A Study of Sheikh Mujib’s Leadership Traits


Muhammad Solaiman*
Shaila Solaiman**

Abstract: This paper attempts to explain the leadership traits of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Although a plethora of study endeavor to examine the leadership of Shkeik Mujib, none of them employ trait theory to examine his leadership. Against this backdrop, this study attempts to understand the leadership qualities of Mujib by using trait theory. In doing so, the study also critically examines the trait theory of leadership and its limitations. The findings of this paper suggest that Mujib’s induction into national politics was the result of his proven capacity of leadership and long experience of public life. Since his childhood he displayed two main qualities of leadership which would one day make him the undisputed leader of the country. One was a hyper active social-conscious and another over-riding passion for politics. Mujib had many traits of leadership that identified him as a leader of the common man and the downtrodden. Moreover, his sacrifice and qualities of leadership eventually made him veritable symbol of the spirit of the emergence of Bangladesh. Few leaders, – in history, indeed, have been able to represent so fully the aspirations of their people as the Sheikh.

Keywords: Leadership, Trait theory, Traits of Sheikh Mujib.


The emergence of trait leadership dates back to Thomas Carlyle’s ‘great man’ theory, which stated that “the history of the world was the biography of great man”(Carlyle, 1849). In other words, history is shaped by the forces of extraordinary leadership. The great leader is the one who keeps his fellow charmed and spell bound due to his extraordinary leadership traits. He is seen by his followers as being all powerful, all wise, and morally perfect. One of the outstanding traits of a great leader is his mass appeal. He consciously seeks to gain control over the citizens not just by the impact of force but, more significantly by appealing for affirmative and enthusiastic devotion. He identifies himself with the popular mood and expresses their aspirations. A great leader seems most likely to emerge during periods when the force of neither tradition nor mere emotion appears to be adequate to cope with mounting political crisis or situation. In case of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, he started his political career since 1938, the year that a young school lad from Gopalganj first met Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, who was later to become his political ‘Guru’ (master). Later on in 1955, the year that Mujib took up the helm of the Awami League (AL) as its General Secretary. This was the party that eventually led us to the independence movement in 1971 again, under the leadership of none other than Sheikh Mujib, who was not just a “political colossus, but who, standing tall and with a commanding physical presence, was literally larger than life”(Quayum, 2013).

The land slide victory of Bangladesh AL in the 1970 general elections in the twenty three year existence of Pakistan created a positive leadership trait around Mujib as a national hero of Bangladesh. Mujib’s emergence, consequent upon popular mandate, came as a significant departure from earlier bureaucratic-military leadership, as was soon in evidence when he was acclaimed ‘Bangabandhu’ (friend of Bengal). It has been observed that “No man in the entire history of modern world except Mao for different reasons has hypnotized his people as Mujib did” (Bhatnagar, 1971: 15). He also attained international recognition as an astute third world leader, which was not an inconsiderable accolade. It is to note that Mujib did not inherit leadership, but grew into a leader. As he himself described it, in an interview with David Frost (1972), he spent many years at hard work with the party organization before reaching the top. By dint of hard labor and perseverance he rose step by step to the pinnacle of power and glory. It would not be an exaggeration to say that during the whole course of the liberation war Mujib symbolized the urge of the Bengalee for their emancipation and became the architect of the Bengalee nation with the emergence of Bangladesh. Against this backdrop, the present article makes an attempt to identify and examine the leadership traits of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Simultaneously the study will examine the trait theory of leadership and its limitations.

Theoretical Formulations

Traits can be defined as an individual’s general characteristics including capacities, motives or patterns of behavior. In leadership terms this means that ‘leaders are not like other people’. Instead the genetic traits of an individual make them eligible to be a future leader and they are subsequently selected into leadership positions because of their genetic traits (Wikipedia, 2013).

The Trait Theory: It may be said that early leadership research focused on the leader himself to the virtual exclusion of other variables. This gradually took the form of a theory, “The Trait Theory” of leadership which assured that leadership could be explained by isolating psychological and physical characteristics or traits, presumed to differentiate the leader from other members of his group. Some sought unitary leadership traits capable of characterizing leaders whenever found; others looked for a constellation of traits constituting general leadership.

