Fethullah Gülen as a Servant Leader

Fethullah Gülen as a Servant Leader

Gurkan Celik & Yusuf Alan

Gülen was born in 1941in Erzurum, eastern Turkey, just twenty-odd years after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey. The war for Independence, transition from one regime to another, the Second World War and global phenomena of modernity versus religion had all taken its toll on Turkey and its newly emerging citizens. It is within this context that Gülen grew up and experienced the difficulty, degradation and poverty of his people. Education was sporadic, materialism most-rife and civic-consideration replaced by egocentrism. Seeing all this Gülen embarked on his humble, sincere and life-long journey to make a difference through promoting education, economic activism and a re-reading and understanding of religious texts to evoke voluntarism, worldly ascetics and a type of universalism that kept local values and customs alive (1).

Fethullah Gülen has been confirmed to be and admired as a Muslim initiator and an intellectual leader who inspired a series of social and educational activities to develop a new sense of religiosity in touch with modern realities (2). Ali Bulac defines him as a harmonizing leader and an intellectual-scholar (aydin-ulama) focusing on social reforms and mentality change (3).

He is also known for his contributions to world peace through his dialogue activities and educational efforts around the globe (4). In his interviews, talks and writings Gülen continuously and argumentatively underlined the importance of understanding, education, dialogue and tolerance, in addition to moral and spiritual values (5). People know him as an advocate for tolerance and dialogue; a man of extraordinary proportions; a scholar with a profound appreciation for Islamic sciences and contemporary-modern thought; and a passionate activist (6). His ideal and objective was to cultivate the perfect individual who would combine spirituality with intellect, reason with revelation and mind with heart.

Forty-five years after beginning his movement his personal efforts have borne amazing results. His followers now constitute one of the largest faith-and-dialogue-based-movements in the world and have evolved into a dense web of trans-national charitable networks (7). Internationally, this movement has extended its network of educational and media efforts to all parts of the globe. Gülen frequently emphasizes that his own position is more like an inspirational and guiding thinker rather than the formal leader of a social movement.

Leadership from an Islamic Perspective

Leadership in Islam is based on trust and emphasizes sincerity, integrity and compassion. It is thought of as a psychological contract between a leader and his or her followers guaranteeing that he or she will try his or her best to guide them, to protect them, and to treat them justly. Leadership in Islam is rooted in belief and willing submission to the Creator. It centers on serving Him.

The two primary leadership roles from an Islamic perspective are those of servant leader and guardian leader. Fist, leaders are servants of their followers (sayyid al qawmi khadimuhum) (8). They look out for their welfare and guide them toward what is good. The idea of a leader as a servant has been part of Islam since its beginning, and has only recently been further developed by Robert Greenleaf (9). We will describe this later and attempt to explain the leadership characteristics of Gülen from the perspective of servant leadership. A second major role of the Muslim leaders is those of guardian leaders whom aim at protecting their community against tyranny and oppression. Guardian leaders also encourage God-consciousness and taqwa (piety), and promote justice, trust and integrity (10). In other words, leaders are considered honest to the extent that there is “consistency between word and deed”. In the Qur’an, the Prophet Musa is described as “strong and trustworthy” by one of the young ladies (11) and the Prophet Yusuf is pictured as one who is truthful (12). It is reported from Sahih Bukhari that Prophet Muhammad said: “All of you are guardians and are responsible for your wards”(13). Gülen characterizes the Prophet of the Islam as a universal and unique leader, and indicates that the Prophet Muhammad has modeled the way for Muslim leaders and his followers for all time (14). Successful Muslim leaders endeavor to acquire practical knowledge as well as the competence for applying it in appropriate situations. People are more likely to follow a leader’s directives if they believe that this person knows what he or she is doing. Additionally, in Islam aspirant leaders are encouraged to emulate such attributes as strength of character, patience (sabr), humility, magnanimity, self-understanding, the willingness to seek consultation, equity (impartiality), modesty (simplicity) and responsibility (15)

Servant Leadership

Robert K. Greenleaf (1904-1990) is the scholar who reintroduced this leadership concept during the second half of the previous century: (16) “The servant leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead [ ].” Servant leaders seek to involve others in decision-making. His or her philosophy promotes ethical and caring behavior, and it enhances the personal growth of workers while improving the caring and quality of organizational, intellectual and spiritual life (17).

Servant leaders may or may not hold formal leadership positions. This leadership principle is one of the important keys to unlocking a dilemma of humanity: Is it possible to be virtuous and powerful, to serve and to lead? Opposites are blended in the universe. Synchronous manifestation of opposites causes a sort of wise and beneficial contest. Opposites transgress one another’s bounds, and this brings conflict and change into being. The universe is subject to the law of change and transformation and the principles of progress and advancement. The dilemma of opposites opens the door to striving, which would be the means of all human progress. Servant leadership is a dynamic balance to produce and reproduce knowledge, identity and culture in a global world with dialogue, trust and sincerity (18). Servant leaders are necessary to solve the common problems of humanity: ignorance, poverty and discord (19).

