision-making came at the top.

Learning: when it comes to making complex, high-stake decisions, CEOs’ wits are often tested. Sometimes they succeed in making timely and sane decisions. At other times, they are beset by poor judgment, bad counsel and looking at the wrong end of an issue.

Now, most CEOs, grads of Ivy League or Oxbrige universities have access to Western best practices, styles, models of decision-making – from rational decision-making to analytics-based decisions to using intuition and gut feel.

Have they ever wondered that they can learn the decision-making from the best leader on earth – The Prophet Muhammad (SAW)? If not, why not?

In a recent CEO study by this writer, only 3 out 10 CEOs said yes to this question: ‘Ever thought how The Prophet (SAW)’s personality could be a guiding factor for you in doing business, making decisions, empowering others? If yes, in what ways?’

The Prophet (SAW)’s model was consultative decision-making. Whenever a complex issue arose, he would gather his sahaba (companions) and let them come up with suggestions and scenarios. Their opinions could be very very diverse. But at the end of that brainstorming, they would come up with a consensus decision.

Case in point: Battle of the Ditch (Ghazwa-e-Khandaq). It was an unusual suggestion by a Persian sahabi, Salman Farsi, to dig a ditch around Madinah and save it from the onslaught of Quraysh-Bedouin army of 10,000. This tactic, unfamiliar to Arabs at that time, could only come through a participative discussion in which sahaba could contribute to the decision-making process in a free manner and an Arab would not have preference over an ajami (non-Arab).

Consider your next big decision: Going into a new geography, launching that product, criteria for next batch hiring, appointing COOs in various divisions.

How would you use the Prophet (SAW)’s model of decision-making? Who would involve without creating an in- and out-group? How would you treat their unfamiliar suggestions? How would you build consensus in your MC/leadership team?

In my forthcoming booklet Prophet Muhammad (SAW): Leadership lessons for CEOs, I look at three spheres in which CEOs could learn from the Prophet (SAW)’s leadership style: personal leadership, people leadership and task leadership.

Video: The last sermon

Personal leadership

Even before he was appointed the Prophet, many things stood out. I will mention two.

One, how he kept his word. He was known as sadiq and ameen and trusted by all. In today’s management-speak, we call it reputation management.

How would you like to be known and referred to by your peers, employees, customers and vendors when you are not in the room?

Two, how he used his time with focus and self-discipline. He was a leader without a title. Remember the occasion when Quraysh tribes were quarreling on who get the first right to place Hajr-e-Aswad (The Black Stone) in its place when the Kaaba was rebuilt? They decided that whoever comes first the next morning, they will allow him to settle it for them.

And guess who came! Muhammad. An early riser. A reflector. A one-God-worshipper. Not appointed Rasool yet. Using his wisdom, he asked all tribes to put Hajr-e-Aswad in a piece of cloth and bring it to the Kaaba. He then put it in its place.

How would you use your time and focus today? How would you avoid trivia, so widespread in today, thanks to technology and unnecessary social obligations on the CEO time.

Video: The Physical Description of Muhammad (SAW)

People leadership

Many lessons. I will mention five.

1 How he communicated with sahaba. His communication was non-hierarchical. In spite of being a Divinely-appointed Prophet, he treated his sahaba with peer-like respect. Socially, he would sit with them and eat with them. Like, many CEOs in Northern Europe and Japan take lunch at employee cafeteria. It’s an example he set.

When a Bedouin would visit his assembly for the first time, he would ask: Who’s Muhammad? This question demonstrates that Muhammad (SAW) was not visible to a stranger because of his robe, the way he would sit, the sitting place, or even the air most CEOs carry while in management team meetings.

He would also use light-hearted humour. This contrasts with Machiavellian powerplay principles which insist that humour lowers your power over others. Hence, we see so many CEOs with such serious countenance because they want to be in control.

How would you create a peer-like environment among your workforce? How would you remove the ‘shock-and-awe’ accessories – the glasses, the watch, the branded clothes and the limited-edition, custom-made luxury car.

2 In today’s management-speak, his leadership style was transformational, not transactional. His offer – worship one God, do good and enter paradise – was so powerful that people were pulled towards it with their free will without any wages. They were intrinsically motivated to pursue that goal and didn’t need the leader’s push.