Researchers attempted to find a set of identifiable individual characteristics or traits that could differentiate successful from unsuccessful leaders. Researchers began an exhaustive search to identify biographical, personality, emotional, physical, intellectual, and other personal characteristics of successful leaders. It is to be noted that a good number of reviews have been undertaken of the many studies made in this search for leadership traits. The most comprehensive survey was made by R.M. Stogdill in 1948 (Stogdill, 1977:35-71). The more commonly identified, so-called “leadership traits” reported by Stogdill include the following: (1) Physical and constitutional factors: height, weight, physique, energy, health, appearance, (2) intelligence; (3) self-confidence; (4) sociability; (5) will (initiative, persistence, ambition); (6) dominance; and (7) surgency (i.e., talkativeness, cheerfulness and originality). The list of important leadership traits is endless and grows with each passing year.

Despite the groaning criticism of trait leadership, Zaccaro pointed out that individual trait could still be predictors of leader effectiveness and accordingly he developed a trait leadership model.

Zaccaro’s Traits Leadership Model

Zaccaro created a model to understand leader traits and their influence on leader effectiveness. This model is based on two basic premises about leader traits. The first premise is that leadership emerges from the combined influence of multiple traits as opposed to emerging from the independent assessment of traits. Zaccaro argued that effective leadership is derived from an integrative set of cognitive abilities, social capabilities and dispositional tendencies, with each set of traits adding to the influence of the other (Wikipedia, 2013). The second premise is that leadership traits differ in their proximal influence on leadership. This model is a multistage one in which certain distant attributes (i.e. dispositional attributes, cognitive abilities, and motives or values) serve as precursors for the development of proximal personal characteristics (i.e. social skills, problem solving skills and experts knowledge). Adopting this categorization approach and based on several comprehensive reviews of trait leadership in recent years, this model (Table.1) of leader traits has been formulated.

Table: 1 Leader Traits based on Zaccaro’s Model.


Source: (Zaccaro, 2004: 124).

Trait leadership theory has limitations as pointed out by some scholars. It is “too simplistic” because the actual effectiveness of leaders has been relatively unexplored. Another limitation is its silence on the influence of situational context. Moreover, trait leadership sometimes not adequate to consider the integration of multiple traits when, studying the effects of traits on leadership effectiveness. Further more, what may be important traits for one occupation may not be important for other roles in the same organizations.

Dissatisfaction with the trait approach has given rise not only to an examination of group functions and their relation to leadership, but also to the situation in which the group is located.  In spite of these limitations, the significance of trait theory in the study of leadership can not be ignored. Because, researchers attempted to find a set of identifiable individual characteristics or traits that could differentiate successful from unsuccessful leaders (Zaccaro, 2007: 6-16).

Influences upon Mujib

For a proper understanding of Mujib’s leadership traits it is essential to analyze the various influences upon him because political motivations have their roots in the sub-conscious sources formed during the early period of life (Lasswell, 1930). It is to note that from his school days he was interested in politics. Politics was dearer to him than anything else and it was politics which made him the undisputed leader of the country. Sheikh Mujib displayed two main qualities which would one day make him the central figure in politics. One was a hyperactive social conscience or an over-riding passion for politics (Mascarenhas, 1986:12). In his personal note book he himself wrote:

“As a man, what concerns mankind concerns me. As a Bengalee, I am deeply involved in all that concerns Bengalees. This abiding involvement is born of and nourished by love, enduring love, which gives meaning to my politics and to my very being” (Rahman, 2012).

This celebrated statement immediately explains why he was so vigorously drawn to political activities even as a young boy.

