MSA- New Year, New Board, Same Problems

How can the board of a student organization ensure a productive year?  That was the question that developed over the coarse of a conversation I had with one of my High-School-Student-Mentees-turned-college-student-leader at his UC’s MSA (Muslim Student Association).  I honestly didn’t think I would be able to give him a proper answer to his questions…

How can the board of a student organization ensure a productive year?  That was the question that developed over the coarse of a conversation I had with one of my High-School-Student-Mentees-turned-college-student-leader at his UC’s MSA (Muslim Student Association).  I honestly didn’t think I would be able to give him a proper answer to his questions given the short notice and my lack of initial interest in having the conversation late at night (and right before I went off to the gym!).

Surprisingly I woke up this morning thinking “Wow, Affad, you probably provided one of the best responses (at least, I have ever come up with, I can indulge in a little bragging) to the perpetual challenge faced by incoming boards when it comes to leadership.  The idea of leadership is wrought with all sorts of examples of GREAT leaders, and not so effective ones.  While I think that charismatic leadership offers the most return for your money, not having a central charismatic leader doesn’t mean that the organization will suffer.

The cult of personality often obscures the reality of what in essence leadership is all about- its about people, relationships and properly managing those relationships.  This is something that anyone can do if they are willing to step up to the plate.  We all recognize that bad leaders, or more appropriately, ineffective leaders are people who are divisive, marginalizing, polarizing and all sorts of uncompromising.  The word compromise itself takes on a religious tenor when put in the context of MSA’s- “No brother we don’t compromise with the Sunnah wa’Jammah.”    But what in my discussion last night I tried to emphasize the idea that many of the conflicts don’t arise because of fundamental theological issues, rather they are simple issues of leadership and work styles that give rise to problems with how people manage conflict that arises from disagreements.

The board over a period of time will internalize these mismanaged responses by exhibiting them in terms of fundamentals, overly simplistic black-and-white realities.  “That brother is to liberal” and “That brother is to conservative” doesn’t really address the issue of “how do we function to make things work in the MSA?”  The response to this is always to play the “my way, or the highway” approach because that ensures a zero-sum reality, when in fact, such an outcome never really results in any good to anyone.

One of the best ways that a incoming board, filled with new leaders, can get ahead of the pitfalls of board dysfunction and construct the grounds for a successful year, is to have a real board retreat.  We aren’t talking about sitting around a table, saying duahs and talking for an hour only to adjourn until you come back in the Fall.  I am talking about a structured, day or weekend long, relationship building and planning session.

Since the new year is just beginning its not to late to do something constructive.  Like my conversation with MSA board member X last night, a day long retreat can be planned and executed still.  Here’s how to do it:

  1. Find someone who is willing to chair the planning, logistics and moderation of the retreat.  This person should ideally be the President or Vice President of your organization.
  2. Chair needs to come up with an agenda (more on this below), location (should be comfortable for sitting down prayers and moving around activities), logistics (get food- healthy, drinks, papers, markers, all the stuff you need).  Delegate where appropriate.
  3. Agenda- this should be thoughtfully constructed to make the most out of the time your spending together.
  4. Execute the retreat.
  5. Follow up with folks individually and ask if it was productive, what can change, what worked really well.  Make adjustments, leave for next years incoming board to repeat.


This is the most important part of your whole retreat.   It needs to be designed with care and insight into whats the purpose behind everything you do.  My conversation last night worked out a really nice program that can be replicated, with modifications for your particular organizational needs.