Compare this with today’s corporate workforce. They are being paid premium salaries and par benefits and you still can’t push them to achieve their mutually agreed business plan in a fiscal year.

3 While he led people, he accepted dissent. Unlike most CEOs today who want yes-men, and yes-women around them.

Case in point: During the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, Hazrat Umar (RA), strongly opposed the conditions of treaty with Quraysh, which were quite demeaning to visiting Muslim convoy. The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) didn’t reprimand Umar (RA) for his loud objections. Although Hadiths quote that Umar (RA) repented those words and reaction for the rest of his life.

How do you treat your direct reports who disagree with you in public space? If their intent is genuine and their judgment flawed, would you still keep them on your team or show them the door?

4 What is most striking is the Prophet Muhammad (SAW)’s exemplary emotional quotient (EQ) as a leader. In accomplishing his mission, he showed persistence and never lost hope. I can quote several examples.

Remember when people in Taif threw rocks on him he bled profusely and almost collapsed. When the angel Jibraeel came to him and said that if Muhammad wanted, he would blow the mountains over the people of Taif. Instead, he prayed for the people of Taif.

Or recall the woman who used to throw trash at him. When she didn’t do that for a few days, he went to inquire about her at her home and found her unwell.

Or when his life’s mission was accomplished and Makkah conquest happened, he forgave all sworn enemies.

For his team’s development, through Divine guidance and by being empathetic, he introduced gradual self-regulation in establishing new values and code of conduct – one bit at a time. E.g. Elimination of riba (usury/interest) and prohibition of alcohol.

How would you treat customers, employees and peers who wrong you? How would you enforce corporate values and still be empathetic?

5 No job is worth taking if you have a failed marriage or your children are ignored. The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) created a fine balance of work, family and personal prayer time. You may recall that he would prolong his sajda if grandsons Hasan and Husain would sit on his back during prayers.

How would you make sure that your family is part of the ambition that you carry – whether it’s the next, most-prized job or creating a social impact. Are they part of your do-to list?

Video: Nothing to do with my Prophet (SAW)

Task leadership

Many lessons again. I will mention eight. Briefly.

1 Problem-solving: He used timing and wise acts to avoid controversy. E.g. change of Qibla direction. Upon Divine guidance, he turned his and the congregation’s face towards Makkah while they were praying. Or, where to stay on the first night of arrival in Madinah. He told everyone that he will stay wherever the camel he was riding would stop for the rest.

2 Consultative decision-making: We already have discussed this above. In addition to the companions, he would seek counsel from his wives.

A case in point: When after the signing of Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, the sahaba, still in a state of shock and disbelief, refused to change their ihram dressing and wear regular clothing on his request. His wife Umme Salma was travelling with him. It was her idea that the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) doesn’t need to make a verbal request to the sahaba and instead just action it himself. The Prophet (SAW) came out of the camp and removed his ihram dress and wore regular clothes. The companions just followed his suit.

3 Entrepreneurial training: He didn’t give them fish; he taught them how to fish.

Case in point: A man of Ansar came to him seeking alms. The Prophet (SAW) asked him if he had something to sell. He brought a piece of cloth and a wooden bowl. The Prophet (SAW) asked the sahaba to buy. This raised two dirhams. The Prophet (SAW) asked the man to buy an axe with one dirham and start gathering firewood and sell. He visited the Prophet (SAW) when he earned 10 dirhams.

4 Allocating work: The Prophet (SAW) only had 23 years to develop a team which would spread Islam in all parts of the world.

He used a method what now know as strengths-based assigning: he picked what was the best in people and created the best job-person fit. Based on people’s individual capability and preference, he assigned them the roles like kaatib-e-wahi, teaching, negotiating, envoys.

He appointed for potential. Case in point: At the time of being asked to lead the Khaibar expedition, Hazrat Ali (RA) had been unwell. The night before, the Prophet (SAW) had given good news to sahaba that whoever gets to lead the expedition, Allah and his Rasool are pleased with him and he is pleased with Allah and his Rasool. Hazrat Umar (RA) says that he never wished for anything. But hearing this, he spent all night praying that he gets the lead. The next day, Hazrat Ali (RA) was assigned the task.

5 Delegating: While delegating tasks, the Prophet (SAW) saw the suitability. Case in point: At the time of migration (Hijrah) to Madinah, Hazrat Ali (RA) was asked to stay back and sleep in his bed and return the amanat while Hazrat Abu Bakr (RA) was asked to accompany the Prophet (SAW) to Madinah as a companion.