Most of the leaders of the world were influenced by their mothers. In case of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt his mother tried to plan most of his life. He entered politics, which was influenced by his cousin, Theodore Roosevelt. But Mujib, in early life, was influenced by his father whose two traits of character he regarded as exemplary: honesty and forthrightness. It is to note that Mujib, was brought up when India was undergoing intense phase of national struggle. He had streak of a revolutionary and was influenced not only by Fazlul Haq and Suhrawardy but also “in a way, Subhash Chandra Bose … Sheikh Mujib was inspired, stirred and electrified by whatever was current those days” (Bhatnagar, 1971:25-26). In this regard a noted political analyst James J. Novak observes: “From Huq, Mujib took not only the party organization and contacts but also remembrance that the 1940 Pakistan Resolution had called for two Muslim states. From Suhrawardy he inherited a sense of secular and socialist politics” (Novak, 2008:156). Subhash Bose’s influence on Mujib was tremendous.  It has been observed: “Mujib was influenced by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. He was following directives similar to those that Netaji issued for his country men way back in 1933. What was done in 1933 under none to similar circumstances was repeated in 1971 when Mujib found no way out and the Pakistani military machine was bent upon doing what it pleased. He issued a set of directives that will do credit to any nationalist and in a way went much further than that issued by Subhash” (Bhatnagar, 1971:43). In Mujib’s early student days he had come under the influence of Subhash and had been in close touch with Netaji’s elder brother, Sarat Chandra Bose. He was inspired by Netaji’s ideals on anti-imperialist struggle and participated in the movement for the removal of the Holwell Monument in Calcutta. Like Netaji, he was free from communal considerations. Mujib, in spite of the campaign for Pakistan, remained essentially a non-communal, secular man. That was also the trait of character of Subhash Bose. Mujib gave to his people a slogan “Joi Bangla” (victory to Bengal) which is similar to Netaji’s “Joi Hind” (Victory of India). Like Subhash Bose, he too had captured the fancy of the young and was loved by his fellow Bengalees.

It is to note that Mujib’s nationalist philosophy developed in three stages: he began as a secular nationalist, being influenced by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Desbandhu Chittaranjan Das (1870-1925) and Netaji Subhash Bose (1897-1945); however, disillusioned by the religious strife between Hindus and Muslims during this period, he got drawn into religious nationalism; finally, prodded by the indifference of the Pakistani rulers towards the Bengali language and their unremitting injustice towards the Bengali-speaking people of East Pakistan, he became a resolute linguistic nationalist (Quayum, 2013).

Mujib was not a Gandhian but he adopted Gandhian methods of non-violence and non-cooperation for realization of political demands. Gandhi’s favorite, and, obviously, one of the very effective, methods to rouse the public opinion was civil disobedience movement and Mujib adopted it frequently.

Mention may be made of the fact that although Mujib continued to be inspired by the ideals of Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani up to the early fifties, at the end he actually sided with Suhrawardy. The style of life of Suhrawardy as an upper class liberal politician attracted Mujib more than the idealism of Maulana to fight for the downtrodden. Mujib’s background and class character went well with Suhrawardy’s urge to uphold bourgeois democratic values. Mujib obtained his lessons on western parliamentary system from Suhrawardy. It has been observed that “Sheikh Mujib was a protégé of Suhrawardy and was schooled by him in politics; his political commitments were firmly with the elitist group” (Rahman, 2012: 10-11; see also Gough & Sharma, 1973:168).

Mujib’s organizing capacity and his knowledge of mass psychology and his devotion to the cause of Muslim League and Pakistan endeared him to Suhrawardy. Mujib met Suhrawardy when the latter came to Gopalganj in 1938. This was the first time Mujib came into contact with him. Suhrawardy spotted him and realized that he was a political worker, young and vital with tremendous drive and initiative. It might be recalled that since that meeting at Gopalganj, Mujib was always in correspondence with Suhrawardy and that was the beginning of their friendship which lasted till his death. Mujib remained loyal to his political ‘guru’ (master) throughout his life.

Mujib’s Leadership Traits

An examination of Sheikh Mujib’s leadership traits will help us to understand how great leader he was. Mujib had many traits of his dynamic leadership that identified him as a leader of the common man and the downtrodden. He had unconsciously imbibed the values and ideals of the British humanist liberal tradition, because the formative years of his political career were spent in active association with liberal democratic leaders. His resilient mind imbibed the very spirit of the British liberal humanist tradition. It included gradualism, adaptability, adjustability, peaceful progress, resilience and electicism, supremacy of reason and rational norms. These qualities went to constitute Mujib’s mental make up, his habits of mind, his likes and dislikes, and above all his leadership traits.