  1. Early Bird catches the warm- so start the day early.  Because folks are groggy provide coffee, but have ice breakers that involve activity.  My favorite is “Big Watermelon”- its silly, stupid and just plain funny.  But when people get involved with it, it will lower the level of anxiety and guard folks have so that the rest of the day is productive.  If you feel the folks aren’t going to want to start off doing something like that but you need something that will help build closer bonds and deepen the relationship of folks beyond “knowing people” then there is the “Toilet Paper” game or the “Name Your Name” game.  Both are great to get past the “His name is Mohammad and he’s from Fresno” relationship.
  2. Lay the Ground Rules- in order for your board to function  you need ground rules, these rules aren’t just for this retreat, they should be for the following year.  This means whenever the board meet, these rules are displayed and people religiously observe them.  This sets the tone not only for what it takes to participate in the retreat, but through out the year.  These rules should be simple, they should be focused and you shouldn’t have a crap load of them.  This is a social contract that you’re coming up with, social contracts should be straight forward like “honesty is the best policy” or “Do unto others what you want others to do unto you” (or better yet- the Golden Rule).
  3. Follow this up with another ice breaker, maybe here is a good opportunity to do Big Watermelon, after serious business like the ground rules a silly game is just the right prescription to move on.
  4. Focus on Leadership, this is the place where you can understand what other people know about leadership, but more importantly, how each person on your board reacts and carry’s out their functions.  My suggestion is don’t lecture, rather create workshops that are interactive, you want to continue to build bonds and deepen board members relationship with one another, create trust, nurture open lines of communications. The retreat is the way to jump over the “trial by fire” process because it puts people in a situation where they have to start functioning as a cohesive group outside the rigors of the actual year.  When it comes leadership workshop, here’s what I suggested last night
  • Do a group activity where each person posts 2-3 leadership qualities on the board.  Each person should/can talk about why this is important to them.  If you want the group can list the top 5 important qualities, which would help do the next activity.
  • The group then should discuss an example from the Prophetic Seerah that exemplifies the qualities.  Each person should be involved in discussing this.
  • The leadership portion should be divided by Zuhr prayer.
  • Lunch, it should be time for mingling or you can do a lunch oriented activity to continue to build the bonds of brotherhood/sisterhood.
  • When you reconvene, or do this during a working lunch if time is short, people should write down their thoughts on what leadership is after the conversation that took place on the topic.  Also they should list their leadership strengths and weaknesses. That last part is really important.
  • The President at this point needs to start the session by talking about leadership (“the lecture”).  Here it is important to lay out how the President functions.  For example if it was me, I would say look emails and phone calls are great, but text messages are much more efficient for me.  Stuff like that is what will help the functionality of the group.
  • Do a talk back session where everybody shares their leadership style.
  • Have a group activity that address how the group will respond to challenges.  Your MSA might have dealt with similar challenges in the past, choose those, rework them and present scenarios and talk through how the board will address the issues.  Who does what?  What worked in the past?  What should have been done?  Its important to work through nightmare scenarios, I wont list out the why here.
  1. The final session, after Asr prayers, should be around the idea of upcoming year.  Talk out goals, set metrics.  Each board member should set one thing they wish to build upon from past years, or pioneer, during their tenure in office.  You should end it by Maghrib, afterwards go out and have dinner to celebrate making it through a difficult day, but also because you have an exciting year up ahead!

Things to look out for:

  1. Make sure everyone participates.  People should recognize that they need to “Step back AND step up”- especially when talking about leadership, everyone should be participating and those that are more aggressive in their participation need to allow and encourage others to participate.
  2. While this will seem liberal of me, there has to be mixed gender interaction.  Your board consists of guys and girls, no matter where their Islamic comfortability level is at, they need to be able to interact with the opposite gender.  They can establish boundaries during the coarse of the retreat, but that shouldn’t be used as an excuse to not participate or to segregate the process.  I can’t emphasize this enough, to make the organization cohesive, the board has to be able to work together comfortably.  That does not give license for “kicking it” but it also means that the guys and girls should be divided by a “virtual purdah”.
  3. The President should pay close attention to potential conflict areas, between people, perspectives, ways of doing things.  This will be critical because it will help to manage them moving forward.
  4. The atmosphere needs to be professional, but not stuffy.  This is important fine line, but to much joking around will result in a process that isn’t genuine.  To much seriousness will give you a group of people that suppressed their thoughts and inhibited constructive idea’s and perspectives.  The moderator needs to play a strong role to maintain a balance, but other key allies should step up to the plate and help guide the process along the fine line.
  5. Be cognizant that people are coming from a diverse background.  The job of the MSA board isn’t just to have a successful year, your Amana is also to develop strong leaders.  You are only as strong as the weakest leader you have on your board.  Help strengthen that person over the year, you will greatly strengthen the Muslim community by producing a top notch leader.


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