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I recently had the bounty of trying to explain the concept of leadership in the Baha’i Faith to a non-Baha’i writing a university paper, and thought I’d share some of my ideas here.  She asked three questions:

  • Is it possible to have leadership with out a designated leader?
  • If the traditional understandings of leadership point explicitly to the need for a specific and designated leader, can leadership avoid focusing on a leader and still be leadership?
  • Do the leadership styles that have been mentioned above apply to the Baha’i concept of leadership? If so, how?

She said:  if leadership is the “action of leading a group of people or an organization as the Oxford definition suggests, then:

  • How is leadership recognized as leadership?
  • What actions need to be witnessed in order for an observer to say, “Yes! That is leadership!”

Her premise was that “the Baha’i Faith is understood to be ‘leaderless’ as they have no one single designated leader”; that it “opts for a form of group leadership in which there is an democratic approach to leadership where there is freedom of approach and position” and that “essentially their formula for leadership permits anyone to be a leader regardless of designation, title, or appointment.”

I told her that the Baha’i Faith doesn’t allow just “anyone to be a leader”!  Although we don’t have clergy, we do have a highly refined administration (local and national Spiritual Assemblies), elected at the local and national levels every year, and at the international level (the Universal House of Justice) every five years.

In our election process, there is no campaigning or electioneering.  Instead the names of all Baha’is in good standing over the age of 21 appear on the ballot. In April of every year, all Baha’is over the age of 21 must vote for exactly 9 people who they feel will best lead the community for the coming year. Each voter has the absolute freedom to choose without being biased or influenced by agendas, ambitions, or platforms.

The nine individuals who receive the highest number of votes form the Assembly for that year.  Their job is to oversee a wide variety of activities which include the education of children and junior youth, devotional services, study classes, discussions, social events, the observance of holy days, marriages, divorces, and funeral services.  They may also oversee ongoing small-scale educational, economic or environmental development projects, particularly at the National level.

The National Spiritual Assemblies are charged with guiding and coordinating Bahá’í activities within a given country.  Their tasks range from the initiation and administration of large-scale social and economic development projects to book publishing; from overseeing relations with their respective national governments to the coordination and collaboration with other religious groups and non-governmental organizations.

The criterion for membership on a Spiritual Assembly is:

  • Unquestioned loyalty
  • Selfless devotion
  • Well-trained mind
  • Recognized ability
  • Mature experience
  • One who is faithful, sincere, experienced, capable and competent

 It is incumbent upon the chosen delegates to consider without the least trace of passion and prejudice, and irrespective of any material consideration, the names of only those who can best combine the necessary qualities of unquestioned loyalty, of selfless devotion, of a well-trained mind, of recognized ability and mature experience.  (Shoghi Effendi, Bahá’í Administration, p. 88)

 The role of the Spiritual Assembly

 The Spiritual Assembly is in no wise equivalent to the priest or clergy, but is responsible for upholding the teachings, stimulating active service, conducting meetings, maintaining unity, holding Bahá’í property in trust for the community, and representing it in its relations to the public and to other Bahá’í communities.  (Dr. J.E. Esslemont, Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era, p. 180)

Obligations and Duties of the Local Spiritual Assembly include:

