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 / Summer 2010 / Issue 59(originally published by Booz & Company)


Measures of Leadership

When Almubarak was invited to participate in the restructuring effort, his first step was to seek global counsel. “We recruited top professionals from around the world, including the former chairman of the International Organization of Securities Commissions, as well as local practitioners,” he says. This team developed the regulations necessary to spin off the stock exchange from the central bank and create an independent commission to regulate the market. “The laws and the practice are world-class,” Almubarak says. As a result of the restructuring, Saudi Arabia now has 130 licensed investment banks and more than 135 companies listed on the stock exchange.

Even government entities dedicated to infrastructure development, which by definition have a local focus, value an international perspective. “We took the best from everywhere,” says Mattar Al Tayer, chairman of the board and executive director of Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA). In response to Dubai’s explosive growth and accompanying transportation challenges, the RTA not only has invested in infrastructure, but also is implementing a holistic plan to encourage people to use public transport, including Dubai’s state-of-the-art metro system, and reduce their reliance on cars. The RTA has planned a system that, when complete, will be able to serve more than 5 million people, supporting Dubai’s growth for many years to come.

In developing the RTA’s strategies, Al Tayer and other key personnel in the organization have traveled around the world to look at innovations in transportation systems that might be a good fit for Dubai. They have also sought international input in other ways: Al Tayer, for instance, had a counterpart from the United Nations mentoring him during the early years of his government career. He attributes the RTA’s recent successes — such as the International Association of Public Transport’s selection of Dubai (over Melbourne and Singapore) as the site of its 2011 conference — in part to this outward-looking focus.

Just as important as identifying good ideas from around the world, however, is the ability to modify them in ways that will work in the GCC and incorporate them into local organizations. Doing so can represent a delicate balancing act between international perspectives and regional traditions.

For some leaders, the ability to sense the correct way to handle such ambiguous situations is formed at a young age; this is true even of some leaders of GCC organizations who are not originally from the Gulf. Osman Sultan, who grew up in Lebanon, explains, “I come from a country where you always live at the borders of different worlds. Every day, from very early in my life, I crossed borders between languages, between religions, between cultures. Understanding this made me very aware that there is a certain way you do business in different organizations and different cultures. This perspective is necessary to reach certain phases of leadership in a more and more globalized world.”

Conscious Presence

The art of building consensus is deeply valued in the GCC. It is a skill based on the cultural history of the majlis — traditionally, the meeting room in a sheikh’s home where he would gather with advisors and constituents to air out issues and make decisions. Today’s leaders are aware that their individual decisions will, even when the immediate impact is confined to one company, gradually come together to determine the path of development for the GCC. They are conscious of the need to make sweeping changes — to infrastructure, regulations, and the traditional divisions between the public and private sectors — without undermining the fundamentals of their culture.

Both within their organizations and in the larger society, leaders in the GCC must be able to make a case for their strategic imperatives in a way that resonates with stakeholders. They must be persuasive and adept in their use of language; the GCC’s long history of oratory and literature has lent its leaders an eloquence in their communication style. This ability is an important basis for building trust between compatriots and establishing identity and intelligence. Nasser Al-Jaidah, chief executive officer of Qatar Petroleum International (QPI), underscores the importance of this particular skill: “Great leaders have the quality of communication, the quality of motivating people, the quality of listening to people.”

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