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June 13, 2011 12:10 am

One-size leadership model does not fit all

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Western business schools need to develop models that work in the Middle East

Recent events have highlighted the risks of instability in the Arab world. To reduce these risks we need to bridge the gulf that has been steadily growing between the cultures of the west and the Middle East. As countries reshape their political maps and seek to modernise they will need understanding and support from the outside world.

But in order to do that, the business school sector needs to equip these countries with effective leadership models that fit their culture, rather than the idealised western models that they currently offer. Business schools need to play a much more active role in bridging the two cultures and developing models that work in the Middle East.

The more progressive Arab governments have made impressive attempts to import new thinking and practices. In the UAE, for example, there has been significant investment in education that has attracted the top business schools to the region. The UAE has spent fortunes sending its brightest talent to the west.

This is great for the business schools, but is it worth it? Anyone familiar with working in the Gulf will emphasise how different leadership and management practice are in the Arab world.

Many models of western business schools do not suit other cultures. Go a few hundred kilometres from the main urban centres in Europe and you enter a different reality. Ever worked in southern Spain or Russia? If you have, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Why does a lot of the theory not work? Because nearly all of our theory and models come from the west – and worse they are dominated by the Anglo Saxon culture. Other cultures do not feature.

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

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.

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.

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 tutors 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.

For example, when the framework for the Equis accreditation scheme was designed at the European Foundation for Management Development, considerable focus was placed on internationalisation and corporate connections. In both cases I believe that the business education community in the west can go much further and needs to build on its practical skills and understanding to help the leaders of these emerging 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 development. With a few notable exceptions where research is funded, business schools are content merely to go along with the “one size fits all” approach to leadership theory and practice.

In seeking to help Arab countries modernise, western business schools 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 in both cultures.

The writer is vice-president for strategy and director of the Institute for Executive Development at Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group.

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