Fast Company

Middle East Leadership Lessons

Social media plays a powerful role in the ongoing Middle East transformation. Wednesday I flew to Atlanta to discuss this with business relationship and social media expert, David Nour. He is Iranian born and the global thought leader in the field of Relationship Economics.

David welcomed me into his home office and spoke candidly about the situation, sharing unique insights stemming from both his ethnic background and expertise in social media and it's capacity to influence and accelerate change.  Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

David, what is really going on here? What do Americans need to understand to put the turmoil and action in context?

If you think about any revolution, there are often three unique forces at play:

1. Any revolution tends to be more of a transformation (a marathon) vs. a transaction (a sprint).  The uprisings and a sequence of continuous unrest may have dominated our front page headlines and evening news stories, but Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen, Libya and Iran to name a few are far from resolved.  What most Americans don't understand, given our relatively nascent history is the millenniums of secular, cultural, and socioeconomic conflict.  These regions are the cultural versions of the Iceland volcanic ash exploding to garner worldwide attention.

2. Any revolution percolates in three distinct phases: the Spark (the Tahrir Square uprising), a Flame (Egyptian military refusing to fire on its citizens), and the Fuel (Mubarak resigning) for real impact. 

Social media played a critical role as an enabler of communication, interaction, broad-base information dissemination, and organization of people, a strategy, and real-time content sharing (videos, images, etc.) 

The other key point is once the Egyptian government turned off access to the internet and thus various social networks, it signaled it's dictatorship both to its citizens (further fueling the flame and fanning the fire) as well as to the international community, which has become a symbol for human rights violations, atrocities, and a dictatorship regime.

3. As the old cliche goes, you'd rather deal with a devil you know, vs. the devil you don't know.  The third and often the most crucial force in the accelerated transition to re-instituted stability is the presence of a native leader.  Any revolt needs leadership - willing to listen, engage, influence and ultimately lead dissent into a cohesive, focused transition plan and thus lasting transformation.  The new leader must be willing to pay the ultimate price to demonstrate he / she is willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to bridge the past wrongs to the future hopes and aspirations. 

Strategic relationships - both within the country, as well as external to it with expats or those in exile who could return and lead are critical.  Again, great opportunity for social media to collect, connect, and capitalize the dots between individuals, information, and insightful interactions moving forward.

Can you transpose what we are learning to lessons for corporate leadership?

As most of my work is with global organizations, I think there are valuable lessons to learn from the Middle East transformation, the role of social media, and our organizations today.  Here are just a few questions senior leaders and board members should consider:

1. What revolts are brewing in your organization?  How do you know, and what are you doing to keep you finger on the pulse of your employee, customer, partner, board, and market life cycles?  Not with policy and "management by oppression" but open dialogue, courage to fail, and a culture unafraid of retribution.

2. How can social media be significant to your business, which has seemingly been getting along fine without social media so far?

3. How then does use of social media, internally and externally, have substantial and positive impact on your business? Where and who should apply it? Where will it likely thrive?

4. How can you build strategic relationships - keeping in mind that face-to-face is the original social media - both within as well as external to the organization, to change, evolve, and elevate the current status quo to a new norm?  Revolts are seldom about fixing things (traditional problem solving within most organizations) but rather initiating a pulse point to elevate individual, team, and organizational behaviors to a new norm - consistently, intently, and strategically.

5. What's around the corner - in your organization, in your industry, in the market?  How do you know and although none of us have a crystal ball, the fundamental lesson from the Middle East and particularly, the real-time nature of social media, is that revolts seldom explode overnight.  Tensions, conflict, discourse, mistrust, abuse, and misaligned expectations - often the culprit of relationships going bad, are habitual, behavioral, and fester over years if not decades.

Seth Kahan (Seth@VisionaryLeadership.com) is a Change Leadership specialist. He has consulted with CEOs and executives in over 50 world-class organizations that include Shell, World Bank, Peace Corps, Marriott, Prudential, American Society of Association Executives, International Bridge Tunnel and Turnpike Association, Project Management Institute, and NASA. He is the founder of Seth Kahan's CEO Leaders Forum, a year-long learning experience for CEOs in Washington, DC. His book, Getting Change Right: How Leaders Transform Organizations from the Inside Out, is a Washington Post bestseller. Visit GettingChangeRight.com for more info and a free excerpt. Follow Seth on Twitter. Learn more about Seth's work at VisionaryLeadership.com.

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