Mujib was a towering personality, a pleasing personality. He was taller than the average Bengali and his voice was heavy. “He will not whisper softly: but talk in a commanding voice” (Bhatnagar, 1971:141). He was a typical middle class Bengali both in food habit (Fazal, 1978: 58) and dress. With his graying hairs thrown back, dark rimmed glasses and the pipe in his left hand he looked an impressive personality. It should be pointed out that only thing foreign in Mujib’s possession was the pipe he smoked. Even when the Sheikh died in a pool of blood, his pipe was clutched in his hand. Some of the great leaders of the world had the typical style of smoking too. Winston Churchill was rarely seen without a cigar during his time as Britain’s wartime leader, so much so that a large cigar size was named in his honor. Further more, other renowned leaders like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were often seen smoking a cigar during the early days of Cuban revolution.  He was usually dressed in long flowing Punjabi (Kurta), Pyjama (trouser) and a black jacket – used to be called “Mujib Coat”. He was a dedicated leader, “a loving father” (Kamal, 1973) and an understanding comrade.

He was different from many other leaders, contemporary or old. He was a leader of the masses and he enjoyed their unbounded love. He not only loved to mix with them, but drew inspiration from them. He did not believe in ivory tower politics. He was neither an arm chair political leader nor a pseudo – intellectual political thinker and theoretician. He was dedicated and had indomitable courage that was the hallmark of a true leader. He was a true mass leader who had his roots deep in the soil of his country and in his people. In this regard it was aptly observed:

“As for the Sheikh, hard work shaped his style. Indefatigable, he visited district and sub-district towns, walked across fields from village to village, and mingled with the people, sharing their tea, rice, dhal, and salt, remembering names, praying at mosques, sweating in fields, visiting flood sites, weeping at funerals and milads, services for the dead. Intellectually lazy he empathized mightily, intuited sympathetically, and reached out and touched-not golf clubs and club chairs but the people’s sweaty and grimy hands. By ever returning to the hustings, he imbibed the people’s feelings and aspirations, so that when away from them he could gauge with superhuman accuracy their reactions to events. He knew what they believed because he could explain things not only in terms they could understand but in ones they respected. Knowing that, they believed he did not need to lie. They spoke to him honestly, as he spoke to them” (Novak, 2008:165).

On a personal level, Mujib emerged as a simple, sincere, honest, devoted, loyal, loving, compassionate and brave individual, who was idealistic yet pragmatic, ambitious yet selfless, determined yet humble, and above all, always unwavering and incorruptible in his faith in himself, his people and his principles. He would invariably stand by his people and fight for their rights and privileges, and in return he enjoyed their unconditional love and confidence (Quayum, 2013). There were many incidents in which Mujib stood up for a cause or against an act of injustice on an individual or a group of people, risking his own life or the potential of being hauled off to jail. But he was never cowed or deterred by fear in his fight against injustice, a quality that automatically made him a people’s hero (Quayum, 2013).

From the very beginning of his life, he was against any kind of compromise with any body against what he thought just. He refused not only to compromise with his principles but stoutly refused to bow to the authorities. For instance, in 1948 Mujib was expelled as a law student of the Dhaka University for taking active part in politics. It was later decided that the expulsion order would be revoked on his signing a bond of good behavior. But Mujib refused to sign any bond. It is to be noted that all other expelled students signed the bond and earned their re-entry into the University. Mujib remained an expelled student and later explained: “I did not come to the University to bow my head to injustice” (Mascarenhas, 1986:19). Disgusted with the authorities, he left the University for Good. Mujib had to forgo his studies – he was studying law – but he did not compromise with his principles and did not surrender. Such was the spirit of Mujib.

