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Being a good expat leader is more than just showing respect

Expatriate leaders need to show respect for the host. Acting with respect is more than merely respecting the culture and showing common courtesies. These are the bare minimum.

The other day I walked into a lift in Dubai’s Media City and overheard an Arab expatriate telling another, “No locals!” followed by an emphatic “OK?” as if to imply, “Do you really understand what this means?” Rather than correcting this rotten behaviour, the other Arab expat replied, “Understood. Of course no locals.”

I shook my head in disbelief hoping they would notice that I understood their Arabic conversation. It was bad enough that they had said this, what was even worse is the fact that they really meant those words and that others do as well.

Unfortunately, it was is not the first time I heard a comment like this.

It reminded me of a conversation I had on a flight between Doha and Dubai. I was seated beside the chief executive of a leading Abu Dhabi company and we struck up a conversation on leading in the UAE. As our conversation progressed, I asked this experienced businessman what he was doing to build his national workforce.

His answer startled me.

“Nationalisation is nothing more than a tax to do business here in the region,” he said, “Just as expats work to minimise the tax consequences back home in the United Kingdom or some other western country, we also work to reduce the tax we pay in the form of nationalisation.”

Obviously he has a mistaken perspective and is ignoring a significant part of the vision of the UAE, which is to build the capability of nationals.

It is all too often that leaders — of all nationalities — make equally offensive comments. Leaders, this is wrong. If you feel like those expats that were in the lift there is an easy solution, you can get back on the plane that brought you to the UAE.

Let me put that idea of “no locals” into perspective.

This errant way of thinking, is as if you were invited to someone’s home for dinner but you don’t really like or care for the host. Nonetheless they have a great home and are known for putting on a lavish dinner so you decide to go to the dinner. You want to experience all they have to offer — savour that great meal, enjoy the company of the other guests, and see how you can benefit from the evening.

The problem is you don’t like the hosts and really don’t want to have anything to do with them. Afterwards, you don’t even reciprocate their kind gesture.

Instead you brag about being at the dinner party, the food you ate and the business contacts you made, all while speaking poorly of the host. Is that acceptable?

When you are a bad guest, and we are all guests, in reality you become a consumer not a contributor. When leaders act like consumers, meaning taking all they can without giving back, they end up modelling this behaviour for everyone in their company. Rather, as guests, we should be contributors — not just contributing to the success of your company, but contributing to your host, to their country.

This whole incident made me wonder how should leaders act when they are guests? Ideally they will demonstrate great behaviour, which we would hope comes naturally. Unfortunately from the above examples and many others like them, we see what should be natural is not at all natural.

The main point is don’t be fake. If you don’t like the host, then don’t be their guest. In this instance, if you don’t like locals, then don’t live here.

Leaders need to show respect for the host. Acting with respect as an expat includes but is more than merely respecting the culture and showing common courtesies. These are the bare minimum. Showing respect as an expat is evidenced by a leader’s contribution to the growth of the host, their company, and their country.

As a guest in the UAE, are you just a consumer or are you a contributor?

Tommy Weir is a leadership adviser, the author of 10 Tips for Leading in the Middle East and other leadership writings and the founder of the Emerging Markets Leadership Center

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