Leadership development in the Middle East has changed its gear from 1x to 10x in the last 10 years. The accelerated establishment of MNC regional corporate offices and transformation of the family business to sustain competitive advantage truly pushed this agenda.

The initial import-apply model of leadership programs wasn’t effective to the extent to prepare successful leaders; might be due to the lack of sponsorship or limited contextualization to the region's culture.

If you look at the middle east one could easily argue that business practices are heavily influenced by a mixed culture, with a strong ex-pat population. The concept of profit-centered leadership, which prioritized profit above everything is slowly fading away. Firms that include JV or trading establishments were compelled to put the people development on the back burner to reduce the cost on people.

What has changed?

Bealer and Bhanugopan (2014) compared Middle Eastern leadership norms with those of the United States (US) and Europe in their investigation of the transactional and transformational behavior of expatriate and national (local) managers in the UAE. Findings indicated that UAE managers do not tend to articulate a compelling vision or discuss important beliefs and values, which are key characteristics of transformational leaders. Thus, transactional leadership behaviors were generally found to be stronger in the UAE. Interestingly, in the last 5 years, the landscape has raised its bar on building strong leaders. Thanks to the strong focus on inward investment, the number of organizations taking the IPO route, Public Investment Funds, and aspiration to position MENA as the ‘Build– Sell new technology’ center, organizations have moved the people development agenda as the top priority.

Today many ex-pat and national leaders are pushing their organizations to rethink existing value chains and reset the existing business model considering the super volatile reality. Leaders are building opportunities, nurturing future leaders, and extending incubation centers to start up’s to reinvent the industry

Thanks to the initiatives from policymakers, business schools, and consulting firms, several programs were successfully rolled out that have developed local leaders to thrive in the local fabric.

The emerging trends in leadership development:

• Succession planning is currently a high priority for leading organizations in the MENA region. The urgency and ambiguity caused by Covid and the increasingly competitive market have pushed organizations to promote from within, instead of starting from square one, concentrating mostly on external candidates. Even though there are pros and cons to these in a migrant market, there is no doubt that insider-promoted firms will do reasonably well. Many organizations are building a robust process, with CXOs constantly monitoring and adjusting the pipeline. HR Research and Surveys denote many Boards has kept this as one of the primary agenda. However, maturity is still in the initial quadrants. The next level would be to build diverse succession talent pools as opposed to focusing on a single successor and organization structure-agnostic programs to accommodate business shifts and lateral movements.

“If you look at the CXO/Business Leaders in the top 50 organizations, most of them have grown through the funnel of specialism – like a T Shaped leader but with P&L accountability.”

• Women leadership: UAE is a forerunner in developing women leaders. The govt entities are actively taking an interest in nurturing women leaders, designing career paths, and exposing them to shadow boards to equip them for taking up Board Responsibilities. Many Banks and Govt entities have got women CXOs and Independent directors at the board level. While many organizations have come out with mentoring platforms and well-designed mechanisms, there is still work required on the concept of sponsorship. Still, there is work that needs to be done. We need influential leaders/executives on the board or at the CXO levels to act as the primary sponsors for the budding women leaders. Meaningful programs with the right balance of mentorship combined with strong sponsorship will help to give women leaders equal representation in the leadership team. 

• Expert-driven functional leadership: Interestingly, organizations have revisited their operating model post-Covid. Expert leaders with a deep specialism and a driving team of experts is a no more a unique phenomenon, in the MENA region. If you look at the CXO/Business Leaders in the top 50 organizations, most of them have grown through the funnel of specialism – like a T Shaped leader but with P&L accountability, Interestingly tech, engineering space, and even in health care you can see COO with deeper domain specialism. 

• The rise of executive coaching & institutionalization: The chaos and crisis we have been through have demanded two critical skills/qualities from the leaders. The ‘Quality of the decisions’ followed by the ability to align with market opportunities/changes, with minimal disruption on the internal priorities, and keeping employee experience at the center are those abilities in the new business context. This requires a shift in mindset and thinking – which led to the integration of executive coaching/leadership coaching as part and parcel of all programs. Organizations with internal coaching practices are no more a surprise and leaders have testified that the coaching engagements have helped them to think in a structured manner during the crisis and chaos.

Finally, the Culture Paradigm: If we observe the job market closely, culture and employee experience jobs are on the rise in MENA. The ambitious journey organizations have embarked on in terms of new markets and diversified business, is pressuring business leaders to define one culture – to thrive. Interestingly the recent changes in visa categories – long-term and golden visas are slowly eliminating – ‘complete dependence on employment and visa’ which in virtue are shifting MENA to a candidate market. More significantly, findings from the Gallup Research and together research states that 70%+ % of those surveyed said that the impact of COVID had increased the importance of culture in their organization. Organizations are hiring employee experience and culture specialists to define the organizational culture and transform it into an employee-centric one. The first step of culture begins with leaders and the top team alignment. So, you cannot have weak leadership at the top driving all the changes.

The Middle East is in its exciting times. 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of any entities/organizations they are associated with.

About the Author:

Anson Jerrin Mathews

Group Vice President | Organization Design & Development – Aldar PJSC


Anson is an award-winning Organization Development Practitioner and a Professional coach who helps organizations and communities to grow and nurture people. He has got close to a decade of progressive global experience as a trusted advisor to C-Suite leaders on different aspects of human capital management in fast-paced emerging markets. He has led Talent & Organizational development initiatives across multiple geographies like the Middle East, Europe, Africa, Indian Sub-continent.