  • The matter of teaching, its direction, its ways and means, its extension, its consolidation, essential as they are to the interests of the Cause, constitute by no means the only issue which should receive the full attention to these Assemblies…
  • It is incumbent upon them to be vigilant and cautious, discreet and watchful, and protect at all times the Temple of the Cause from the dart of the mischief-maker and the onslaught of the enemy.
  • Promote amity and concord amongst the Friends, efface every lingering trace of distrust, coolness, and estrangement from every heart, and secure in its stead an active and wholehearted co-operation for the service of the Cause.
  • They must do their utmost to extend at all times the helping hand to the poor, the sick, the disabled, the orphan, the widow, irrespective of colour, caste, and creed.
  • They must promote by every means in their power the material as well as the spiritual enlightenment of youth, the means for the education of children, institute, whenever possible, Bahá’í educational institutions, organize and supervise their work, and provide the best means for their progress and development
  • They must make an effort to maintain official, regular, and frequent correspondence with the various Bahá’í centres throughout the world, report to them their activities, and share the glad tidings they receive with all their fellow-workers in the Cause.
  • They must encourage and stimulate by every means at their command, through subscription, reports and articles, the development of the various Bahá’í magazines.
  • They must undertake the arrangement of the regular meetings of the Friends, the feasts, and the anniversaries, as well as the special gatherings designed to serve an promote the social, intellectual, and spiritual interests of their fellow-men.
  • They must supervise, in these days when the Cause is still in its infancy, all Baha’i publications and translations, and provide in general for a dignified and accurate presentation of all Bahá’í literature and its distribution to the general public.  (Shoghi Effendi, Principles of Bahá’í Administration, p.39-40)

Obligations and Duties of the National Spiritual Assembly

Theirs is the duty, while retaining the sacred and exclusive right of final decision in their hands to:

  • invite discussion provide information ventilate grievances
  • welcome advice from even the most humble and insignificant member of the Bahá’í Family expose their motives
  • set forth their plans
  • justify their actions revise if necessary their verdict
  • foster the spirit of individual initiative and enterprise
  • fortify the sense of interdependence and co-partnership, of understanding and mutual confidence between them on one hand and all Local assemblies and individual believers on the other. (Shoghi Effendi, Bahá’í Administration, p 143-44)

Obligations and Duties of the Universal House of Justice

The Universal House of Justice is the supreme governing institution of the Baha’i Faith. It is a legislativeinstitution with the authority to supplement and apply the laws of Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, and exercises a judicial function as the highest appellate institution in the Baha’i administration.

While being empowered to legislate on matters, the Universal House of Justice has, since its inception, limited its exercise of this function. Instead it has generally provided guidance to Bahá’ís around the world through letters and messages. The books and documents published by the Universal House of Justice are considered authoritative and its legislative decisions are considered infallible to Bahá’ís.

The provenance, the authority, the duties, the sphere of action of the Universal House of Justice all derive from the revealed Word of Bahá’u’lláh which, together with the interpretations and expositions of `Abdu’l-Bahá and of Shoghi Effendi … constitute the binding terms of reference of the Universal House of Justice and are its bedrock foundation.

Some of the powers and duties according to the constitution include:

  • Promoting the spiritual qualities that characterize Bahá’í life individually and collectively
  • Preserving the Baha’i sacred texts
  • Defending and protecting the global Bahá’í community from repression and persecution
  • Preserving and developing the world spiritual and administrative centre of the Bahá’í Faith
  • Encouraging the growth and maturation of the Bahá’í community and administration
  • Safeguarding individual personal rights, freedoms and initiatives
  • Applying Bahá’í principles and laws
  • Developing, abrogating and changing laws that are not recorded in the Bahá’í sacred texts, according to the requirements of the time
  • Pronouncing sanctions against violations of Baha’i law
  • Adjudicating and arbitrating of disputes referred to it
  • Administrating all religious funds and endowments such as Huqúqu’lláh that are entrusted to its care  (Momen, Moojan (1989). “Bayt-al-`Adl (House of Justice)”. Encyclopædia Iranica)

Furthermore, the Universal House of Justice is instructed by Bahá’u’lláh to exert a positive influence on the general welfare of humankind, to promote a permanent peace among the nations of the world, ensure the “training of peoples, the up-building of nations, the protection of man and the safeguarding of his honour”

Appointed Leaders

Individuals are also appointed at various levels to aid in the spread of the Faith and to protect the spiritual health of the Bahá’ís. They are called Counsellors, Auxiliary Board Members or Assistants to the Auxiliary Board and work closely with the Local and National Spiritual Assemblies.

No Individual Power or Authority

In the Baha’i Faith, individual members of all three levels of the administration have no power or authority on their own. Only when they are gathered together, meeting officially as an institution, are they considered to be divinely inspired.

