Guest post by Bruce Avolio, Executive Director of the Foster School’s Center for Leadership and Strategic Thinking and a faculty member in the Technology Management MBA program. Bruce traveled with TMMBA students to Dubai and Abu Dhabi in March on the International Study Tour. He wrote about his experience for FosterUnplugged and we’re sharing it here on TMMBATalk.
The vastness of the Middle East
I, like the students from Foster’s TMMBA program and staff, have visited many parts of the world. However, none of the staff or students had been to the Middle East. Of course, when we say Middle East, it’s like saying North America, in that the Middle East is made up of many different types of people, regions, climates and of course cultures. My goal for this trip was to develop our respective global mindsets as a basis for being a global leader—our assumptions, framing, perceptions and knowledge about other cultures. During our time in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, we certainly triggered A LOT of challenges to our respective global mindsets. Indeed, during our first corporate visit at Thompson Reuters, one of the top managers hosting us said, “Next time you hear the words—The Gulf—on CNN or Fox or where ever, I hope you consider how vast and diverse an area that reporter is referencing.” Boy was that ever an insight to retain in our global mindsets!
A controlled approach to leadership in Dubai and Abu Dhabi
There are several things that one cannot ignore when traveling in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. First, in 42 years since the founding of the United Arab Emirates, these global citizens have built massive cities with the most impressive and innovative architecture on earth. Second, you cannot find a more controlled society on earth that doesn’t appear to have any interest in overthrowing the ruling families. Indeed, what one sees in this part of the world are sheer opulence everywhere, and a largely satisfied group of indigenous citizens. The reason being is that the rulers in this part of the world, rule with an iron fist, but they also rule with tremendous generosity and smarts towards citizens. If you are a so-called Emirate and not living well, call your ruler because you are clearly missing out on all of the bennies, e.g., subsidized housing, utilities, car payments, healthcare, schooling, higher educational scholarships, or a new iPad!
Democratic versus authoritative leadership
Personally, I believe in more inclusive, transparent and democratic leadership, even at Universities for God’s sake. However, when you witness what has been created in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, there is something about tribal authoritative and authoritarian leadership that cannot be ignored. Such leadership builds cities very quickly, efficiently and majestically…well, depending on your taste in architecture. Indeed, the parallels in the world that I could think of where similar leadership has had such positive impact are in places like Singapore and Chicago under the leadership of the Mayor Daley’s. When there is chaos to be controlled and a myriad of interests to be aligned, sometimes authoritarian coupled with authoritative leadership—if they know what they are doing, can be very effective. Yet, to sustain this model of society and leadership is tough, in that it oftentimes in the case of a Dubai or Abu Dhabi depends on the choice of the ‘right son’ or the ‘right brother’ in the succession plan.
Driving Porsches, Chevys, and camels?
Amidst the Bentleys, Mercedes, Porsches and the real fancy cars in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, all may not be as well as it appears on the surface. We learned that a very large percentage of Emiratis don’t graduate high school and many are functionally illiterate. Yet, when they do leave school – most can and do apply for a government job and of course get it – being paid $90,000, while also receiving 60 days vacation a year, housing and car allowance, all utilities paid for and many other benefits including healthcare. So why learn! As one Emirati entrepreneur told us, most Emiratis who want to be entrepreneurs, and they are few and far between, cannot compose an email or structure a sentence! On the other hand, there are Emiratis that you could compare to the best and brightest in the world. So as someone said, they have a ‘software’ problem not a ‘hardware’ problem that the governments’ rulers have to address to sustain this amazing growth over the next 100 years, let alone 50. In this regard, a most telling saying we heard about the past and future in this region goes as follows: My grandfather drove a camel, my father drove a Chevy, I drive a Porsche and my son drives a Bentley, but likely his son will drive a camel….again.