Lessons from Sheik Mohammed

At 38 years of age, Sheik Mohammed was the Chief Operating Officer of a family-owned company with 100,000 employees and more than $30 billion in assets. Yet, with his immeasurable wealth, significant business influence and political favour, his approach to life and leadership caught me by surprise.

Several years ago while operating my own consulting firm, I was asked and agreed to provide executive coaching and career counselling to 30 high potential employees of a major organization in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Previous to this, I had worked with the executive team of the industrial division of a large multi-billion dollar conglomerate in Kuwait, which I thought provided me with the cultural preparation required for my KSA assignment. To some degree it did, but my readiness and confidence were challenged by Sheik Mohammed’s counsel. He said to me, “Merv, once you understand and appreciate the integration of family, business, religion and social affairs in the culture of KSA, you will be of great assistance to us.” My first leadership lesson from Sheik Mohammed (though a bigger lesson was yet to come) was a reminder of Stephen Covey’s principle from his book,The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: “Seek first to understand.” It couldn’t have been demonstrated, taught or learned in a better context.

My business assignment began with a need to build relationships based on this pearl of wisdom. For two weeks, each member of the group of 30 candidates (G30) met with me to review their current positions, responsibilities, performances, skills, competencies, behaviours and interests. One by one, through thoughtful dialogue, we agreed on a path to high performance, with frequent follow-up sessions scheduled for the next 12-24 months. Sheik Mohammed regularly checked in with the participants to assess their progress based on the direction given to me and the outcomes achieved.

Half way into the assignment, he met with me privately with a special request. He believed that in order to provide proper leadership to the organization and to the G30 who were chosen by the family hierarchy for this exercise, he too should submit to the same process so he could understand what members were being asked to do, the exercises conducted with the group and the outcomes recommended.

Later, during our private debriefing, we had a frank discussion about stress, since his Coping with Stress profile suggested the stress of the COO position was taking its toll. I asked Sheik Mohammed to describe his approach to dealing with stress, being in such a high profile and demanding position. His answer rendered me speechless. I knew I had much to learn about KSA  its culture, how business is done, the importance of family, the integration of religion into everyday life, and the danger of imposing western business practices and values on a unique and distinct people. But being asked to provide advice to this large organization and family did create in me a sense of pride and confidence. However, this was quickly erased.

Sheik Mohammed’s answer was this:

Merv, when I find myself in stress over decisions to be made or that have been made, I have my driver take me to Mecca (“Makkah”) to visit the Sacred (“Grand”) Mosque. There, alone, I pray to Allah and ask Him to reveal to me any mistakes I have made and provide wisdom to make the right decisions. There are times I believe when matters are revealed to me, and there are times when silence dominates. I accept silence as an acknowledgement that I’m doing ok.

The major lesson I learned from Sheik Mohammed’s confession was not about one’s religious persuasion or beliefs. The lesson I learned was about humility.

Sheik Mohammed never took the responsibility of his role in his family and in his company lightly. Even though his prominence was so great, he understood what was given to him could be taken away in the blink of an eye. He did not allow his role, his position, his title, his money, his contacts, his name, or his influence to determine his leadership style. Rather, he believed humility must take prominence over everything he did. From the beginning, he expressed his character by explaining, “Merv, remember this company and the G30 have been entrusted to my care.”

I was at 45,000 feet, flying to Frankfurt on my way back to Toronto from Jeddah. I sat in my Lufthansa seat, staring out the small window into a canvass of blue sky dotted with white clouds below, reflecting on my KSA visit. I was shocked by the turn of events. I had been asked at great expense to provide my counsel to a group of 30 men and women who lived on the other side of the world, yet it was I who learned one of the greatest lessons of my life.

Author and well-known business consultant Jim Collins speaks to Level 5 leadership in his book Good to Great. TheHarvard Business Review wrote:

If there’s one management expert who is synonymous with the term "high-performance organization," it is Jim Collins, who has spent the past 20 years trying to understand how some companies are able to sustain superlative performance. It may seem surprising that of the seven factors Collins identified as essential to take a company from good to great, he chose to focus on leadership in this 2001 piece. However, even a casual rereading of the article will convince you that he was right to do so.

Collins argues that the key ingredient that allows a company to become great is having a Level 5 leader: an executive in whom genuine personal humility blends with intense professional will.To learn that such CEOs exist still comes as a pleasant shock. But while the idea may sound counterintuitive today, it was downright heretical when Collins first wrote about it—the corporate scandals in the United States hadn’t broken out, and almost everyone believed that CEOs should be charismatic, larger-than-life figures. Collins was the first to blow that belief out of the water.

Ask yourself this: As a leader, how would you assess yourself? For those in leadership over you, what is your assessment of them? Is humility at the core of both yours and their leadership styles and practices?

We have a lot to learn, always!