The making of a leader Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power: Abraham Lincoln
fter 15 years as a leadership consultant and executive coach, I am seeing a trend and a pressure, in the Middle East, which I have not seen at any time in the past or anywhere else. The economy and the thrust for nationalisation are only part of the equation, but we are seeing young Nationals – Emiratis, Saudis, Qataris – assume CEO positions in their late 30s in family businesses. The trend is increasingly being mirrored in the major international and domestic companies where it is not uncommon to find a Director or VP role occupied by a late 20 or 30-something national. In any culture, especially one where ‘grey hairs’ are revered, this is no small challenge. Ralph Waldo Emerson, philosophised “The years teach what the days can never know.” There is no substitute for the wisdom that comes from experience – in good and bad times. It is estimated that more than 85% of an executive's career 52
Qatar Today AUGUST 10
learning will come from on-the-job learning and real life experience. But as we watch young nationals assume senior positions, we have an ethical and commercial obligation to help them understand the nature and challenges of their role and provide them with the ‘oxygen’ they need to flourish and grow. So too, with the education, engagement and encouragement we provide to the next generation of leaders emerging out of the schools and universities at home and abroad. Still today, our Executive MBA programmes and the in-classroom education programmes that we offer executives in the Middle East, continue to major on the technical skill sets required by generalist business practitioners. Finance, Strategic Planning, Supply Chain Management and Accounting form the core of most management education programmes. But surely, these are hygiene factors for all senior managers and are not the core skill
set that will differentiate an average Executive from a great executive. When asked what he wanted to get from the programme, a senior leader commented, ”I want to take back some control, I want to be able to influence my organisation, my boss, my career, my work and life balance; in short to make the complex more simple.” The leaders of today and tomorrow are telling us that what they need now, more than ever, are leadership skills. The leadership skills – the ‘soft skills’ – required to navigate complex, diverse and boundary-less organisations, to articulate powerful visions and communicate, influence, motivate and mobilise themselves and others in pursuit of exceptional performance and results. As an Egyptian executive in a pan-GCC Bank told me recently, “I can finance the heck out of complex problems and get vital products into sub-Saharan Africa but I still freeze when I need to have a difficult conversation with an under-performer.” Today, most executives have an extremely underdeveloped capacity for recognising, understanding and dealing with emotions – both their own and those of others. Assuming a power or leadership position is a daunting and intoxicating challenge. Dictators and despots, corporate leaders at the likes of Enron, Tyco WorldCom and Lehman Brothers have to varying degrees all shown what happens when a ‘person with power’ moves away from being the master of his or her personality and moves towards being the servant of his or her personality. Good leadership is a result of personality and just as bad leadership is also a result of personality. Strong character comes from playing to the ‘bright side’
bottom line strengths and mitigating the risks of the ‘shadow side’ weaknesses. Keeping the EGO in check and ensuring the personality is an asset, not a liability, is essential if one is not to be forgotten, or in the aforementioned cases, remembered for all of the wrong reasons. Psychologists have long pointed to the fact that human beings have three natural psychological responses to assuming the position of power in an organisation: loneliness, insecurity and guilt. Leadership is a team game but quite often without peers, isolated and moving at lightning speed. Executives are denied the fellowship, empathy, reassurance and candid feedback they need at the time they need it most. Yet the truth is, in the presence of executives most people say more but speak less. Of ‘performing seals’ and ‘statues’, executives often magnetise the self promoters and lose out on the wisdom of others. Typically, academic high achievers who rode the fast-track in their companies, young executives are often wrought with deep insecurities and a fear of failure – the fear that at some point ‘the wheels will come off’ or that the career trajectory will slow or stagnate. A young Saudi CEO of a large family business recently told me: “Each night I go to bed and reflect why do they think I have all the answers? Each morning I wake up I ask myself, is today the day they find out that I don't?” Sigmund Freud went as far as to compare the peculiar psychological relationship between the leader and follower with that of a hypnotist and his subject. He even went as far as to suggest, via his theory of ‘transference,’ that the follower often thinks of the leader as a ‘father figure’ and will assume the emotional state of the leader at any given time. The pressure of this situation combined with the ‘Why me? Do I deserve this?’ response
can catalyse guilt in the leader. A young Emirati CEO recently confessed to me, “I often do wonder if I am in this position because of who I am and because of my last name – my results are there for all to see but I just can't shake the notion.” Middle East executives need coaches, colleagues, peers and counsellors, now more than ever. What business schools, management education providers, coaches and indeed, colleagues of executives need to do now is hold up a mirror and ask, “Are we really supporting our executives and equipping them with the self aware-
rank. Since October 2009, we have all had a first glimpse, or a reminder, of what the ‘bad times’ can look like in what was an unprecedented global economic crisis where a ‘double-dip’ could have been catastrophic. We are all part of the solution. Business schools must stand-up, especially in light of the learnings gained from the economic crisis, and provide the Executive Education programmes that deal with the leadership skills that will drive the post-Lehman executive towards commercial and ethical success.
“Most executives have an extremely underdeveloped capacity for recognising, understanding and dealing with emotions – both their own and those of others.”
ness, emotional intelligence and skills they need to effectively do their jobs, lead their companies and create wealth for the Region?” A young, Turkish, CFO, working in the GCC shared an old Turkish phrase with me recently: “You can't have a baby in one month by having nine mothers.” While there is no substitute for the wisdom of experience, certain leadership skills can be taught and executive learning journeys can be fast-tracked. We must do more to prepare our executives for the ethical, commercial, and people conundrums that will assail them each day of their lives. The ‘save face’ culture that pervades Arab cultures, where difficult and corrective conversations are avoided can be a barrier to providing constructive feedback – particularly upwards feedback to those more senior in years or
Those of us, who have formal or informal access to executives, must have the courage to provide objective feedback to senior leaders on business, operational and leadership performance. We must allow our executives the time, space, feedback and support required for them to effect personal change. The opportunity to experiment, to succeed and fail, and to be the best that they can be. The leaders of today and tomorrow must put their own house in order. Accurate self-assessment and a genuine openness to feedback from others can set the baseline from where the learning journey (re) starts. Setting a strong personal vision and action plan and embarking on a learning journey that recognises the ‘whole self’ – professionally and personally – can see the executive chart a course that will benefit not just themselves but their families, their companies and our region n
By Dr Brendan McCann Dr Brendan McCann is a business psychologist and executive coach. He is head of leadership development for Mercer in the Middle East. Brendan has led programmes for over 3,000 practicing leaders in the GCC and North Africa. He has worked in the Region for 10 years.