6 Training people: This topic is so massive that I am working separately on this: The Prophet (SAW) as Educator. Please pray that this gets completed soon.

7 Appraising: After 10 years of serving him as a private servant, Hazrat Anas (RA) reported that the Prophet (SAW) did not penalise him after a mistake had been made.

This reminds us of getting rid of today’s performance appraisal system, the purpose of which is to highlight the gap in promised versus actual results only after a year has passed. If at all, perhaps time for futuristic appraisal plans.

8 Succession management: in his 23 years of leadership, the Prophet (SAW) had a succession pipeline in place. He left behind four trained khalifas who would carry out his mission after his death and spread the Divine religion to major parts of Asia and Africa.

Before we close, a final lesson in avoiding the CEO derailment. Corporate CEOs become derailed either because of burnout, family issues, their ego, power struggles or worldly greed. The Prophet (SAW) and his companions established that his followers didn’t have to.

What’s in it for us? All of these actions are practical, doable. Muslim CEOs can follow these actions in daily work life. The question is: Will they? Or when they?

Video: How to respond to haters

Leadership of Muhammad (SAW) - Lessons for CEOs MILE

This excerpt (version 1) is work in progress and based on a webinar Wali Zahid gave at Madinah Institute for Leadership and Entrepreneurship (MILE). MILE is being run under the leadership of Governor of Madinah. Several talks on this topic were given by Wali at various places: Bhurban, Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kabul and Kuwait. Wallahu Aalamu Bissawab.

Wali Zahid live TV

Wali Zahid is a coach to several Fortune-500 firms CEOs in Pakistan, and runs a workshop on ‘Leadership for CEOs’, previously organised by British Council, Management Association of Pakistan, National Productivity Organisation, SkillCity in Pakistan and Ibn-e-Sina Foundation in Kabul.

Wali has served at the Board of Governors at Pakistan Society for Training and Development, among other boards and advisories at CBM, IBA, Indus Valley. He now sits at the Board of Governors at Pakistan Institute of Management (PIM), Government of Pakistan. His last employment was with British Council, where he worked as Country Director, Management Development Services during 2001-2008.

walizahid.com | t: @walizahid | f /mywali f /skillcity

The work has been reviewed for inclusion of only authentic traditions by Prof Dr Hafiz Ihsanul Haq, my cousin and formerly Chairman of Department of Arabic, Karachi University, Pakistan and Director, Shaikh Zayed Centre, Karachi University, and a TV personality who translated Khutba-e-Hajj live in Urdu from Arabic for 3/4 decades for PTV. Dr Haq led Islam summer school and Ramadan taraveeh prayers in USA for several decades. His comments:

I have reviewed the article and found that all the facts provided in it are authentic and according to description of testified renowned Seerah books. -Dr Ihsanul Haq

This work has also been shared with my mother, Aapa Amtur Rasheed, founder of Madrassatul Banat in Gujranwala, Faisalabad and Quran Markaz in Lahore and Karachi. A scholar of Islam, she taught women Quran tafseer and Hadith book Bukhari Shareef in a teaching career spanning over 7 decades.

Other notable reviews:

Wali Zahid skillfully utilises prophetic leadership to enrich modern understanding of leadership role and skills.

-Louay Safi

Professor of political science at Hamad bin Khalifa University, Qatar; senior fellow at the Center for Muslim Christian Understanding, Georgetown University, USA; Co-founder of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, USA; Author of 11 books, including: Palestine: Prophetic Principles Over Prophecies, (Outskirts Press 2009), The Qur’anic Narrative (Praeger 2008), Leading with Compassion (Outskirts Press 2008), Tensions and Transitions in the Muslim World, (University Press of America 2003), Peace and the Limits of War (International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2001), The Challenge of Modernity (University Press of America 1994), Truth and Reform (The Open Press 1998), The Foundation of Knowledge (International Islamic University of Malaysia 1996), Al-‘Aqidah wa al-Syiasah (International Institute of Islamic Thought 1996), and I’mal al ‘Aql (Dar al-Fikr 1998)

Excellent. Masha Allah.

