!Warning: This article contains adult language and content that some readers may find disturbing and/or judgmental.
“If you say his name again, I will do everything in my power to end your career.”
Being in business in Kuwait since 2009, I’ve seen and heard many threats embedded in actions and phrases like this one, which was said to an employee working for one of my competitors’ organizations when my name was brought up. I’ve heard many comments of this sort thrown at people by their vision-less, anti-leader bosses. The problem is apparently more severe and harmful than it appears, and it surely has deeper roots than satisfying one’s insecurities when overpowering others. It goes beyond our culture and is the sum of a demeaning society that fails to value people’s fundamental human rights.
In this article, I want to share my experiences of working with more than 50 companies in Kuwait and its surrounding region. I have dealt with organizations of all sizes, from small to large, enabling Forward Sports to acquire more than 70% of the market share last season. We did that only few years after the official establishment of the company and while competing against other firms that have 50 times the resources that we do.
This journey brought out natural human jealousy against me, the company’s founder and CEO, and I was judged to be a classic, fame-seeking “doesn’t know shit” Kuwaiti by insecure managers at many of the companies I worked with. I couldn’t care less about such labels, but when those insecure human traits limit companies from fulfilling their main objective—to add value to society and empower people—I knew I needed to highlight the issues I encountered, with a positive and constructive intention, and to offer insights that can be an eye-opener for current leaders and an inspiration for future ones.
Throughout my short journey of ups and downs, and all the fuck-ups in between while working with many vision-less leaders, I have seen common factors that connect the dots for questions like “Why is the concept of leadership raped and rarely considered seriously in Kuwait?” and “What can we do to revamp leadership within the companies we work for, or through the new ventures we are about to launch?”
Before I share some of my stories, I want to start by clarifying one very important yet misunderstood objective and purpose, something I think of like a “life’s purpose” for corporations. This objective, by its very nature, is derailed when many people look at it, due to its complexity and the sense of responsibility it holds (which most people generally avoid, due to their naturally ignorant personalities). When we fail to achieve it, the things we build fall apart. The objective is that companies’ primary reason for existing must be to improve the societies in which they operate and to inspire a culture of personal and community development amongst its people. As Sir Richard Branson highlights in his book Screw Business as Usual, companies must adopt a culture of adding value to the world around them, as doing so will, in time, benefit the company by allowing it to operate in a well-developed culture of people with higher purchasing power. In essence, the more you develop the country in which you operate, the higher the purchasing power of its people, and the more your business grows. Of course, only visionaries see it this way, while vision-less leaders only reply with ”Huh?” and a huge question mark across their forehead.
We rarely come across companies with this objective instilled deep in their corporate culture. I will give some examples, because some might ask, “What can an oil company, for example, do to operate under such a vision?” Well, they can simply invest in corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities that are mainly related to environmental matters. This can, in a small way, compensate for the nature of oil companies’ pollution effects. Similarly, a car manufacturer could invest in recycling car wreckage and developing environmental R&D platforms. Good CSR is achieved within the context of a company’s main provided product or service. For companies in the food industry, it may involve developing channels of sustained resources like food and water supplies in underdeveloped cities and countries, instead of just feeding those in need and labeling the boxes with their company logos to emphasize the “look at me” factor of marketing. An advertising agency might promote health and charity campaigns and create ongoing, timeless platforms for mass contributions to a given cause. There are no excuses for ignoring CSR, and there is no escape from the responsibility to influence and shape the world we live in.
Most (if not all, or at least 99%) of the companies I worked with lack this level of thinking and are unable to comprehend their CSR responsibility or to seek such a vision. Instead, they foster an ongoing and demeaning corporate culture that negatively affects employees, suppliers, and all stakeholders by sucking the good out of them and replacing it with a hidden greedy intention. The stories I will share will give you an idea of what I mean by these accusations. Before that, let’s analyze the reasons behind such behaviors.
Every time I try to determine why companies ignore CSR, I end up asking myself, what I should expect from a society that idolizes fashionistas over innovators in all its public mass media, or a country known for its people-to-restaurants ratio being 40 to 1. They even made a video campaign about it, rubbing it in people’s faces as a supposed source of national pride. Or what about the insecure youth and adults of all ages and shapes using Internet connectivity and WhatsApp communication as the only way of life in which they order their daily routines and practice their emotional intelligence skills? Then, I look at my peers and see an even worse standard of start-ups and ventures promoting “keys to success and happiness” and polluting proper spirituality with a surrender to life and “fuck your future” bullshit YouTube videos.