Gülen and the Ten Characteristics of a Servant Leader

Larry Spears has identified a set of ten characteristics, which he ascribes to the servant leader (20). These characteristics of servant leadership have been extracted from the writings of Robert Greenleaf and are by no means exhaustive, and often occur naturally within individuals (21). The possession of these characteristics marks the greatest and most prominent leaders in history and in the contemporary world. These characteristics are listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people and building community.

Based on our analysis we can argue that Gülen possesses a sufficient number of these leadership qualities mentioned above. The majority of the respondents believed Gülen to be realistic and convinced that the message he conveys to people is true. He has a courageous nature, and has strong will-power and resolve, and never falls into hopelessness. He is aware of his responsibility and of the possibly hindrances and stumbling blocks. Systematically and purposefully he is working on his projects and activities. He is far-sighted, pro-active and has determined his goals well. He knows the members of his community individually and mobilizes them to reach their goals. He has a strong character and is equipped with praiseworthy virtues. Furthermore, according to the respondents, he has been described as a person who does not cherish worldly ambitions or abuse his authority.

Gülen is characterized as a charismatic figure and has primarily been seen as a religious leader and as a prominent source of inspiration concerning establishing intercultural dialogue and initiating educational projects and institutions throughout the world (22). An overwhelming majority of the respondents emphasized that Gülen is a servant first, and then a leader. We also found allusion to this conviction in his conversations, speeches, sermons and writings. Gülen is further typified as a man of deliberate action who never hung back in putting his plans or decisions into action. Respondents have indicated that consultation is one of Gülen eminent practices demonstrating his decision-making process. Furthermore, he has been described as a leader who gains the love and trust of his followers by solving their problems, whether personal or public, related to individual, private life, or to social, economic, political affairs touching the community as a whole.

Gülen offers great hope, more caring and responsibility for the future generations in producing and working better. He promotes the value and development of people, the building of community, the practice of authenticity, the providing of leadership for good of those led and the sharing of power, knowledge and status for the common good of each individual, and the total society. According to our analysis Gülen’s leadership supports people who choose to serve first, and then lead as a way of expanding service to individuals, institutions and societies. His leadership style encourages enthusiasm, synergy, trust, foresight, listening, and the ethical use of power and empowerment.

In addition to the above characteristics Gülen’s experts and students who we interviewed, pointed out that the Gülen’s understanding and praxis of leadership bears primarily on his faith and concerns some theological bases: “Gülen’s ultimate aim is to have the consent of God. His understanding of leadership is premised on the belief that there is no aim or reward beyond the approval and love of God. The easiest way to acquire this is obeying the rules explained by the Prophet Muhammad, and imitating the Prophet’s way of life. Gülen’s purpose is not to be or becoming a leader, he would rather be a slave and servant. He has so many followers even he does not have a desire to lead. He regards his ‘reputation’ as a credit from God, and uses this to motivate people. One who cannot manage his or her worldly desires cannot rehabilitate someone else. Gülen never ‘contaminates’ the realities, and does not ‘shade’ the realities with any personal interest. Therefore the messages reflects what is in his mind and heart and illuminates people. Gülen always interrogates himself and never deceives himself. He practices what he preaches. It is this sincere and honest search for reality that has won him millions of followers all over the world. His followers are disciples of sincerity, honesty and compassion.” In the end the respondents stress that Gülen’s inspiration comes from God and it is God that makes people follow him.


In conclusion, we can arguably say that although Gülen is classified as an Islamic scholar and spiritual guide, he is also an example of a leader possessing such extraordinary competences such as intuition and foresight. From our analysis we have concluded that Gülen has led his community successfully in the every field (at an intellectual, spiritual, and social level), and has transformed a great traditional social movement in Turkey to a worldwide community in touch with modernity. Some scholars describe him as a charismatic figure. Rather than having charisma he describes himself as a servant. He has been seen as a community leader of profound appreciation of the Islamic sciences and contemporary-modern thought and a passionate activist (23).

Moreover, we can say that Gülen possesses two important leadership characteristics. He developed his own philosophy and knows his way very well (clear vision), and he is reliable and on the way (deliberate actions). It is commonly understood that “the whole world steps aside for the man who knows where he is going”. This leadership principle is also accompanied by the charm and grace needed to create followers. He is able to persuade other people (his audience) to go with him. Gülen has a great population of followers, and the Gülen movement counts millions of sympathizers worldwide.

In sum, Gülen’s leadership is based on a deep understanding of the faith and of the care values that drive his actions. Thus effective leadership requires the development of a compelling personal and spiritual vision that engages others by offering meaning, dignity, and purpose. He is a living example of a spiritual and religious leader, an Islamic intellectual scholar, and a pioneering activist in the contemporary world. One of the primary aims of his leadership is the building of the ‘golden generation’, more humane relationships, organizations, and societies. What can be learned from Gülen’s example is that effective leaders need to develop the dynamism and critical imagination required to embrace individual, organizational, and global change from a stance of action, hope and courage.


