“What does good leadership look like in the Gulf?” This question was included in an otherwise positive email from a reader of my last column here at gulfbusiness.com.
I had written about how maturing markets in the region force companies to compete more intensely and how their ability to execute is closely linked to discipline among their line managers.
The question crystallises a dilemma for many executives and middle managers here, as there is no consensus about the answer. The leadership ideals in traditional Gulf Arabic business and those adopted by the current mainstream in international business are far apart.
There are successful companies in the region that apply one or the other or that work in a way completely different to either. Not many stand out by being well led on all levels of the organisation.
The region has developed too fast and the private sector blends too many foreign cultures, with no common and distinctive approach having been allowed to arise, as has been the case in other emerging markets such as China, India, Singapore and, before them, Japan.
Therefore, you have to figure out what ‘good’ looks like to you.
I do an exercise with individual clients, where I ask them to formulate personal standpoints as a leader in the form of must-do behaviours, both for themselves and their staff. What are the principles that you commit to personally? What do you, as a minimum, demand from your direct reports?
The articulation of personal standpoints makes it easier for others to understand what they should expect from you, as well as what you expect from them. Do you always stand by your own words? Do you demand that others do exactly what you say? How open are you to be challenged? Do you want others to act on their own initiative? How do you view their mistakes? How do you relate to people who do not keep promises or twist the truth?
As you start asking yourself these and other underpinning questions, you will find answers rooted in your personal values and norms, which are so basic that you barely think about them.
You could also decide to build more explicitly on your spirituality, which should come naturally for many leaders in the Gulf. Your company’s needs and possible management guidelines should be taken into account, just like considerations about who your direct reports are. If you have a pressing need for personal development, then this could also motivate its own standpoint.
You will end up with two lists of must-dos: one for yourself and one for your direct reports. You should consider involving your team before you conclude on the list for them, just as you should take good time to explain everything. Properly described behaviours can be understood and observed by people with different backgrounds, while the formulation of high-level values is often left for interpretation. An example of an observable behaviour is: “I act quickly and monitor the impact patiently over time”.
Your daily work would perhaps have felt more straightforward if an answer had just been given for what ‘good’ looks like in the Gulf. Leadership is, however, only one of several means to a goal, not the goal in itself. Even though my clients and I address questions that are personal to them, the ultimate answers to what they should must be found in the specifics of their respective businesses.
The more diverse your team is, the more you have to work closely with each of its member on a one-to-one basis. The more dynamic your market is, the more your success as a leader comes down to understanding the context, smartly evolving your business and developing yourself along with it. Yet, a good foothold is a prerequisite for keeping a balance and progressing persistently.
Nicolai Tillisch is the founder of the consulting and coaching company Dual Impact and the author of Effective Business In The Gulf: Mastering leadership skills for greater success.