Four Leadership Lessons From Dubai’s Ruling Family - Gulf Business
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Four Leadership Lessons From Dubai’s Ruling Family

Four Leadership Lessons From Dubai’s Ruling Family

Dubai’s ruling Al Maktoum family offers an excellent example of leadership, writes Nicolai Tillisch.


As the emirate works hard on settling accumulated debt while simultaneously announcing new grandiose plans, Dubai is an economic wonder and a continuous source of excitement.

Be visionary

Dubai demonstrates that a vision can become almost self-fulfilling and make the near-impossible happen. The Al Maktoum’s visions for Dubai are a world apart from the vision and mission statements that are formulated half-heartedly by so many executive teams around the world, that are basically fluffy extrapolations of what their companies are more or less already doing.

The current ruler’s father and former emir, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum, was naturally met with plenty of scepticism when he started transforming the small town of Dubai into an international hub for trade, transport and tourism. He laid the groundwork for today’s amazing infrastructure with foreign financing even before his emirate’s oil resources were discovered, which was relatively late and in moderate quantities.

Sheikh Rashid envisioned early on that Dubai’s oil wealth would be temporary and that the emirate would fall behind and back into past hardship, unless serious actions were taken. His philosophy, which his sons and other family members are applying to this very day, is that extensive supply can create impressive demand. Dubai has been built on visions, not on foreign experts’ estimates of immediate demand.


In my work with executives in the Middle East and elsewhere, I often emphasise that what is not communicated does not exist for people around them. Clear, consistent and continuous communication has an immense power, and Dubai is an excellent example of this.

Within about 10 years, the emirate has gone from being a place few people have heard of to one that most informed people around the world have some perception of and where the international social elite visits regularly.

This road has been paved by small attention-grabbing events such as the tennis match between Andre Agassi and Roger Federer on the helipad of the Burj Al Arab hotel and the deployment by Dubai Police of a Ferrari and a Lamborghini as part of their fleet, as well as by other international iconic monuments like Palm Jumeirah and Burj Khalifa.

The art of communication is very close to the heart of today’s ruler, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum. Not only is he a popular and respected poet and the author of the bestselling book My Vision, he also now has more than two million people following his daily reflections on life via Twitter. He is regularly present at formal events and often appears as if from nowhere to inspect his emirate personally and speak with its residents and visitors.

Nurture business acumen

No executive can claim any achievement by just following the classical textbook on leadership, as his or her actual results are what ultimately count. In this regard, it is striking that several of the Gulf’s most well run companies are closely associated with the Al Maktoum family. Among these are DP World, du, Dubal, Emirates Airlines, Emaar and Jumeirah Group.

Underneath Dubai’s extravagant surface lie several highly efficient economic engines. New businesses have been started and critical decisions made with a meticulously mercantile mindset. Customers should be satisfied and money should be made. Experienced management teams have been hired, given good degrees of freedom but required to generate profit from early on, and meet increasing expectations from their owners as they progress.

Dubai has had a sound business model for much of its ongoing commercial activities despite its debt issue, which became evident in late 2009. The emirate now has about $64 billion of debt maturing over the next three years. The situation was triggered by highly optimistic asset valuations combined with excessive availability of cheap loans and followed by the international credit crunch.

Places such as Hong Kong, Miami and Singapore, where demand and supply of real estate likewise have skyrocketed in certain periods, have had to deal with their own lows due to sudden large imbalances after enjoying times when almost everything was growing.

Be persistent

Effective visions, branding and business decisions mostly have simplicity in common and therefore look easy to bystanders. The single most critical factor in leadership can thus easily be overlooked: persistence. The myriad of daily choices and stubborn follow-throughs are difficult to see from the outside but unavoidably felt on the inside. You are unlikely to sustain a level of extraordinary achievement by simply staying inside your comfort zone.

For instance, Sheikh Mohammed undertook a unprecedented transformation of Dubai’s government institutions. Talented young nationals are identified irrespective of background and trained through a leadership programme with his close personal involvement. The performance of each government body and thereby the leaders is thoroughly measured and forms the basis for decisions about promotions.

If New York is the city that never sleeps, then Dubai is the place that is never satisfied with the status quo but instead always pushes the boundaries of what is possible.

Nicolai Tillisch is the author of ‘Effective Business in The Gulf: Mastering Leadership Skills for Greater Success’ and the founder of Dual Impact, the Dubai-based consulting and coaching company.


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