When you begin to analyze the society around you even further, you will notice that the common levels and standards of activity are filled with sarcastic, inexperienced faces screaming with insecurities and damaging all integrity and ethical behavior. The problems goes way beyond these issues. The worst part is human categorizing. Our culture hides behind weak, judgmental personalities where most people find it amusing to categorize others not by their inventions, achievements, or level of intellectuality and the added value they bring to society, but by their family names, the reputation of how wealthy their grandparents were, and their position in the family tree. If that’s how people of the same nationality are judged, can you imagine how non-Kuwaitis are perceived? I won’t comment, but the public media has done a service to justice by showing the modern incarnations of slavery across the national newspapers and public media channels.
Now that I have made such claims, as is so often the case when one tells the truth about a situation, I will receive some well-written hate emails and private messages trying to prove me wrong, instead of sharing solutions to the apparent problem. These, in turn, only validate my accusations.
So, I hit the wall and the question of “What do I expect from companies operating in such a culture?” becomes a little clearer. Perhaps I’m not so satisfied with the answers, as there is always more to the story than the blurb on the back cover. Regardless, we definitely need to re-evaluate our position, for the sake of the upcoming generation.
Some of the stories I have decided to highlight in brief here are, to me, a result of companies’ failed attempts to act as they are meant to–to inspire change and facilitate growth for society and the people at large. However, not all of my experiences have been bad. I have encountered some of the most amazing personalities and real leaders in my journey, but this is not the place to praise them. Maybe I’ll do that in another article one day. Here, I have kept my comments to the people in leadership positions who need a wake up slap in the face.
“I’m sorry. The Sheikh demanded that we hire them and not you.”
”The sheikh (company owner) demanded!” I would literally be a millionaire by now if I had a penny for every time I lost a business opportunity because of this very sentence. It’s a fact I have had to live with since the first time I heard it. Even though we at Forward Sports have acquired most of our clients from various competitors throughout the years and have been proud to be praised several times on multiple occasions when we have operated with true vision, compared to vision-less competitors, when insecurities hit, they hit hard. In this case, adopting Niccolò Machiavelli’s most famous quote, “The end justifies the means,” becomes inevitable. The “end,” in this case, is taking your client back and the “means” is using connections “Wasta” from the owner of the company, instead of being a believer that your own business values can bring success.
Such shallow business ethic is justified by wasta seekers because it helps avoid angry meetings with investors and pressure one cannot handle from peers when asked “Why did your client leave you in the first place?” Now, we come up against the filled with insecurities quote I mentioned previously: “If you say his name again, I will do everything in my power to end your career.” It is justified by its user and understandable.
Vision-less Insight: When one fails to reach an end by his own true belief in the value they can add, then using Kuwait’s most vital weapon, in this case the wasta, becomes the only option. However, if your vision is to build a world-renowned visionary corporate culture that empowers stakeholders and inspires employees to reach their full potential, then using such a weapon must not be an option, and fighting this attitude becomes an objective, instead of a tool.
Controversy: Sometimes using connections is not a form of wrongdoing. Using them to gain an opportunity or to set up a meeting with a person of power to explain and sell your creative concepts is not wrong, but depending on it as the only tool for getting business done or winning a client back is a sign of extreme weakness and a step on the road to corporate and self-demoralization.
“You are weak. You have to work more.”
Once, an employee working for one of our competitors’ organizations repeated what she had been told: “You are weak.” That’s the reply she received when she asked not to be made to work so much overtime, including weekends and taking no days off, without even being paid for those extra hours.
When I heard this, I was confused about whether the quote had come from an Academy Award-winning movie portraying the fight against slavery during Lincoln’s era or if it had come from a local, twisted, and fucked-up mentality that had prompted people to belief that it was acceptable to say this, in the 21st century, to another human being. Simply using wasta as a means for achieving success doesn’t sound so bad in comparison to modern slavery or a Game of Thrones-like corporate culture.
Vision-less Insight: When the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, fought slavery in the 19th century, he simply looked at his society and saw that some people, just because of their skin color, were deprived of their fundamental human rights. They were working 16 or more hours per day and were wholly at their owners’ mercy. Now, let’s put it this way, in this region, we have a group of people (house-maids) who are unlike any other group of workers anywhere else in the world. Their passports are taken from them upon arrival, they are paid the minimum wage, and they serve their “owners,” cleaning up after them, taking care of their babies and more for 16 or more hours each day. Tell me, how this is not what Lincoln fought against more than 150 years ago? Still, it happens in this region.
