The majlis is a central part of the cultural history of the Middle East. It is where opinions are sought and decisions are made.
Literally, it is a meeting room in the home of a sheikh or other leader. In reality, it is more than the actual room where guests congregate; traditionally it represents the gathering of advisers and guests to discuss issues, air problems, and make decisions. It is the forum for leadership consultation.
In majlis style leadership, the leader still holds positional authority – autocracy – but he listens and takes on board the opinions of those being led. The art of consultation is very much in the fibre of regional leadership and is not to be mistaken with consensus-based leadership.
The majlis effect on leadership is consultative – seeking the thoughts and insights of others, but the leadership authority remains with the leader.
Consensus leadership is a group decision-making process where the consent (agreement) of all participants is mandatory. More often than not this ends up with status quo thinking, the consensus is rarely to break from tradition and do something bold. This is far from what happens in the majlis. So, don’t naively confuse consensus with consultation. That easy to make error results in an altogether different outcome.
What is practised here is consultative leadership, where the opinion of others is sought, even debated. But the final decision resides with the leader who takes into consideration what others have said. The leader acts on what he feels is best after being informed.
You use a consultative leadership style when you ask your team members for their input and opinion, but you still have the final say. You consult with the group, yet you’re responsible for choosing the best course of action.
A demonstration of the majlis effect taking place outside of a majlis is evidenced in stories told of Sheikh Saeed when he was ruler of Dubai (1912-1958). It is reported that he would disguise himself in rags to visit a public mosque, draw water from a well and carry this to the mosque for worshippers to perform wudu (washing parts of the body). Then, unrecognised, he hung around with the people after prayer, asking questions and taking the opinion of ordinary people about the state of the sheikhdom.
The business context is hierarchal and consultative at the same time. The result is that consultation can shape decision-making processes in significant ways.
Muslims are encouraged to decide their affairs in consultation with those who will be affected by that decision. As a concept and longstanding local institution, shura, or consultation, is fundamentally different from other highly formalised political processes around the world. The irony is that it also breathes structure into the informal interactions within either family or business – certainly more so than in the West.
While this tradition that spans centuries is practiced less frequently, only a few families still host a daily majlis, the spirit of it is still very much alive. I call it a “virtual” majlis. it is common for the patriarch to spend time on the phone calling up each adviser and stakeholder, asking each the same question and seeking their input.
This is very frustrating for western leaders who think they were brought in with some authority. Repeatedly I hear it said, “I don’t think the owner of my company trusts me.” When I ask, “Why do you feel this?” the answer is often, “He calls my peers, direct reports, his friends and asks all of them same question he asked me.” Consultation and seeking a broad range of opinions is very much a part of autocratic leadership in the Middle East and is in keeping with the spirit of the majlis.
The majlis effect demonstrates a type of maturity in willingly listening to others, including them by seeking their opinion. Yet retaining leadership control by acting after sufficient input is sought.
Tommy Weir is a leadership adviser, the author of 10 Tips for Leading in the Middle East and the founder of the Emerging Markets Leadership Center