Learning Leadership in the Emirates
Norm Smallwood and Dave Ulrich are co-founders of The RBL Group, a strategic HR and leadership systems advisory firm. The two are author, with Kate Sweetman, of the 2009 Harvard Business School title, Leadership Code: Five Rules to Lead By.
With Dubai's popularity as a cosmopolitan hot spot, Abu Dhabi's growth as a global financial center and the country's renewable energy initiatives, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has staked an indisputable claim in the global business arena. In working closely with executives there, we've seen up close how this Middle Eastern culture creates a unique style of leadership -- one that we would do well to understand.
The metaphor for a successful leader in the UAE is that of a family patriarch, as embodied by the dynamic Sheikh Zayed, who ruled Abu Dhabi for nearly 40 years, formed the UAE and was re-elected as its leader five times. This "father of the nation" was renowned for his vision and generosity as he turned the advantages of oil revenues into social and economic prosperity. Zayed was less an autocrat than a leader who made decisions by consensus.
In the ideal leadership model, a patriarch does more than provide for the financial needs of his family. He has a fatherly responsibility for the overall success of an organization--in both business and government. Patriarchs rarely fire people, but if severance is necessary, they make generous payments.
When a private UAE company purchased a bank, for example, it found the 425 existing employees were unqualified to transform it to a modern organization. The buyers brought in a completely new staff, but gave the former employees liberal pensions and allowed them a 12-month transition period.
In another example, the Sheik asked an important government leader to become the CEO of a private company. In other cultures, senior leaders would object to losing such a valued player. Here, they were proud to sacrifice a good leader to a company that could help the country grow. Success in the UAE is defined by how much one contributes to the society, either serving in government or the private sector or both.
Omar Kader, Chairman of the Board of the Middle East Policy Council in D.C., describes Emirati leadership as being "all about personal relationships and networking." It's very common for successful Emirati leaders to have a job with the government and another in a family business.
As a leader develops, he can move to different organizations while maintaining "side" ventures. This type of networking is seen as an opportunity to develop personally, build the country and create wealth. Effective networks include government as well as business contacts and are crucial to leveraging opportunity.
Leadership development is viewed as a serious topic because of this sense of duty about building the nation. Senior UAE leaders know their people need professional development, and Emirati citizens are offered generous incentives to attend top American or European universities. After graduation, development opportunities continue as organizations sponsor leading thinkers to hold workshops or send people to courses around the world.
However, because culture in the UAE is family-oriented, development opportunities are based on patriarchal logic as well as high-performance logic. An American company might argue that someone does not "deserve" the investment of the development process due to lack of ability. In the UAE, there is less concern for efficiency and more concern for the long-term leadership development needs of the country and for opportunity based on loyalty and other ties.
Is there anything for the rest of the world to learn from the UAE's understanding of leadership, defined as it is by generosity and family ties? At the least, as we are obliged to start learning about this approach to leadership, to see both its strengths and weaknesses. What's required from us is the patience to learn.
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