-Dr Farhat Hashmi

Founder, Al-Huda International, Canada/Pakistan

Web links & downloads:

Powerpoint presentation on Leadership of Muhammad (SAW): Lessons for CEOs on Slideshare, click here.

YouTube Video of MILE Madinah webinar on Leadership of Muhammad (SAW): Lessons for CEOs here.

Executive Summary transcript of MILE Madinah webinar, here.

Capital TV Pakistan did a 3-hour live Sehri Transmission with Wali in July 2014 on this topic. Video not yet available.

Our earlier blog post, here.

Our Facebook page, dedicated to this work.

See also: Wali on The Pakistan 2050 Opportunity

Subscribe to our YouTube channel: Wali Zahid


  1. A great service to Muslim Ummah especially youngsters.

    God Bless you and gives you energy and life to complete this religious as well societal need of time.

  2. Amazing work truly this will be helpful to the future professionals as well.
    May Allah Bless you 🙂

  3. My dear Mr. Zahid,

    Thank you for a detailed analysis of seerah.

    However we need to be careful when it comes to writing about a Holy (pbuh) person who happened to live his life some 1400 years ago. As we are prone to mix facts and fiction when it comes to religious figures, thus avoiding an honest critical approach.

    I’ll just point to one such omission in your essay. For example you wrote:

    8 Succession management: in his 23 years of leadership, the Prophet (SAW) had a succession pipeline in place. He left behind four trained khalifas who would carry out his mission after his death and spread the Divine religion to major parts of Asia and Africa.

    This is not true.

    Please read Shibli Nomani’s Alfarooq. It is clearly mentioned that Prophet (pbuh) did not leave clear guidance for succession. This quickly resulted in two blocks forming their own leadership.

    One block believed in family based succession and thus picked Hazrat Ali rah
    The other block was from older more senior sahabis and they supported Hazrat Abu Bakar rah.

    This quickly gave way to clash between the blocks and started a long term rivalry that kept on getting worse and worse with passage of time. Ultimately “Shian-e-Ali” or Shias became a separate sect that fought bloody wars starting with Jang-e-Jamal and the same Shia Sunni war continues till today.

    This is not a personal criticism of you, nor is meant to disrespect of our prophet pbuh.

    it is time we quit sugar quoting our history and spreading disinformation.

    Best regards

    Dr. Qazi

    1. Thanks Dr Qazi. What it really meant was he (SAW) trained people who could carry his mission after him.

      Message for CEOs: develop people before you move on to next assignment.

      1. Thank you Dr Qazi for beautifully discussing your point which was definitely a result of reading between the lines.

        Thankyou Coach for the clarification you provided and for the entire article.

        I will look for more reading material from you to gain understanding on such a interesting area.

  4. MASHAALLAH.. excellent work done by Dear Wali Zahid.
    May ALLAH SWT give you more strength to write and highlight religious articles in comparison of modern and scientific way.

  5. Dr. Qazi comments support your article. As our Prophet (PBUH) left behind more than one trained Khalifas to carry out his mission. This is a best example of strong succession planning.

  6. Assalam o alaikum,

    Amazing Sir …
    I always wished to have such kind of ideas and readings as MUHAMMAD SAWW is ideal in every sense.
    and extracting such valuable information for corporate world is an amazing feat.

    would love to read the complete and detailed work as well.


    Waqas Javed
    Manager – Materials Management
    Shabbir Tiles & Ceramics Limited

  7. Almost all modern leadership and management theories and practices also advocate the principles you advocate for Muslim CEOs. Those theories and principles can be found in the following pieces of writings: Emotional Intelligence, Working with Emotional Intelligence, Positive Thinking, Seven Habits of Most Effective Men etc. However, your work Leadership of Muhammad (SAW): Lessons for CEOs seems an unprecedented piece of writing by a Muslim on modern leadership theory and practice. Thanks a lot for the nice work.

  8. MashAllah good work
    Looking forward your work on Training People.
    The other Wali can only refine your work.
    May Allah open the further horizons for you from current standing and blessed with continual effective communications.

  9. O PLEASE!

    “The Prophet (peace be upon him) passed by some people who were busy with pollination and said: “If they would not do this, then it would still come out right.”
    The date crop that resulted was of a very poor quality.
    Then he passed by them and asked: “What is with your date palms?”
    They said: “You had told us such-and-such…”

    The role of Ambiyah is to guide people for the afterlife, not create capitalist empires, saying so implies lack of knowledge of both Islam as well as capitalist business management.

