Leadership in Perspective from the Middle East

Leadership in Perspective from the Middle East

The Five Practices

Frustration reigns supreme in many organizations around the world—some more intensely than others. In locations such as the Middle East, for example, organizations rely heavily on imported labor from nearly every corner of the globe. The result is a cultural melting pot so varied and mixed that its very diversity can often be the reason why difference can disintegrate into a scourge of self-destruction and peril. Cultural misperceptions and mistrust end up invading all that we do, having significant consequences on corporate teamwork and productivity. It is not uncommon to hear quiet, yet toxic, remarks such as, “He just doesn’t get it” or “She’s so rude in her approach” or “I don’t feel any connection with him at all.”

Much of this dissention stems from the fact that in the space between us lay mostly invisible and differentiating influences such as bias, prejudice, assumptions, and cultural norms. These can fuel adversity in already under-valued workplace relationships. Little-to-no cultural awareness only increases the impact of our differences, making healthy and productive workspaces in many diverse cultures nothing more than a pipedream. What a leadership challenge!

Culture hides as much as it reveals. As such, we all can be lulled into a false sense of security, thinking that indeed we are culturally sensitive based on the architecture, clothing, food, and language we observed while briefly visiting a foreign land. Yet, without knowledge of what we can’t see we will never know what we don’t know. (Yes, do read that sentence again.) It is only when we recognize what we don’t know that we are able to then know what we don’t know, allowing us to choose to discover more and work with it.

Fortunately, that’s where The Leadership Challenge® Workshop often makes a profound difference. One of the most common pieces of feedback I receive from participants in the workshops I deliver, for example, is how the experience results in so much cooperation between leaders while also facilitating ways to work with individual differences. On the other hand, in some parts of the Middle East in which I work—the Levante region, in particular—the 30 behaviors still can meet with resistance and are often challenged as to their relevance in ”our way” of doing things. For example, this is some of what I’ve heard or experienced with leaders:

Model the Way
One workshop participant indicated that revealing who he was while sharing his voice would be “giving too much away,” implying that the mystery of who he was is really an integral part of his leadership success.

Inspire a Shared Vision
Emotional connection is at the core of communicating a compelling picture or story of the future, serving as impetus for others to willingly commit to the vision. This concept of “earning followership” is foreign to hierarchical cultures I encounter in my work, however. As we facilitators often share: It’s easier to command than inspire.

Challenge the Process
Operating within a culture where expertise and correctness are prioritized, another workshop participant viewed his team’s desire to explore and discover new ways to work together to reflect a weakness in his capacity to lead.

Enable Others to Act
Enabling others to act with competency and confidence takes time and effort, requiring a leader to get down-in-the-trenches from time to time. Once again, this does not bode well in a hierarchical system, where “a leader’s chair” tends to entitle and separate, rather than unite.

Encouraging the Heart
Still another workshop participant viewed ”in-the moment” appreciation for either individual excellence or examples of community spirit as something for others to do; he perceived his domain as that of setting strategy, and to provide appreciation and encouragement would suggest that he was too connected with people’s day-to-day activities.

As LPI® research results suggest, the frequency of leadership behaviors varies across cultures yet the impact of leadership within cultures is consistent. So, the question is: are we, as practitioners of The Leadership Challenge®, helping our leaders see the opportunity in building leadership capability as a means of transforming cultural difference into cultural understanding? What could happen if we addressed objections—like those I’ve highlighted above—within the context of our leaders being in their “we don’t know what we don't know” stage of development? How might we respond?

Making contact with the space that often separates individuals is where choice lays, a choice that can reveal the invisible. That space also is the crucible of leaders. Let’s allow cultural difference to pepper the workplace with curiosity and appreciation, while simultaneously preventing it from acting as a deterrent for change. Moving from “what is” to “what can be” is a land I prefer to live in—and the land I help leaders dream of living in as well, regardless of where they exist in the world. That indeed is part of my leadership challenge.



Deb Nicol, is a Certified Master of The Leadership Challenge® and founder of Global Training Partner ‘business en motion’. With change at its core, her business consultancy and learning organization moves businesses and leaders ahead through training, coaching, and consultancy services by applying leadership, change management, team, and learning methodologies. She can be reached at debbie.nicol@businessenmotion.com or at ‘business en motion’.

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