ISIS Goes to Business School? The Islamic State’s Leadership Advantage

Much of the group’s recent success can be credited to a leadership cadre that resembles a strong corporate board.

Much of ISIS’ recent success can be credited to a leadership cadre that resembles a strong corporate board.

Terrorist leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s appearance last month in a propaganda video garnered significant worldwide attention, to include in-depth analysis of his wristwatch. The interest is understandable; the leader of the Islamic State (IS) eschews the spotlight, audio clips and grainy photos having previously served as the only proof of his existence.

But the most tantalizing portion of the film may have come near its conclusion as the camera panned the blurred faces of several men standing behind Baghdadi. Given their proximity to the self-styled caliph, they were probably his senior lieutenants, charged with translating al-Baghdadi’s lofty vision into action. In recent years they have achieved much, effectively marshaling an array of resources and building a potent paramilitary force that threatens several regional actors. Indeed, the group’s effective leadership structure stands in stark contrast to those of Syrian insurgent factions or the Iraqi security apparatus, granting the IS key advantages over its opponents.

As the IS expands, the fortunes of the group will increasingly depend on these senior managers rather that its black-clad CEO. This natural devolution of authority is a quandary that faces many business leaders: success fuels expansion beyond the ability of one figure to manage, putting the fate of the company increasingly in the hands of the leadership team. While the mythos of the powerful and all-seeing CEO sells many a memoir, it is increasingly antiquated.

This dynamic attracts the attention of numerous academics and business analysts, whose work provides us with a model to better understand IS and explain its recent victories. In 2008, several prominent academics published a book entitled Senior Leadership Teams: What It Takes to Make Them Great. The result of nine years of research and surveys of 120 companies, the authors identified three essential characteristics of sound leadership teams; the first, that team members understand their roles and the boundaries of their authority. This is certainly the case of IS; according to an article last month in London’s Daily Telegraph, the IS leadership is a rigid hierarchy, with commanders responsible for overseeing specific regions or functions such as the transportation of suicide bombers. This orderly structure communicates to senior leaders where they fit and how, precisely, their efforts contribute to overall success.

The second condition is compelling direction, defined in the business context as a strategy that is clear, challenging and consequential. While many Western analysts and Islamic clerics mocked Baghdadi’s declaration of the caliphate as absurdly grandiose, it clearly satisfies this criteria by positing a resonant goal and outlining a strategy to realize it: “So raise your ambitions, O soldiers of the Islamic State! For your brothers all over the world are waiting. This is my advice to you. If you hold to it, you will conquer Rome and own the world.” Challenging and consequential to be sure.

The last and perhaps most difficult dynamic to define is the appointment of the “right people” who will cooperate to execute company strategy. While the clandestine nature of IS’ leadership limits our ability to determine if it has the “right people,” at the helm, the fact they have risen to such positions while fighting a decades-long war against the United States, the Iraqi military, Shi’ite death squads, tribal militias and rival insurgent factions suggests they are a capable and adaptive bunch.

Indeed, this ability to persevere through adversity is an important indicator of their worth as commanders, according to a 2002 Harvard Business Review article that studied the effect of “crucible” events on business leaders. The authors determined that successful leaders are often those who overcome major failures. Many senior IS leaders have probably endured the deaths of numerous colleagues, long-stretches in prison, and the near collapse of the organization in 2011; these shared “crucibles” undoubtedly imparted key lessons, instilled confidence, and forged close bonds between senior leaders that enable greater collaboration.

Other dynamics that enable senior leadership success include “sound structure” (the right number of people and clear norms of conduct) and “supportive context” (the team has the resources and information needed to achieve its goals). Unfortunately, again, these dynamics can be observed within IS; according to studies of the group’s fastidious financial records and their own publically-available annual reports, it is clear group leaders are receiving the type of fine-grained internal metrics necessary to educate their decisions.