Leadership development is rapidly becoming a key objective across the GCC, as countries work out how to mould the next generation. Robert Mogielnicki and Rida Kariem, of Oxford Strategic Consulting (OSC), talk with UAE leaders about the Emirati leadership style.
Sultan Al-Hajji, Vice-president & chief strategy officer, Total E&P United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi branch)
Sultan Al-Hajji frames the Emirati leadership style in the context of the UAE’s geography, history and culture, with the evolution of its increasing significance on the world platform being one of the most important factors in shaping it.
Many Emirati leaders are described as “Bedouins at heart”, the products of both the desert environment and Bedouin culture. “They possess distinct attributes – humility and gratitude, being ‘service leaders’ of people tolerantly accommodating diverse views. Their communication starts with listening. The visionary characteristics make them passionately look beyond the present and think of a broad spectrum perspective with deep impact,” says Al-Hajji.
Sheikh Zayed’s pragmatic approach
Al-Hajji looks towards His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan as both a role model and pragmatic leader because he believed that “the impossible is not a choice”.
He describes his role model as the epitome of a visionary leader – one who has an uncompromising conviction against all odds and challenges. “Sheikh Zayed ensured the realisation of vast green areas in Abu Dhabi contrary to what the consultants had initially opined,” explains Al-Hajji.
He believes Sheikh Zayed’s profound elatedness is evident in his assertion: “We are blessed with the next generation of UAE leadership who possess the virtues of the father of the nation, possess a long-term vision and demonstrate passion for the development and welfare of people.”
Emirati leaders: rare but precious
Al-Hajji shares this passion for his fellow Emiratis, describing leaders as jewels – both valuable and rare. He adds: “Emiratis act as bridges between the East and the West, and there is a huge demand for Emirati leaders.” As for developing people, capacity building is the top priority for him. It was his social innovation concept that led Total to establish in 2008 an academy for high-school undergraduate Emiratis, to make them employable in field operations of the oil and gas industry. Today, most Emirati academy graduates from the four graduating classes are employed at offshore oil and gas facilities in Abu Dhabi.
An accomplished Emirati leader in his own right, Al-Hajji believes that “there is a clear need to export leadership”. This led him to create the Alreyada programme for young leaders from across the Middle East. The programme trains promising university students to address energy and leadership challenges of the future.
The importance of mentors in developing leaders should not be underestimated, Al-Hajji being a clear role model for his Alreyada students. “My hope is these students go on to become the region’s future leaders,” adds a proud Emirati leader.
Nabil Ali Alyousuf, Chairman, Nabil Alyousuf & Associates, former director-general of The Executive Office of Dubai
Nabil Ali Alyousuf led the development of the Dubai Strategy 2015 in his director-general role, so is well positioned to speak about leadership in the UAE.
Friendship and information reign
Ali Alyousuf explains that Emirati leaders want to be seen as being close to their employees, adding: “There is an element of friendship and informality that is inherent in the Emirati leadership style.”
One emerging theme in this new research suggests Emirati leaders reflect the historical practice of tribal sheikhs in that they behave as firsts among equals. While Ali Alyousuf thinks that the tribal element does play a role in shaping the leadership style, he also believes that Emirati leaders often act like family heads when leading others. “The Emirati leadership style is not collective but consultative,” he explains. The ultimate authority rests with the leader, but Emirati leaders ensure they consult with others in a way that does not make them feel inferior.
“The consultative aspect to the Emirati leadership relates to the majlis spirit of interaction,” he adds, making a clear link between UAE culture and the consequent leadership style.
While consultation is generally good practice for leaders, with clear advantages in employee engagement, it can have disadvantages in a fast-growth context. “Sometimes, decision-making can be somewhat slower because of the consultative nature of the Emirati leadership style,” explains Ali Alyousuf.
OSC aims to produce a guide that combines the most engaging aspects of the Gulf leadership style with proven elements of more task-focused Western styles.
Empowerment is key
Ali Alyousuf considers His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai, to be an exemplary role model precisely because of his prowess at the art of consultation.
“He is an expert listener – someone who respects and trusts those willing to make positive contributions,” Ali Alyousuf adds. “Most importantly, though, Sheikh Mohammed empowers people to do what they believe is right.”
Trust and empowerment are vital ingredients in an environment where taking risks is often necessary for success. “Risk taking is related to our merchant history. A merchant may make five decisions knowing one of them may turn out to be a mistake. Thanks to our history, Emirati leaders today understand that making mistakes is part of learning how to succeed.”
Part II of this article included the views of Ahmed Mohamed Salem Al Dhaheri, Vice-chairman, Bin Salem Holding and Mohammad Zamani, Assistant manager, financial services audit and banking, KPMG
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