x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

For business schools in the Arabian Gulf, one size does not fit all

The one-size leadership model from the West does not fit everybody. Leadership experts need to offer support that works in the region.

We are lucky to live in a multicultural society that is growing rapidly. Many organisations in the UAE face explosive growth and need to secure outside expertise to help them achieve their vision. They urgently need to develop leadership skills in their workface and they usually turn to the top business schools and training providers for help.

But to get the best results, business schools, trainers and consultants need to equip individuals with effective leadership models that fit their culture, rather than the idealised western models that they currently offer. The top thinkers in the field need to play a much more active role in bridging the two cultures and developing models that work here.

The UAE has taken impressive steps to import new thinking and practices into government and private business. The government has invested heavily in attracting top business schools to the region. It also spends a fortune in sending its brightest talent to top schools such as Harvard and London Business School.

This is great business for foreign schools, but does it really deliver the best results for the country? Are talented individuals able to apply the latest theories successfully to their organisations to achieve high impact? In reality most people working in the Gulf will emphasise how different leadership and management practice are here in the Arab world and the difficulty they find in making some management practices work.

In fact many models of western business schools do not suit other cultures. It’s not just here in the GCC that the theory does not work. Travel just a few hundred kilometres from London or Paris and you enter a different reality. Ever worked in southern Spain or Russia? If you have, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

I have had the privilege of working with senior executives from top multinationals across the Arab world. At the start of workshops I often used to tease them by saying: “You know all about theory A and theory B, so why have you come here?” To which they would reply “ … because very little of this theory can be applied here. It just doesn’t work.”

Why? Because nearly all of our theory and models come from the West – actually it’s even worse than that. Most of the literature is dominated by books and articles from the Anglo-Saxon culture. Other cultures do not feature. When did you ever see a leadership book in the top-seller list written by a Spaniard, let alone an Arab?

How does leadership differ in the Middle East? Asked recently to list the three main things that made Arab leadership different, my choice was:

Relationships; in the Middle East relationships matter above all else and the language used must reflect the values of family and trusted relationships. In such cultures nothing happens without that trust and respect, something western politicians have done little to address in seeking to solve the region’s problems.

Grass roots; consensual leadership: when an idea takes root in the community it can spread like a brush fire and leadership is conferred on individuals by consensus. This is a very different leadership model from the cult of the individual promoted in the West.

A coaching perspective; a mentoring approach is deeply embedded in the Arab culture. Leaders actively expose the next generation of potential leaders to a series of challenges and provide ongoing advice and support as they build their skills.

These dimensions of leadership are rarely reflected in seminars or serious research on leadership in western business schools, and many experts responsible for developing managers have limited experience of working in the Middle East. More research and better guidance to those who work in the Arab world are urgently needed.

In both cases I believe that the business education community in the West can go much farther and needs to build on its practical skills and understanding to help the future leaders of developing economies. Of course the business education sector cannot be held responsible for what happens in the world, but it can be held responsible for the quality of leadership it promotes and its contribution towards wider economic development. With a few notable exceptions many providers are content merely to go along with the “one size fits all” approach to leadership theory and practice. If you think back to the last few workshops or seminars you have attended, check out how much content came from the UAE rather than the US and Europe.

In seeking to help Arab countries develop, western business schools and leadership experts must not simply supply the standard off-the-shelf offerings, but should invest and take the time to facilitate the development of deeper understanding and respect between both cultures.

Gene Crozier is the vice president of strategy and director of executive development at Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group