(1) Ali Ünal. M. Fethullah Gülen. Bir Portre Denemesi. Nil: Istanbul, 2002

(2) M. Hakan Yavuz & John L. Esposito (eds). Turkish Islam and The Secular State. The Gülen Movement. Syracuse University Press: New York, 2003; This view is also held by leading journalIsts, academics, TV personalities, politicians, and Turkish and foreign state authorities.

(3) Ali Bulac. Fethullah Gülen: An intellectual and religious profile. Paper presented during the conference, entitled Islam in the Contemporary World: The Fethullah Gülen Movement in Thought and Practice. November 12-13, 2005, Rice University, Houston, TX.

(4) The Romanian commission of UNESCO has presented Fethullah Gülen with an award for his contributions to tolerance and dialogue and for his efforts toward cooperation and peace between the nations of the world. 10.26.2005

(5) The Muslim World: Special Issue. Special Issue. Islam in Contemporary Turkey: The Contributions of Fethullah Gülen. Juli 2005, vol.95, Issue 3, pp.325-471

(6) Nevval Sevindi, Fethullah Gülen ile Global Hosgörü ve New York Sohbeti. Istanbul 2002. p.7-9 and 181-193.

(7) Bekim Agai. Zwischen Netzwerk und Diskurs: Das Bildungsnetzwerk um Fethullah Gülen (geb. 1938): Die flexible Umsetzung modernen islamischen Gedankenguts, Schenefeld 2004.

(8) Selim Caldirali. “Hizmetkar Liderlik”, in: Sizinti, nr.239, pp.489-493, December 1998, Izmir.

(9) Robbert K. Greenleaf. The Servant as Leader. The Robert K. Greenleaf Center, Indianapolis, IN, 1991.

(10) Rafik I. Beekun and Jamal Badawi. Leadership: An Islamic Perspective. Beltsville, Maryland, 1999, p.15.

(11) See Qassas, 28:26.

(12) See Yusuf, 12:46.

(13) Sahih Bukhari, Hadith 3.733.

(14) M. Fethullah Gülen, Prophet Muhammad as commander. Truestar, London, 1996. p.92-124

(15) See Rafik Beekum and Jama Badawi, pp.37-47.

(16) Robert K. Greenleaf. The Servant as Leader. The Robert K. Greenleaf Center, Indianapolis, IN, 1991, p.7-8

(17) Idem, Gürkan Celik, 2002.

(18) Laub, J.A. Ed.D. (1999). Assessing the servant organization. Dissertation. Florida Atlantic University. Florida.

(19) Talha Furkan. Leadership Qualities in General Terms. De Cascade, nr. 2, p.19. Cosmicus, Utrecht, 2004.

(20) Larry C. Spears. Creating Caring Leadership for the 21st Century. The not-for-profit CEO Monthly Letter, Vol.5, no.9. Robert K. Greenleaf Center, Indianapolis, IN, p.1-3, 1998; Robert K. Greenleaf (Larry Spears-Ed). The Power of Servant Leadership. The Greeenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership, 1998.

(21) Larry C. Spears, 1998, id. p.1-3; Gurkan Celik, idem, 2002, pp.39-48.

(22) The analysis is based on the authors’ personal interviews and observations within the Gülen movement.

(23) The Muslim World: Special Issue. July 2005, vol.95, Issue 3, pp.325-471.


This article is summary of a paper presented at the “Second International Conference on Islam in the Contemporary World: The Fethullah Gülen Movement in Thought and Practice” held at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, USA on March 4-5 2006. You may download the paper, please click here.

Gurkan Celik received his Master in Policy and Organization Studies at the Tilburg University in the Netherlands. For five years he worked as a trainer, researcher, and consultant at several Dutch educational institutions. Currently, he is working as a research advisor and project leader of diversity policy at the Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Also, he is a PhD Candidate at the Radboud University Nijmegen and examines Gülen’s views on human being from the perspective of philosophical and theological anthropology. He has been serving as the president of the Cosmicus Foundation, a national network organisation for students, alumni and academics in the Netherlands. Further, he was chair of the organizing committee for a series symposia, entitled ‘Frontrunners for Peace’, which was held in 2004 and 2005 at the four Dutch universities. His research interests include leadership development, human resource management, diversity policy, philosophical and theological anthropology, personal development, and education. Mr. Celik has also contributed numerous articles to journals, and is (co-)author of several publications, including Voorlopers in de Vrede [Frontrunners for Peace], 2005; Hizmetkar Liderlik [Servant Leadership], 2003; Stapsgewijs naar een Nieuwe Cultuur en Leiderschapsstijl [Step by Step Towards a New Culture and Leadership Style], 2002.

Yusuf Alan graduated from English Translation and Interpretation Department at Hacettepe University, Turkey, in 1990. He earned his MA degree at the same department. After working as a teacher of English in Private Samanyolu (Ankara) and Yamanlar (Izmir) High Schools, which are well-known for their success in national and international science olympiads and projects, he began to work in Sizinti, a popular scientific magazine in Turkish, as a researcher. After living in the Netherlands for 16 years, he emigrated to Turkey in 2011. His bibliography lists 8 books, one dictionary and about 200 articles.

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