Mujib provided a rabble rousing charismatic leadership (Ali, 1973:45). He excelled as a public speaker and a good orator. He was called a ‘poet of politics’. He was fluent, captivating and impressive in his speeches. He would carefully choose phrases and symbols likely to create lasting impression in their minds. His ability to charm audiences while fracturing both the Bengali and English languages is often recalled with amusement and nostalgia. His great strength and success lay in an elemental ability to fathom the full measure of his people’s emotions. He was also a talented organizer. Through hard work, organizing skill and winsome manners, he built up an excellent political image as a leader. For example, Mujib had an excellent memory to remember names. He boasted that in spite of his enormous political activities he could remember the name of every party worker or person he met (Ukil, 1986). He was a shrewd observer of human nature.

He was a practicing Muslim no doubt, prayed and red the Holy Quran on a regular basis, but he refused to be circumscribed by his religious identity. Thus in a conversation with Chandra Babu, a fellow politician from Gopalganj, when the two were in jail together in 1951, Sheikh Mujib affirms, “Don’t worry, I … treat people as people. In politics I make no distinction between Muslims, Hindus and Christians; all are part of the same human race” (Rahman, 2012:191). It is to note that after the independence, secularism was incorporated in The Constitution of Bangladesh (1972) as one of the basic principles of the state policy. This undoubtedly, reflects Mujib’s secular attitude towards politics.

He was a mass agitator. He agitated about the fundamental issues and ideas and attempted to convey them to others. He did not resist even from using force as a means to his objectives. He was aware of the psychology of the masses. He had become one with the masses. He took to the masses and the masses took to him. It was the process of his contacts with the masses that continued till his death. Mention may be made of the fact that not caring anything about his personal or family’s safety or security; he preferred to live in his own house at Dhanmondi. Although for security – reasons he was advised repeatedly by his close associates to shift at his official residence having adequate security measures. But he always declined to shift. Because, he could not even dream of being killed by his own country men (Bengalees) in such a brutal manner, which brought a tragic end of his life along with his family members in August 1975. It suggests that he had blind love and faith upon his people and he always enjoyed residing amidst common masses as “Mujib Bhai” (brother) or “Bangabandhu” (friend of Bangladesh) till his death.

He was stubborn and monomaniac. While sentimental he was considerate too. If anybody tried to convince him, he used to bend to his logic. Thus his temperament was not only of an obstinate nature but logical and amenable at the same time. He was also ambivalent and had contradictions that of a bourgeoisie political leader. He made a lot of tall promises with the people. How far he could implement his promises and assurance into actual practice was quite a different aspect. It is true, for several constraints both domestic and external he could not fulfill the rising expectations of the common people immediately after the independence in 1971. However, there was no dearth of his endeavor and sincerity in improving people’s life in a war – torn country.

He was a man of principle and courage, unyielding under pressure, but warmly responsive to generosity. He was sensitive as well as resilient, logical rather than intuitive, forceful but reflective, explosive but magnanimous, proud but aware of his own deficiencies. By and large, he was a very soft hearted man (Fazal, 1978:83).

He was ebullient, garrulous, bold, emotional, and in many ways well meaning. His leadership reflected the confluence of so many traits: humanism, liberalism, nationalism, secularism, socialism and authoritarianism. Undoubtedly, since his early days Mujib had the traits of character fit for a mass leader. He possessed all the qualities of a leader born to bring hope and succor to the masses and to raise them to the level of respectability.

For any understanding of Mujib’s actions and omissions in politics, one cannot ignore his background and his contact with the then aforesaid great leaders. He emerged as a man of strong emotions and strong likes and dislikes. And that extreme trait is also reflected in evaluations of Mujib both as a man and as a politician. If to some he was a great savior and hero, to others he was a great villain. In an interview with one of us, a former principal secretary of Bangladesh Government suggests that “Mujib saw everything in simplistic terms. He had a tendency to over-simplify even the most complex political and economic problems” (Quddus, 1986). He had an overriding obsession for power too. But it was never for personal gain or at the expense of his ideals. He wanted power to serve his country and to alter the fortunes of the insulted and the humiliated in society. He was a true patriot, for whom service was the ultimate mission. He was wary of politicians “who had no principle or ideals,” for, as he wrote in a tone of revulsion, “They were in politics for personal gain and they did not really care about their country” (Quayum, 2013). Sheikh Mujib derisively comments summing up his own out look vis-à-vis that of the vast majority of self-indulgent, hoggish politicians around him: “The nation will not benefit from having unscrupulous people in power. That can only help men who are interested in their own advancement … we might attain a position of power one way or the other, but we won’t be able to do anything for the people that way and in any case power got by expedient means will soon evaporate” (Quayum, 2013).