I’m not shocked by how one can reach a conscious state of saying “You are weak. Work more” to an employee who is already working more than 12 hours a day. This is certainly a behavior inherited from the previous, egocentric and numb generation, yet, do we fight it? Sadly, most members of the current generation actually abuse their workers even more.
Controversy: Of course, abusing employees is not limited only to this region; there are cases everywhere in the world that highlights the same issue, but this region is the only one that has legalized such treatment.
“It’s okay, but let’s stick to what we always did, even though it was a mess and never worked.”
As I made a presentation to one of my clients, describing a new concept to enhance their brand exposure and the whole experience they deliver by 50 times at only a 2.5% added cost to what they paid the year before, I heard the shallow, vision-less anti-leadership response “It’s okay, but let’s stick to what we always did, even though it was a mess and never worked.” To me, this response sounded like, “It’s okay, we accept a non-improvement failing behavior. It’s part of our corporate culture’s DNA, and leading innovative ideas for the betterment of everybody involved? Nah, we don’t practice such traits here.” The good news is that they did end up using the concept, and it brought massive success to them. They went on to use it again and again, due to the proven nature of the engagement, even though we are no longer involved with them.
Know this: A great idea or a valuable concept will be carried out by force, even by your competitors.
“Change is natural; resisting it is also natural.”
Resisting change is an instinctive human behavior adopted by primates more than 50 million years ago as a means of survival and sticking to what provides security, food, and shelter. This natural human behavior is not about to change anytime soon, but studies of primates and human nature also suggest how we have had to adapt, and thus developed complete awareness and consciousness to be creative, from our simplest to most complex tasks, to make them great tools of survival.
Think of Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterwork sketches that analyzed in-depth the details of human and animal anatomy, Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel, and Shakespeare’s beautiful wording and structure and the collaborations among his sentences. These extreme examples of creativity are still shockingly magnificent even more than four centuries after their creation. This is what we are meant to create: Legacies.
Vision-less Insight: Sticking to a chaotic work ethic and resisting change is a pure vision-less act and an anti-leadership behavior. It takes guts to step up in front of your team and make a decision that will shift things, and I understand the risks associated with doing so if the efforts fail, but that’s the beauty of leadership! When you are humble in the pursuit, taking risks and embedding true entrepreneurship within your corporate culture, that’s when great things happen and change becomes a natural and instinctive act within your chemical and DNA make-up. That is the road to greatness, on both the individual and corporate levels.
Controversy: Change is not always the right way to go. Changing something that has been proven successful via properly constructed feedback and growing at a break-neck speed is not the best path, unless the potential outcome of the change massively outweighs the risk of failure. Change is inevitable only when growth is no longer being attained.
“There is no formula or book to improve integrity and the value of one’s word.”
Many generations ago, the strength of one’s word was considered beyond signed contracts and paperwork. It was the word and the handshake, even between enemies, that counted.
On many occasions, I have encountered a lack of integrity in my competitors and the companies I’ve worked with. At least three times, with three different companies, I asked them to set a price for a specific service my company was offering, in order help them establish their ventures at a minimum cost, but they went ahead comfortably abusing the opportunity by not working with us again, even though we received amazing feedback for our service and the quality of our deliverables. There is no problem with changing suppliers–it is a common practice that is more than acceptable, it is the valid right of any client or service user–but I find it difficult to understand how some find it easy to do such things without informing the company that has allowed them to set their own price in their establishment year to further benefit them.
Vision-less Insight: To lack integrity is to lack humanity.
Integrity, by its very nature, is an unattainable trait, no matter how many books one reads or how wide one’s experience. It is a mixed set of being a visionary combined with instinctive leadership traits and the ability to confront people and things no matter the consequences.
You cannot teach integrity in any school, or learn it from your parents. You can only facilitate the path on which one can seek it. Through guidance and proper teachings, it is possible, however, to somehow instill the sense of it in one’s pupils.
Controversy: There is no controversy surrounding integrity. There is simply no excuse for lacking it. I will leave that for you to explore and decide upon yourself.
As a wrap up to this article, I’ll leave you with this quote by the great journalist Herb Caen:
“A city is not gauged by its length and width, but by the broadness of its vision and the height of its dreams.” -Herb Caen, 1916-1997
Over the years, I have learned that leadership and vision are connected by a very thick rope. Only the properly ready can comprehend and fully understand its applications and effects.
As a culture, we are not ready. As individuals, we can choose to be.
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