x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Family structure demonstrates principles of leadership

Tommy Weir looks at the Arab family dynamic and why it has a such a powerful influence on the corporate setting.

Thank God it’s Friday takes on a whole new meaning in the Middle East. It is much more than a substitution for the western idea of Saturday, considering the modified workweek being Sunday to Thursday. Realising that family is the significance of Friday in Middle Eastern culture is essential for leadership impact.

So why does the family dynamic have such a powerful influence in the corporate setting in the region? Because family is more than a name — it represents belonging, it is pride.

Reading the decade-old guidebook Don’t They Know It’s Friday? is a mere beginning to understanding the significance of Friday in the region. Leaders need to move beyond the cultural insights and etiquette guidance that is found in these books and comprehend what the weekend represents in this society — specifically “family day,” which is like a weekly version of Christmas, but even more intense.

The idea of “family day” portrays the prominence of the group dynamic. Every week, the whole family (brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins) gathers at the patriarch’s house for an extended lunch and a day of lively discussions. This simple and precious act highlights the role of group interaction in every day life.

More than in the West, the influence of family in the Middle East is very strong and exerts tremendous influence over how people lead and what employees are looking for in their leaders. At the very least, organisations need to be aware of this influence. The business environment is a replica of this family structure: employees look to their boss for strong leadership and expect to experience what they would at home. At the same time, the boss embraces the responsibility for the stewardship of the employees.

An Arab family is a very tight-knit group of people, and the extended family is the locus for most social interaction, creating a strong group orientation. Family members have a say in an individual’s major life decisions, such as education, work and marriage. They live life out as a group, so much so that it is quite common to find cousins as best friends. In the Arab world, all of life, including business, is based on such relationships. So leading must be as well.

The pride in belonging extends beyond the family. As an example, consider how the residents stand beside Emiratis in celebrations of National Day across the UAE. This is a beautiful picture of what belonging can and should look like. When leveraged correctly, there is pride in belonging.

Building the Business Family — the tribe, which is a regionalisation of the word team, is one of the key leadership actions and needs to be a priority for every chief executive, managing director and business leader in the Middle East. This region is historically and in many senses still a tribal society, meaning that it is largely organised on the basis of kinship.

The strong tribal and family orientations influence the way business is conducted. The Middle East is a collectivist culture in which the group continues to protect the individuals, from their birth throughout their lifetime, in exchange for unquestionable loyalty.

Consequently employees in such societies highly value group interaction and seek strong attachment to their organisations and leaders. This strong cultural element carries over into the business environment. The employees’ value and identity in large part come from the relationship network of which they are part.

The Arab world revolves around the family as a group; the collective identity is greater than that of the individual member. Building a tribe from your workforce is an unrealised opportunity that leaders need to leverage. Employees saying they “belong” to your company fail in consideration to having a true group identity. Leadership success demands that you become a leader of a cohesive group rather than a mere collection of individuals.

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