Question of leadership shifts from "who" to "how"

The Life: If you're asking who is the better leader, the national or the expatriate, you're asking the wrong question.
Co-ordination and harmony among local and expatriate workers are key to maintaining a company's growth. Patrick Eckersley / arabianEye
Co-ordination and harmony among local and expatriate workers are key to maintaining a company's growth. Patrick Eckersley / arabianEye

There is a sensitive and delicate question that is whispered among employees and managers throughout the GCC: "Who is a better leader, the expatriate or the local?"

Locals are exasperated by the manners and approach of foreigners who bring with them an attitude of superiority. In those instances, expatriates are generally perceived as arrogant and inconsiderate individuals who cannot succeed in the region because they do not understand the way business is conducted locally.

Nationals may even share the view that a foreigner can never be a good leader because he or she "does not make the effort to understand the culture". And, therefore, the perception is that a western leader will not act properly in formal meetings, or worse, will not know how to negotiate with powerful local clients and suppliers.

On the other hand, there are numerous expatriates, from countries such as South Africa, Australia, the UK and the US, who quietly express frustration with the way business is conducted in the GCC. They complain that their managers do not know how to lead. A common question asked is: "How do companies manage to make money working as they do?"

So, who is the better leader?

Perhaps we are asking the wrong question. In only a decade, sandy deserts were transformed into modern and sophisticated cities through aggressive ambitions requiring a workforce dramatically expanded in size and capability. Additionally, the workforce growth is out of sync with indigenous population growth. This creates a near-term imbalance of available workers for the workforce. With the exception of Saudi Arabia, the limited local population in Gulf states compared with private and public-sector ambitions means there is a huge need for expatriates.

Given this reality, the question needs to shift from "Who is the better leader?" to "How can one be the best leader?"

Organisations must embrace an approach that maximises the capability from nationals and expatriates while adapting to the unique and diverse work environment in the region.

Gulf countries rank among the most competitive in the world, yet they are facing increasing global competition. While the pressure to reduce dependence on an expatriate workforce in the long term is understandable, it is imperative for companies to understand how to create the optimal operational environment and propel employee performance in the short term to maintain growth. In a climate of fierce competition for resources, market share and talent, the region's economic development depends on accomplishing those two tasks.

The first step for becoming an effective leader in this environment is to recognise the cultural differences between team members and make the best use of the variety of backgrounds. The second step is to provide great clarity. All over the world, employees long for clarity in direction and task from their leaders. In a multicultural environment, this becomes even more of an imperative. The final step is to take a hands-on role in employee growth. While these steps are commonly given lip service, successful leaders in the GCC must put them into action.

The GCC requires that organisations have a strong cadre of leaders capable of guiding and motivating employees to respond to the fast-changing demands of the market. The most successful leaders are those whose traits are a combination of the home-grown and the imported.

Dr Tommy Weir is an authority on fast-growth and emerging market leadership, and is the author of The CEO Shift

Published: June 5, 2011 04:00 AM


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