However, Sheikh Mujib’s leadership traits made him fully capable of fulfilling his essential objectives of acquiring national independence from the clutches of Pakistani “internal colonialism”, establishment of democracy and socio-economic progress of his much pronounced “Sonar Bangla” (Golden Bengal). He had to carefully identify sources capable of facilitating his objectives. He had to cultivate a mutual interaction with his followers and in that he had to organize and lead his political party – the AL for support and sustenance. He had also to cultivate an effective relationship with the students, who were the vanguard of the movement, bureaucracy, entrepreneurs and industrialists, business community, middle class bourgeois, and intellectuals who were his main support base. He established a viable linkage with the common man in Bangladesh through his typically populist style and skilful political tactics. All these requirements also necessitated his taking recourse to democratic political process through his leadership traits.

Concluding Observations

From the above discussion, it may be said that the trait leadership is defined as integrated patterns of personal characteristics that reflect a range of individual differences and foster consistent leader effectiveness. The theory of trait leadership developed from early leadership research which focused primarily on finding a group of heritable attributes that differentiated leaders from non leaders. Leader effectiveness refers to the amount of influence a leader has on individual or group performance, followers’ satisfaction and over all effectiveness. Many scholars have argued that leadership is unique to only a select number of individuals and that these individuals possess certain immutable traits that can not be developed. Although this perspective has been criticized immensely over the past century scholars still continue to study the effects of leadership traits on leader effectiveness. Recent research has demonstrated that successful leaders differ from other people and possess certain core leadership traits that significantly contribute to their success. Therefore, in the study of leadership, the importance of trait theory can not be over looked. It is obvious that leadership is a complex social phenomenon and it is apparent that no single approach can be suggested as the method to study leadership, without delimiting the subject matter. It is true that leadership exists with reference to the social organization of a particular community and is also heavily influenced by the social climate and the system of values prevailing in that community.

Of the patterns of political leadership identified, Mujib seems to approximate to the emerging pattern in developing societies not simply because he belonged to one such system but also owing to his extra ordinary leadership traits. He was ebullient, garrulous, bold, courageous and emotional. His actions were guided by his impulses, emotions and heart and not always by head. His leadership reflected the confluence of so many traits as humanism, liberalism, nationalism, secularism, socialism and even authoritarianism. He had the traits of character fit for a mass leader. There is no denying the fact that he possessed charismatic attributes of leadership. His charismatic appeal was deeper and widespread as compared to the preceding great leaders like H.S. Suhrawardy, A.K Fazlul Huq, and Maulana A.H.K. Bhashani. He had also tremendous capacity to divert political symbols such as linguistic and regional affinities to his own and to his party’s advantage. He was a group leader as well as a leader of the masses. In Bangladesh no other leader enjoyed such credit and popularity with the masses as Mujib. His leadership of the masses was more inspiring owing to his excellent leadership traits.

It is to be noted that Mujib’s induction into national politics was the result of his proven capacity of leadership and long experience of public life. His sacrifice and qualities of leadership made him the veritable symbol of the spirit of the emergence of Bangladesh. Few leaders, in history, indeed, have been able to represent so fully the aspirations of their people as the Sheikh. Yet, despite the legend of Sheikh Mujib, his charismatic appeal, and his hypnotic spell over the masses, he was not as successful as an administrator or as a ruler. So, a leader needs to be guided more by ‘head’ than ‘heart’.


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Wikipedia. 2013. “Trait Leadership”, See, http://en.wiki/Trait-leadership, accessed on 10 May.

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*    Professor, Department of Government and Politics, Jahangirngar University, Savar, Dhaka

**  Assistant Professor, Department of Political Studies, Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, Sylhet

4 thoughts on “A Study of Sheikh Mujib’s Leadership Traits”

  1. actually i’m felling proud after reading this article.b coz i am a student of our beloved madam……islam,pss,sust

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