Leadership in the Middle East
When asked how many leaders their organisation needs, most people will say one is enough. Too often, when a nation or an organisation does not have one leader acting as its ultimate source of authority, endless conflict results until one wins supremacy. Uniting behind one leader that everyone is loyal to seems like the only way to avoid perpetual struggle.
This seems especially true within Arab culture, which places great emphasis on loyalty. Leaders demand and reward this because history has taught them not to trust anyone who has yet to prove their fidelity many times over. At a Middle Eastern organisation recently, a promising young executive was seconded to a sister firm. In the 10 years he spent there, he was not promoted – his superiors there didn’t see him as one of them, believing his loyalty lay elsewhere. His superior at his original employers also questioned his loyalty, since they hadn’t been able to build up a relationship through day-to-day contact. Without a sponsor and champion, the young executive languished in limbo, and his peers developed the opinion that it is better to refuse a secondment assignment, even if it’s supposed to be temporary.
Preparing for the unexpected
If thinking this through, however, some would develop a more sophisticated mentality of working to protect the organisation against a vacuum at the top. Unexpected things can happen. For example, the company at which I am an independent director was founded and led by a brilliant entrepreneur who was killed in a helicopter crash. Fortunately, the non-executive chairman – a very experienced executive who had retired from a major firm in the same industry a few years earlier – was able to step in within 48 hours. If the company had not had a successor in place, the value that its founder had created would simply have dissolved.
Senior executives in many organisations in the Middle East are wary of succession planning. As soon as someone is named as the leader’s designated successor, a power struggle can result, and key executives in the organisation may become demotivated or even rebel if they are not chosen as heir to the leader. Consequently, many people believe that the wisest thing is to remain silent about who will succeed the leader.
However, succession planning doesn’t mean designating one successor to back up every key leader. It involves developing a pool of potential successors, so that if a leader must be replaced, several candidates are available. Perhaps one is chosen who best fits the requirements of the time, while those who are not chosen are placed in other roles that suit their motivated talents. Few leaders are succeeded by people who have exactly the same strengths and weaknesses as theirs, so leadership succession opens up possibilities to reshuffle roles and create new opportunities for several people to do work that suits their skills.
Many projects, many leaders
An organisation needs as many leaders as it has challenges that require special focus or distinctive skills. ‘Leader’ is not a box in an organisation chart – it is a role linked to a set of challenges. A project management company needs as many leaders as it has projects. If it is pursuing a dozen strategic initiatives, it may need as many as one leader for each, if each requires the full attention of its chief or calls upon skills that are different from other initiatives. The more leaders an organisation has developed, the more challenges it can take on. In turn, the more challenges it takes on, the more new leaders it can groom, expanding its opportunities to grow and thrive.
Most executives in Arab organisations can and should lead from where they are, regardless of the position they occupy. If you see something that needs doing and proactively pull people together to do it, you are leading. If you identify a problem that needs solving and work out an answer or present a solution that can be implemented, the same is true. Likewise, if you spot an opportunity and help the organisation realise it. A leader is someone who is leading something, not a person who holds a particular job title.
Wearing and sharing many leadership hats
One of the most interesting features of Arab leadership is that people at these highest levels have an astonishing number of job titles. You might manage up to 20 significant leadership roles, ranging from enterprises and investment funds to charities and government task forces or trade associations. How do you cope with these responsibilities?
The chances are you have developed a cadre of people you can rely on. Typically, as a senior Arab leader you will have appointed a trusted deputy to run things day-to-day. The chief executive stays on top of the details and maintains accountability for results, but relies on others to lead as well. It is only by leading other leaders that you can discharge your many responsibilities and not become overwhelmed by them.
Ask yourself this question: if you were asked tomorrow to lead 5-10 important initiatives, who would you delegate operational responsibility to? Do you have a pool of trusted associates who can lead in your name? If not, the answer to the question: ‘How many leaders does your organisation need?’ is this: ‘More than we have today’. And it is time for you to invest in developing more of them.