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Thu 10 Sep 2009 04:00 AM

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What can CEOs in the Gulf region learn from Obama’s ‘teachable moment’

In July, US president Barack Obama hosted professor Henry Louis Gates Jr and officer James Crowley at the White House for what the media labelled the “beer summit”.

What can CEOs in the Gulf region learn from Obama’s ‘teachable moment’

In July, US president Barack Obama hosted professor Henry Louis Gates Jr and officer James Crowley at the White House for what the media labelled the “beer summit”.

Officer Crowley arrested professor Gates Jr for entering his own (Gates) home in suburban Boston near Harvard’s campus where Gates is a professor. Shortly after this arrest, national outrage broke out over the arrest for “breaking-in” and the alleged racial profiling involved.

The problem lies in the fact that Gates Jr is an esteemed African-American Harvard scholar and Cambridge sergeant Crowley is a white cop.

This incident not only affected Gates and Crowley, it disturbed the lesser characters and mushroomed to grab the attention of the media, which in turn touched the whole country. President Obama had no choice but to step in and lead.

What would you have done had this occurred on your watch? Would you host a beer summit? What can CEOs learn from what Al Jazeera has called Obama’s ‘teachable moment’?

Obama took control of what could have spiralled out of control, before it even did. He did not sit cowardly on the sidelines to see what would happen and hope to avoid a real crisis.

He took control of the situation and the nation’s agenda. At the time that the story broke, Obama was working to reforming America’s healthcare system, but he refused to allow the nation’s agenda to be hijacked and instead refocused attention back to core issues.

He sent a clear message to Gates Jr and Crowley and the American public by inviting them to the White House. Obama did not try to sweep it under the rug and remove this skirmish from the public stage. Rather, he strongly made it more public by inviting them to the nation’s home.

He listened to what both had to say. Surely, Obama had an opinion regarding what happened and what needed to happen afterwards. But instead of being an autocrat and lecturing them, he started the alleged summit by listening to what the key characters had to say.

Finally, he called for action. As a leader, Obama did not let this moment go by without action. He knew that having a beer together in the Rose Garden was more than a couple of mates catching up. He had to call these guys to action and to refocus the media onto what mattered to him, which is the nation’s agenda.

Obama did not miss this teachable moment and an opportunity to show his leadership. There is quite a bit that CEOs in the region can learn from how Obama handled this conflict.

Let’s regionalise this and see what we can learn. Obviously it would be haram for CEOs in the GCC and the Middle East to host beer summits, but what could a leader in the region do? Instead the CEO could invite the culprits to the diwan, majlis, for shisha, or coffee. The venue is not as important as the fact that the leader takes charge of the conflict. So what should the CEO do?

Resolve the conflict in order to keep control of the company’s agenda and to mitigate future conflicts. But be careful how you do this; a simple demand will not resolve the conflict. It may remove it from your sight, but it will not eliminate the distraction from the other players and the public.

Send a message to everyone (by action not threats) that you are involved and how we should act in the midst of conflict or crisis.

Listen to what the characters have to say. Not only is how you handle conflict a teaching moment for others, it is also a time for you as the leader to learn.

Call for action. You are the leader and you certainly need to lead everyone through the conflict to resolve it and refocus the energies on your organisation’s agenda.

By acting quickly and publicly, you will restore confidence that you are in control of the situation, remedy the conflict, and expedite closure.

As the CEO, are you ready to host a “shisha summit”?

Dr Tommy Weir is the managing director of Kenexa’s Leadership Solutions. The opinions expressed are his own.

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