A Leadership Lesson from The 4 Types of Imam/Board Relationships


I’m going to start with the punchline.

This post isn’t really about masjids or imams. It’s about leadership, the impact of it, and one of its most essential laws.

“Leadership ability is the lid that determines a person’s level of effectiveness.” -John Maxwell, Law of the Lid (21 Laws).

Extrapolated further, an organization will never outperform the potential of its leader. To succeed, an individual must develop his or her ability to influence and add value to others. By extension, an organization needs to fulfill the mission set forth by the leader.

How this applies to a masjid begins with a few critical questions. Who, exactly, is the leader? Who is setting the vision for building the community or running the organization? How does their leadership ability impact the ability to carry out that vision, and how do we see this manifest itself in a community?

To explore this, we’ll look at this following chart in detail.

High Competency Board / Low Competency Imam

This is the rarest of the scenarios.

It is pertinent here to define what is meant by a ‘low-competency Imam’ for the remainder of this post. This means someone serving in a capacity of spiritual leadership for the community without any actual qualifications or training. In other words, they lack the requisite qualifications needed for the position as well as the general leadership ability needed to develop a community over the long-term.

*The definition of a low-competency board seems fairly obvious so we won’t belabor the point.

A high competency board will, by definition, have low tolerance for anyone not at their level. This situation is rare because a low-competency person would likely never pass the interview process. If they somehow attained a formal role, the most likely outcome is that they would either move on to another community or a lesser role within a year or two.

Low Competency Board / Low Competency Imam

This is surprisingly the most stable of all four scenarios.

The thing about low competency is that its hallmark is insecurity. There is a constant need to portray an image that is better than reality. This scenario thrives in situations where there is co-dependency. Since both parties are weak leaders, they gain their justification from the other.

Stability should not, however, be confused with progress. It would more accurately be described as stagnation.

In these situations the board and Imam retain their positions, but the community does not grow. There is a dearth of actual educational programs or progress. New people may come and try the masjid out for a while, but will quickly move on to other places.

The Imam/board partnership in this case is constantly looking to showcase their “wins” to whoever will listen. So you’ll find them constantly bragging about previous accomplishments or openly giving themselves credit for whatever achievements they may have made.

Low Competency Board / High Competency Imam

This is the scenario most people end up hearing about. Community gets an awesome Imam. Community grows. They experience some big wins.

It’s usually short lived though, as the Imam eventually leaves because of “board politics.”

This is the classic conflict that happens with the Law of the Lid. In this case, the Imam has a much stronger leadership capacity than the board. He knows how to build the community and serve their spiritual needs. The board would simply need to get out of the way and play a supporting role.

Except if the board feels threatened. Remember, insecurity is the hallmark of low competency. If they feel they are working but not getting credit, or that the Imam is outshining them, or that the Imam is not carrying out the vision the board wants to execute – then there will inevitably be conflict.

A high capacity person cannot stay subjugated under a low competency organization for long. They’ll enjoy some success, but it usually doesn’t end well. This happens all the time in sports. Think about a low competency owner (like James Dolan or Jerry Jones). They’ll enjoy some huge wins (like winning a Super Bowl with Jimmy Johnson coaching), but in the end there will be a falling out of some sort and people will move on.

The sad part is, the board usually replaces the high competency imam with a lower competency one – starting that cycle of co-dependence we talked about above.

High Competency Board / High Competency Imam

This seems to be the ideal, but it has its pitfalls.

The best version of this would be what most people consider the culmination of synergy. Everything’s awesome. The community is rapidly growing and developing. Programs are taking off. They’re doing things other communities can only dream of doing.

The pitfall is that this situation can be ripe for a well-meaning ego clash. High competency individuals are extremely confident in their abilities, and have a track record full of validation to back it up. This is something that can be controlled and prevented, but needs to be watched out for nonetheless.

So Where Does That Leave Us? 

In a vacuum, none of these options is truly ideal. Especially since that second scenario (of co-dependency) is often the longest lasting of the four.

There are a lot of reasons for this, but they can be distilled down to a couple of big picture items.

Understand that these scenarios are not static. Someone may start off in a position with low competency, but through dedicated study, growth, and mentorship, they can achieve high competency. This is a critical part of leadership development. Your ability is not fixed, you have the capacity to grow and develop yourself if you put forth the effort.

The other part of this is that boards experience rapid turnover due to the election model in our communities (which I believe is a broken system altogether, but that’s another post for another time). A community can go from high competency board to low competency board in a matter of weeks depending on their elections. This can cause rapid upheaval and instability.

There is a third party that can provide checks and balances for the Imam/board relationship – the general community. Realistically, the community should be able to prevent destructive scenarios like a low competency board running off a high competency Imam, or hiring a low competency Imam in the first place. They’re the ones who elect the board and they are the audience served by the Imam.

There’s only one reason this doesn’t work.


People simply don’t care. They let people get away with things, and that’s ultimately what has caused a lot of the issues that plague us. When the people don’t demand better, they won’t receive better. The leaders, the organization, and the community will fall back to the existing level of their lid. And unless each individual takes on the onus of improving that lid, the status quo will continue to perpetuate.

Showing 8 comments
  • Enosh

    If we could add a third axis to the graph: the community – it would bring into real-life, 3-D. And the community makes or breaks this thing in my opinion.

    If there is community leadership; from the elders to the youth to the women to everyone else; That are engaged, that volunteer, that provide feedback/take feedback, donate, and are patient when things don’t go in their each own way.
    – keeping the community engaged is key: which is why elections are valuable – although each situation/community is different. (how can the community be a check/balance without a functional input into the system?) (although I do appreciate the permanent members) (I am a member of an elected board currently at my local masjid).
    – a community that stays away from gossip and back-biting that exacerbate problems.

