Leadership Lesson From the Middle East

business man with a swordWitnessing the recent events in the Middle East has provoked feelings and reactions on many levels. Since this blog focuses on leadership, we want to point out a leadership lesson that we see. (Note: Because this is a leadership blog we are NOT making any comments about the political, economic or larger social implications of what is happening. We recognize that what is happening is complex.  We are going to pull out and comment on a particular thread.) When a situation is large scale and extreme, it creates a “stark relief map” where things become  vividly visible. This is why looking at the leadership in the Middle East is relevant to leadership within organizations. Similar dynamics can and do happen within many organizations, just on a more subtle and less complex level.

At its core, we are seeing the consequences of autocratic leadership - most often referred to in organizational terms as “command and control” leadership. One of the issues that is driving people in these countries (Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, et al.) to rebel is that they aren’t being listened to – they are not able to contribute to, collaborate on, or have self-determination regarding their lives and and social experience. The leadership is stubbornly, (and even violently), determined to set the agenda. A handful of people are deciding how everyone lives.

Organizational leaders often do similar things and create a similar atmosphere and culture. Like the Middle Eastern leaders, they feel entirely entitled to do so.  After all, they are the leaders right? Recently this has been most apparent in larger corporations, particularly those that have failed or nearly failed. CEOs have been very separate from the day-to-day work and workers and paid enormous salaries. There have been many examples of their workers losing their jobs and subsequently their retirements and homes while these CEOs walk off with multi-million dollar golden parachutes. This is similar to many of the Middle Eastern countries where leaders are living incredibly well and will continue to, even if they are forced out,  while their people don’t have enough to eat or real economic opportunities.

Paraphrasing a quote in the Wall Street Journal by a rebelling university educator in Bahrain, “We wanted some simple changes. They wouldn’t listen, they killed us, and now the king has to go.” This is the peril of leaders who don’t include, collaborate, respect and listen to their people. Your teams may not be able to rebel and overthrow you, but they will quickly learn their best efforts are not respected, so why bother? The best will leave. Resignation will set in for the rest and, at best, you will get vicious obedience or malicious compliance.  As gossip and complaining builds, the culture becomes poisoned. When your team is not listened to and does not have inclusion and opportunity, (just like the citizens of the Middle East), creativity disappears and productivity drops to a minimum relative to what's possible.

So does this mean as a leader you must live in fear of your people? That you must make sure everybody likes you? Try to please 100% of the people 100% of the time? Reach perfect consensus on everything? Of course not, but you will likely be surprised how far respectful listening, inclusion, positive feedback and validation will get you. People know when they are truly valued and when they are being strung along or are fundamentally disrespected. They also know when there are opportunities for advancement, for growth, for creating a job/role function that is needed and when jobs are a dead-end. This goes back to our post last week, “Viva The Naysayers,” – if your team is just your “hands and feet” or you are “deriding the naysayers and wet blankets” you are in the same leadership spectrum as the Middle Eastern leaders. Your way or the highway just doesn’t work anymore.

We are in a new year. Are you ready to re-evaluate your leadership style and skills? Are you ready to do some self-reflection and decide what kind of leader you really want to be? Are you ready to be part of your team?  Consider that you may not be able to that by yourself.  If you are serious, get intervention!  We, of course, say do our courses, study our book, and get coached, (yes, shameless plug noted).  If not us, then go find another great resource and get to work!