    1. You highlight misplaced role of Prophets. If you see my MILE webinar video, I have quoted the above date-palm Hadith with a different meaning out of it. The Prophets were sent for guidance on affairs of both worlds.

  10. Dear Sir Wali Zahid,

    What you are doing is a great service. It needs a lots of knowledge, practice, study, experience, commitment, devotion, and wisdom to produce such an outstanding and authenticated piece. Your great work proves that Islam has all the ways and means to manage every aspect of life in a perfect way. There are no other disciplines in the world that can provide such a complete and perfect management system, or even a part of it. Thank you for your sharing; for letting us enrich our knowledge; and for letting people, especially business professionals, know how Prophet Mohammad (SAWAW) is the greatest leader of all the times.

  11. It’s a wonderful article. Writer correlates different incidents from Holy Prophet’s Life with the role of CEO and it’s a very good effort. As Quran narrates that Life of Holy Prophet (P.B.U.H) is a perfect role model so why CEOs can’t take guideline from his life?

  12. Great work Mr. Wali Zahid.

    Hope your message spreads across all levels and people would learn and practice those techniques and attributes to make their both worlds happy, prosperous and at peace.

  13. Very well-written piece and very thought-provoking.

    It is interesting to share that I have had the experience of working with some non-Muslim CEOs who were closely following the leadership traits of the Prophet Muhammad (Sallallahoalaihewaaalehiwasallam) Wali has captured here.

    And on the other hand, I have also worked with some Muslim CEOs in our own country who were / are leading in a style which is completely contrary and totally toxic and arrogant.

    May Allah (SWT) guide all of us on the right path and help us evolve as the right leaders, in line with the Prophet Muhammad’s (Sallallahoalaihewaaalehiwasallam) shining leadership traits. Aameen!

    1. Jazak Allah, Ahmad. Very pertinent. Perhaps this could be one of my many motivations. Our Muslim CEOs need to benefit more from the Prophet (SAW)’s sunnah.

  14. Asslam o alikum. I have read all points except. I agree most of them except one, “Succession planning”. Please give it a thought and we can have a discussion over it.

  15. Jazak Allah ! A very well versed. May Allah Bless us all and grant us to be on a righteouse path. Ameen !

  16. It is mashaAllah such a wonderful effort and such a thorough piece of work that couldn’t have been created without deep reverence, love, and admiration for and a close study of the personality of the Seal of Prophets spread over years.

    Allah karay zor e qalam aur zyaada!

  17. It is a great research work.

    Different aspects of Prophet SAW’s life and leadership style have been very comprehensively elaborated and relationship developed with today’s leaders and their management style.

    Congratulations to Wali Sahib on such a commendable work!

  18. You are doing a wonderful job. I have not thought this way but your writing give me a food for thought.
    May Allah help and guide you to complete this work.

  19. I couldn’t agree more.Islam is the complete code of life not just spiritual guidance.
    “مکمل ظابطہِ حیات “

  20. Assalaam o Alikum Warahmatullah, Heartly Congratulations to brother Wali Zahid for such a marvelous work. May Allah Subha nao Tallah give him more success and respect in this world and in Akhirah.Ameen.

  21. Every time I read this, I find patience and hope to carry on and carve a niche where people are willing workers and have a positive energy to do their bit for the larger objective. Thank you Wali sb!

  22. Dear sir wali
    I always enjoyed your research work wheather it’s realted to social aspect of life or religious aspects of humans life but this article is a master piece of your work.it’s a great lesson not only for the CEO but we as humans have to learn about decisions making in our lives.jazakallah khair for sharing this
    May Allah give you courage to share such work in future too.

  23. Assalam o Alaikum!

    I have read the article with keen interest. I have been very interested to see / work and co-relate the management concepts with the Teachings of our Holy Prophet (PBUH). In fact I believe that the origin of all these management concepts is the life of our Holy Prophet (PBUH) as Quran said,

    “Indeed, in the messenger of Allah a ‘good example (uswatun hasana / أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَة)’ has been set for the one who seeks Allah and the Last Day and thinks constantly about Allah.” (Qur’an 33:21)”.

    I’m thankful for you to bringing this work and hope to see more from your side.

    May Allah shower blessings upon you!

    -Saad Masood

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