The first quality for leadership

The first quality for leadership both among individuals and Assemblies is the capacity to use the energy and competence that exists in the rank and file of its followers. Otherwise the more competent members of the groups will go at a tangent and try to find elsewhere a field of work and where they could use their energy.  (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 33)

Ego has no place in Baha’i leadership:

Human society at present exerts a pernicious influence upon the soul of man. Instead of allowing him to live a life of service and sacrifice, it is highly competitive and teaches him to pride himself on his accomplishments. From early childhood he is trained to develop his ego and to seek to exalt himself above others, in the ultimate aim of achieving self-importance, success and power. The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh aims to reverse this process. The soul of man needs to be adorned with the virtues of humility and self-effacement so that it may become detached from the Kingdom of Names.” (Adib Taherzadeh, The Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 22)

One of the distinguishing features of Bahá’u’lláh’s embryonic world order is that it does not harbour egotistical personalities. Bahá’u’lláh has conferred authority on its institutions, whether local, national or international, but the individuals who are privileged to serve on them are devoid of any authority. Unlike men who wield power in the world today and seek to acquire fame and popularity, members of Bahá’í institutions cannot but manifest humility and self-effacement if they are to remain faithful to Bahá’u’lláh. Those who do not succeed, through immaturity or lack of faith, in living up to these standards are indeed attached to the Kingdom of Names and become deprived of the bounties of God in this age. (Adib Taherzadeh, The Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 25-26)


One thing that differentiates Baha’i elections is that despite the fact that the Spiritual Assemblies are not accountable to the people who elect them, but to God, consultation is the bedrock on which they function.  Every 19 days, the community comes together for a “Feast” which has 3 parts:  devotional, consultation and social.  During the consultation portion, individuals share their concerns and recommendations with the Assembly and vice versa.  The standards of consultation are very high:

The prime requisites for them that take counsel together are:

  • purity of motive
  • radiance of spirit
  • detachment from all else save God
  • attraction to His Divine Fragrance
  • humility and lowliness among his loved ones
  • patience and long suffering in difficulties
  • servitude to His exalted Threshold

Should they be graciously aided to acquire these attributes, victory from the unseen Kingdom of Baha’ shall be vouchsafed to them….

The members thereof must take counsel together in such wise that no occasion for ill-feeling or discord may arise. This can be attained when every member expresseth with absolute freedom his own opinion and seteth forth his argument.

Should any one oppose, he must on no account feel hurt, for not until matters are fully discussed can the right way be revealed. The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions

If, after discussion, a decision be carried unanimously, well and good; but if; the Lord forbid, differences of opinion should arise, a majority of voices must prevail.

The first condition is absolute love and harmony amongst the members of the Assembly. They must be wholly free from estrangement and must manifest in themselves the Unity of God, for they are the waves of one sea, the drops of one river, the stars of one heaven, the rays of one sun, the trees of one orchard, the flowers of one garden.

Should harmony of thought and absolute unity be non-existent, that gathering shall be dispersed and that Assembly be brought to naught.

The second condition: They must, when coming together, turn their faces to the Kingdom on High and ask aid from the Realm of Glory. They must then proceed with the utmost devotion, courtesy, dignity, care and moderation to express their views.

They must in every matter search out the truth and not insist upon their own opinion, for stubbornness and persistence in one’s views will lead ultimately to discord and wrangling and the truth will remain hidden.

The honoured members must with all freedom express their own thoughts and  is in no wise permissible for one to belittle the thought of another, nay, he must with moderation set forth the truth, and should differences of opinion arise a majority of voices must prevail, and all must obey and submit to the majority.