    I don’t think the imam or the board is as important as community members… : you know that one uncle (whose been married for over 30 years) that you’ve known since you were 5 years old that gives you thoughtful marriage advice in your first year; or when you lose your job and your confidence is broke pulls you aside when you genuinely asks you after prayer is over how’s life? – he gives you advice/confidence that helps you get your life back on track. They pray in the masjid fajr/isha, taraweeh, those guys are the glue that hold everything together when the board (intra or inter) or imam have drama (which is bound to happen).

  • Imran

    Jazakallahu Khairun as always for articulating a tricky situation many organizations and communities find themselves in but don’t know how to handle. I want to suggest a fifth option/dynamic to the above four. Based on my experiences working and consulting for masjids and islamic organizations, the imam/scholar needs to have a seat at the table. The boardroom table.

    The entire dynamic of the “Imam doing the spiritual work” and “the board doing administrative work” is flawed. Running an organization that builds/serves a community requires all levels of leadership to be aligned. The executive team of a dawah organization needs proficiency in all areas – including spirituality. Everyone has their ‘subject matter expertise’ and as a unit, they make decisions for the betterment of the organization and by extension the community.

    In this arrangement, all parties are in the loop regarding the overall running of the organization, with each person responsible for key areas. Yes, you’re right, the Imam doesn’t need to sit through cash-flow conversations based on last year’s budget miscalculations – except that he does. He needs to understand what’s going right and what’s going wrong and why. Likewise, the generous doctor who sits on the board as a way to give back should feel comfortable asking the Imam why he’s been focusing on certain fiqh issues during recent classes and programs.

    Let the finance and operations director make the final call on whether or not you can renovate the upstairs classrooms and let the Imam decide how to structure the evening arabic classes, but do it together. The other huge upside here is that when administrative work starts to go sideways – what do you mean the contractor went into bankruptcy? – it’s often the religious figures who stabilize the ship. The admins are there to support the Imam as he works tirelessly with the community, developing, managing and expanding his reach, and the Imam is there to help, encourage, guide and mentor the admins he works with. Anything less than this intertwined relationship doesn’t quite work.

    And you don’t really need superstars in this equation. You need people who are good at what they do, who are open to learning, and most of all, willing to listen.

    • Enosh

      ^ agree

      and also I think think that in addition to the ‘imam’ role: I think a just as important role is Masjid CEO.

      The CEO knows about accounting, management, long term financial strategic planning. The CEO is commissioned to act on behalf of the leadership.

      This way the imam doesn’t have to be the one doing nitty gritty admin stuff and neither does the doctor board member (stereotype). The doctor on one hand has the trust of the community – maybe maybe not, the imam can teach. The CEO reports back to the board (who votes on things or whatever, but by and large are not so great at volunteering and doing the dirty on the ground work.

  • Omar Usman

    Agree completely with the comments about community members being important. That’s what I was hoping to hint at toward the end. They’re the only check against a bad board/imam situation. Even if they don’t have formal input, they can exert social pressure that is also effective.

    CEO or executive director is something i’ve been thinking about, and have started seeing a handful of masjids going in that direction. This could help bring an alternative to the working board where needed, and give the imam a trusted ally to help handle infrastructure/operational items while they focus on spirituality and educational development

    • Enosh

      ^ without a binding input into the structure isn’t just community feedback at that point just glorified complaining, airing of laundry, a suggestion box with a paper shredder at the bottom of it, and worse case scenario just gossip and more disunity… eventually leading to a split.

      Which voices from this broad/undefined “community” get heard by the board and which voices get shunned? Often times community members that come from the same ethnicity, speak the same language, hold similar view points get heard by the board; so it becomes an echo chamber, and worse a gang type organization with an
      “In-crowd” that suck up to the board and the outcasts that are the trouble makers.

      Also, since the community is more important; the input of each person summed when done synergistically far outweighs the influence of one person/human ” the imam in my opinoin. In viewing real change in the community; the imam is the least important – there is often issues between the imam and the board. The imam role in most masaajid is overstated and cons outweigh the pros most of the time in my opinion. Imam’s role is overstated by many.

      • Omar Usman

        Nearly every masjid constitution I’ve seen has an “out” for the community to remove a board member, call for a special election, etc etc etc.

        Most communities are too apathetic to do anything, but the community can enforce its opinion via elections, general body meetings, and so on.

        Imam’s role is needed for spiritual development of the community. I just fundamentally can’t see it any other way. Communities can survive and reach a certain level without one, sure. And yes, people can do their own individual study, etc. But having someone there on a regular basis to lead and guide the community is a super high value role.

        • Enosh

          But on the idea of elections- doesn’t that make the election process better than stationary board members?

          so the community isn’t that important or valuable since it is too apathetic/lazy to do anything? 😉
          – is that really the case or has structural input from them not been taken into consideration? and have they not been empowered to take action?

          ^If a community as a whole is entirely engaged the role of a daily imam at that point is diminished for sure and maybe not entirely needed. I think an imam on a contractual basis for certain things may be needed, but not daily operations and not yearly salaried.
          – the imam point may be a little outside the scope, but in terms of priority in the broader community dynamics; imam and board relations are not as important. It reflects also the economy; less full-time hires (with health benefits) more contract workers (no health benefits). <- the over-arching system is way more important than one drama queen imam or righteous imam (one person: good or bad).

          • Enosh

            Another subtle but related point; I see sometimes the Imam is a “hired gun” by the board to squash any political resistance from the “community”.
            ^Imagine instead if the board was required to get a majority vote by the community.

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