In the past year I had the opportunity to visit Dubai, Doha, and Riyadh. I participated in the EMEA Convention of the Project Management Institute, I provided executive education through Duke Corporate Education at Qatar Petroleum and the UAE Primer Minster Office, and I was a keynote speaker at three Strategy Leaders conferences with Harvard Professor Bob Kaplan, Columbia guru Rita McGrath and strategy execution expert Jeroen De Flander.

Dubay skyline

I was curious to learn how this young emirate, which 40 years ago was a fishermen’s settlement, had been able to grow its GDP so dramatically in recent years. After experiencing the city, talking to the local project management community and some of the expats, I realised that their achievements were not only related to the discovery of oil in the Gulf in the late 1960s, but also to some of the basics principles of leadership applied with simplicity and common sense, something often forgotten elsewhere.

I identified three leadership lessons any leader can apply for a nation or its organization:

1. Set a clear VISION with a bold finish line

The country’s Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum sets the vision for the region: “To become a leader in the global economy, enhancing the wellbeing of our people and creating an environment that attracts business and individuals.” The vision is enforced by a few bold objectives which aim at inspiring the people: “If our performance over the past years was 100 per cent, then we need 200 per cent during the upcoming seven years… Our goal is to grow GDP per capita by 65 per cent in seven years”. This represents an annual growth rate of roughly 7 per cent, a lofty ambition for any country. Yet the statement is everywhere in Dubai and the people I talked to were convinced they could achieve it. It is interesting to see how this approach is cascaded down. Each major sector of the economy has a vision and one or two objectives which are aligned to the bigger vision, e.g. “Vision for the tourism sector: the goal is 20 million tourists and AED 300bn in tourism revenues annually by 2020. We’ll achieve this through three key areas of focus: family tourism, global events and attractions, and Dubai’s status as a business destination.” It would be impossible to be more clear.

2. A STRATEGIC PLAN which is followed up and renewed

That vision is further defined in a strategic plan. This is a declaration of where the emirate is headed and what steps need to be taken to get there. Aside from the headline-making ideas of urban growth and technological advancement, the plan focuses on making Dubai a more desirable place to live and do business. Infrastructure improvement, health and safety, education and judicial excellence are the factors that will most benefit business owners. The plan also addresses concerns that might otherwise hinder future business growth, such as the mounting demand for energy and water. One of the most important features of the strategic plan is the simplicity with which it approaches complex subjects such as vision, leadership, state management, enhancement of skills, and expertise in human resources, which play a paramount role in constantly pushing development in Dubai to new heights. The strategic plan lasts for approximately seven years. The current plan goes until 2015; the next one will be to 2020. The plan is revisited every year and, when one plan ends, a new one is developed.

3. Extensively COMMUNICATE the vision and make everybody part of the plan (and the success)


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In addition to the five books he has authored, Antonio has contributed to seven other business books.

You can see the vision and the bold objectives in many parts of the city. Every big project accomplished, like the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, welcomes the visitor with one of the bold statements. This approach to ruling a region is inspirational to the business community, which is seen as the perfect partner in helping the government implement the strategic plan. The system creates a very positive culture and a strong focus on excellence, where everything is possible and everybody knows they can play a role in it.

Traditionally, leaders of this region have looked to Western countries to learn management best practices. I believe the time has come for European leaders to look to the UAE countries to learn how to apply some of those lessons.

This article was originally published in Business Strategy Review from London Business School

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