It is again not permitted that any one of the honoured members object to or censure, whether in or out of the meeting, any decision arrived at previously, though that decision be not right, for such criticism would prevent any decision from being enforced. In short, whatsoever thing is arranged in harmony and with love and purity of motive, its result is light, and should the least trace of estrangement prevail the result shall be darkness upon darkness.  (Shoghi Effendi, Principles of Bahá’í Administration, P.42-43)

Individual Initiative and Universal Participation

 Because there is no clergy in the Faith, we rely on individual initiative and universal participation:

 In the human body, every cell, every organ, every nerve has its part to play. When all do so the body is healthy, vigorous, radiant, ready for every call made upon it. No cell, however humble, lives apart from the body, whether in serving it or receiving from it. (The Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 42)

It’s not easy to implement, since most Baha’is have not grown up in the Faith, and are used to waiting for other leaders to tell them what to do.

It is the bounden duty of every American believer … to initiate, promote, and consolidate, within the limits fixed by the administrative principles of the Faith, any activity he or she deems fit to undertake for the furtherance of the Plan…. Let him not wait for any directions, or expect any special encouragement, from the elected representatives of his community, nor be deterred by any obstacles which his relatives, or fellow-citizens may be inclined to place in his path, nor mind the censure of his critics or enemies.”  (Shoghi Effendi, Unlocking the Power of Action)

Here is how the interaction between the individual and the institutions plays out:

The authority to direct the affairs of the Faith locally, nationally and internationally, is divinely conferred on elected institutions. However, the power to accomplish the tasks of the community resides primarily in the mass of the believers. The authority of the institutions is an irrevocable necessity for the progress of humanity; its exercise is an art to be mastered. The power of action in the believers is unlocked at the level of individual initiative and surges at the level of collective volition. In its potential, this mass power, this mix of individual potentialities, exists in a malleable form susceptible to the multiple reactions of individuals to the sundry influences at work in the world. To realize its highest purpose, this power needs to express itself through orderly avenues of activity. Even though individuals may strive to be guided in their actions by their personal understanding of the Divine Texts, and much can be accomplished thereby, such actions, untempered by the overall direction provided by authorized institutions, are incapable of attaining the thrust necessary for the unencumbered advancement of civilization.  (Universal House of Justice, Unlocking the Power of Action)

Servant Leadership

In the Baha’i Faith, service is seen as the highest station.

 The truth, however, is that the Bahá’í community has no leaders as such and those who are elected or appointed to administrative office are expected to be servants of the Cause, manifesting self-effacement, humility and detachment from the things of this world. An inherent characteristic of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh is that it does not harbour egotistical personalities. Its watchword is the servitude exemplified by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, whose supplication to God was to give Him ‘to drink from the chalice of selflessness’ and to make Him as ‘dust’ in the pathway of the loved ones of God.  (Adib Taherzadeh, The Child of the Covenant, p. 293)

 Spiritually Based

Leadership in the Baha’i Faith is spiritual rather than material.  We are promised:

These Spiritual Assemblies are aided by the Spirit of God. Their defender is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Over them He spreadeth His wings. What bounty is there greater than this? … These Spiritual Assemblies are shining lamps and heavenly gardens, from which the fragrances of holiness are diffused over all regions, and the lights of knowledge are shed abroad over all created things. From them the spirit of life streameth in every direction. They, indeed, are the potent sources of the progress of man, at all times and under all conditions.  (‘Abdu’l-Bahá: God Passes By, p. 332)

 Community Building

Leadership is seen as “community building”:

 Those who serve in these settings, both local inhabitants and visiting teachers, would rightly view their work in terms of community building…. a process that seeks to raise capacity within a population to take charge of its own spiritual, social and intellectual development.”  (Universal House of Justice, Ridván Message, 2010, paragraph 5)

We don’t yet understand the effects of this new form of leadership:

 Therefore, in this organic, divinely guided, blessed and illumined body the participation of every believer is of the utmost importance, and is a source of power and vitality as yet unknown to us.  (The Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 42)

For more information on the topic of leadership in the Baha’i Faith, you might also find these articles helpful:

A System for Global Governance

 The ‘Ethics of Leadership’ – through serving Universal Participation on Baha’i Institutions

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