As far as the panelists in the Festival of Thinkers "Leaders of Tomorrow" discussion were concerned, there are as many different types of leadership as there are leaders.
For Kathleen Martinez-Berry, archeologist, lawyer and diplomat from the Dominican Republic, leadership means showing what is possible. Martinez stressed the value of following a passion. "I want to be an example of free thinking that is important in life," she said.
For Sabriye Tenberken — who questioned the received orthodoxy of leadership — it was to show a new way of living with one of humanity’s oldest afflictions. As a young German woman, she adapted Braille for use in the Tibetan language, and helped teach blind Tibetan children how to read. "I wanted to create a new concept of blindness," she said.
And for Shiv Khemka, Indian entrepreneur and industrialist, it meant the thoughtful application of life’s lessons. "Wisdom is the ability to see things in a nuanced way," he said. "Leadership is about nuance."
The assembled panelists, in Abu Dhabi at the invitation of the Higher Colleges of Technology, reflected on the lessons in leadership they shared, despite their varied backgrounds and career paths. Finding the right direction to concentrate one’s efforts, they agreed, was essential. And the motivation to achieve more, some recalled, could spring from the desire to overcome trying circumstances.
The Little Adversities
Recalling the influences on his own life, which included half a dozen difficult years at Eton, the famous English boarding school, Khemka confessed that revenge had been his first spur to excel. As a 13 year-old Indian student at the class-conscious school, he recalled numerous incidents of racism. "That spurred me," Khemka said. "My revenge was a First at English, at Eton. It’s the little adversities in one’s life that allow you to create change."
Talal Abu-Ghazaleh, a Jordanian entrepreneur and former Palestinian refugee, agreed. "The best way to demonstrate to the world that you deserve to live is to succeed," he said. "I thanked God for the blessing of suffering. Suffering inspired me, not just as a refugee but also as a businessman. My enemies inspired me to be better, in order to win it over them."
Similarly, adversity also inspired Tenberken. Not her own suffering, though, but that of others. "I get energy from people who have overcome challenges and created strengths from them," Tenberken said. "It’s like people who have come out of wars; ‘We have survived, and we can do a lot of things.’ Working with positive thoughts gives me a lot of strength to develop my own ideas."
Tenberken, blind since the age of 12, established Braille Without Borders in 1998, after developing a Tibetan tactile script for the blind at Friedrich-Wilhelms University in Bonn, in 1992. Braille Without Borders has gone on to establish a teaching institution for disadvantaged would-be entrepreneurs in the south of India. He achievements have convinced her that a lack of eyesight is no disadvantage to making a mark on the world.
"People with limitations have the possibility of creating certain skills, and are very handy with it when it comes to leadership," Tenberken told the audience at Dubai Men’s College. "Blind people can focus. We can communicate because it’s what we do — we listen. We do have the big potential to be problem solvers. We have to find new ways to do things in life."
Among those new ways are the means by which future leaders — and their fellow students — are educated according to Martinez.
"We need to develop the intellect, which requires a change in the process of education," Martinez said. She cited the practice of testing based solely on what was learned from textbooks. "They don’t give you the space for education," she said.
Abu-Ghazaleh agreed, but went a step further, quoting Microsoft founder Bill Gates in explaining the requirement that wisdom match knowledge: "We have gone through the Information Age; now we are in the Knowledge Age. Maybe in the next century, we will be in the Wisdom Age."
By then, Abu-Ghazaleh, who is a member of university boards in Lebanon and the United States, chair of a United Nations global accounting standards committee, holder of the French Legion of Honor and founder of an international management and financial consulting firm, may no longer be with us. Only then, he said, could his legacy as a leader be evaluated.
"A leader should be judged after he passes away," Abu-Ghazaleh said. "Until he passes away, he may do something wrong to destroy his entire career. (So) the true leader is judged and valued after his death."
Before then, a leader must also rely on an element of luck, in having the right person to set them on their path, as Martinez explained. She graduated from law school at the age of 17, a prodigy. Then she remembers her first employer telling her, "Now I will teach you the law."
"It’s very important to have someone to lead you in the right direction," she said.
A Guiding Light
That person was close to home for Prof. J. Michael Ortiz, president of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Ortiz’s father was a county sheriff in New Mexico. Growing up, his father’s word was law and his advice was plain: ‘A man’s word is his honor’. "That stuck with me, more than anything else," Ortiz said. "That was the guiding light for me."
Both Tenberken and Khemka have worked in regions far from their homelands — Tenberken in Tibet and India, Khemka in Russia and the United States. Those experiences forced them to create leadership models that were specific to the region.
"In some cultures, leaders are much more quiet and collaborative," Khemka said. "Leadership merges in different ways."
Tenberken agreed. "I don’t want to imagine someone who just says ‘Follow me’, and everyone follows that person," she said. "I want … a person who is a change-maker. They need passion, effectiveness, energy, vision and communication skills. They must also have the guts to challenge the status quo."
That would be Abu-Ghazaleh, who took umbrage at a question about the world financial crisis, making the point that leaders on a world scale — the West, for example — are subject to change and eclipse.
"Is it only because it’s a crisis in Europe and America that it’s a global crisis? This is not a global crisis. It’s a cycle in the historic process. Since the creation of the world, there have been empires after empires. We have to realize now that we are at a turning point."
Abu-Ghazaleh repeated himself to emphasize his point, suggesting that world leaders may re-emerge. "This is not a global crisis. It’s a crisis of the governments of the West because they didn’t arrange their affairs properly. The Arabs led the world for five centuries, and we were the leaders and inventors of the world. At one point, we also messed up and lost our leadership.
"In the new emerging world, the recovery in American depends on the prosperity of China and Asia."