Can You Spot The Chameleon Leader?

Which kind of leader are you? The chameleon, the wheeler dealer, or the humble surgeon?



One question was central when I began the research for my recently published book – is there a certain leadership style that is significantly more successful than others in the Gulf?

I compiled available data and information on the region’s companies and asked everybody I encountered in my business circles in the region.

My conclusion was that there is no universal recipe for success in the region. Some companies and their leaders are thriving with distinctively American, British, Indian or Gulf Arabic approaches for doing business, while others are slowed down by corporate cultures that resemble indefinable cross-breeds, creating a recipe for confusion.

There are, however, a number of sometimes successful leadership styles, which are all common in the Gulf to an extent that I have not seen anywhere else in the world.

The first type are the Chameleon Leaders, who, like the chameleon in nature, adapt their colours to the surroundings and can be difficult to spot. They are absent among entrepreneurs but flourish where there is a boss to report to. The style is reactive to the extent of obedience. Decisions from above are pushed downwards in the organisation without curiosity regarding better ideas or concerns. Problems can make them completely invisible because they blame their subordinates.

Some bosses insist on being served by Chameleon Leaders, who can also have personal reasons for acting as they do. Among them are Western expatriates, who have taken their career and lifestyle higher than they could expect elsewhere and are now afraid of losing out. Another example is business leaders from the Eastern hemisphere, who avoid the risk of saying and doing something unwise and thereby losing face.

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The second type are the Wheeler Dealer Leaders, who can make a used car appear attractive and get their way through charm and maybe a bit of pushing. If asked for the impossible, as customers and superiors sometimes do in the Gulf, then they can often succeed anyway by using their magic. Meanwhile, colleagues, customers and partners can be concerned about what is real and who benefits from what.

A good Wheeler Dealer Leader is by heart a good salesperson in the most classical sense. The occurrence of Wheeler Dealers in the Gulf is helped by the fact that a large proportion of business in the region is conducted by sales offices for international companies, which have most of their other activities located elsewhere.

The third type are the Surgeon Leaders, who do not try to fix the whole world but focus on the most critical condition, like a doctor in an operating theatre. They often refrain from conducting two procedures simultaneously due to the much higher risk of complications. A Surgeon Leader can be as proactive as a Wheeler Dealer but is careful not to be perceived as going behind the back of senior stakeholders. He or she can be reactive like the Chameleon on matters not prioritised but can turn into one when prioritising too tightly.

During my research, I talked with several of my former colleagues from McKinsey & Company, the management consultancy, who today are executives in the Gulf. They have a tendency to fall into the Surgeon category but several of them said that it is a very different way of working from how they have been used to in other places. In more usual circumstances, consultants tend to like trying to fix everything.

Furthermore, my observation is that many of the executives and middle managers, who share their frustrations about superiors in the region, as many unfortunately do, either fall in between two of these three styles or do not live one of them in the right way in the right place.

As an example of the latter is Western professionals who work in an environment where they have good reasons for acting as a Surgeon, and have the credentials to become good ones; instead, they try to get everybody around them, regardless of cultural background and previous practices, to start working according to the common norms from back home in Europe or North America.

Meanwhile, a Chameleon and Wheeler Dealer hybrid can have similarities to Ricky Gervais’s character in The Office or that of Steve Carell in the adapted American version. They make big fanfares without being able to either carry through their own initiatives or follow the direction of the superiors above them.

Nicolai Tillisch is the founder of the business consulting company Dual Impact and the author of Effective Business In The Gulf: Mastering leadership skills for greater success.

The newly released book can be purchased from Motivate Publishing

TAKE THE QUIZ: Are You A Chameleon Leader? Take The Interactive Test Here

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