Challenges facing entrepreneurial leaders

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Areej Khataybih is the founder of The Spark Back and co-author of A Woman's Work. 

In the Middle East and North Africa (Mena), our traditions add deep value to our personal lives and cultural interactions not only with one another, but with others around the world. Unfortunately, holding to traditions within business keeps leaders—especially those entering entrepreneurship—from really exploring their full potential and achieving innovation across all industries.

Entrepreneurship has grown significantly in recent years throughout the Mena region, but leadership has not developed to fully support the thriving new industries. Entrepreneurs struggle with adopting flexible leadership styles to address the changing and dynamic business environment that we are seeing today, which leads to a deep sense of frustration among leaders in every industry as they work to apply their business ideas into a traditional leadership framework.

The overarching themes that have emerged among leaders throughout the region largely centre around:

  • A lack of honest feedback from followers
  • A desire to take more risks and dream big, but a deep fear of failure
  • Personal values that do not always align with organisational values
  • Failing to develop new leaders

Lack of honest feedback from followers

Leaders everywhere, not just in the Mena region, suffer from isolation. It is often difficult to find strong, objective advisors who will give honest feedback and criticism to a leader in a position of power. For leaders to create a sense of security for followers, they must create a strong organisational culture that prizes input from others, rather than view criticism as a direct threat to the leader’s position of power. Building this sense of trust within an organisation starts from the top-down, which means that it is the leaders that set the stage for how followers will interact with them.

Many leaders may choose not to receive feedback from their followers, because they believe that it means they will have to promise to take action on what they have heard from others. This is the primary reason that many leaders choose to isolate themselves because they don’t know how to receive feedback without raising expectations of their followers that solutions will be found or that the feedback will be implemented.

Being able to receive feedback is a strong leadership skill that must be developed, as is the ability to actively listen to followers, even if a solution cannot be found or a problem cannot be fixed to everyone’s satisfaction. When leaders can acknowledge others and genuinely listen to the words of others, they give their followers a sense of acknowledgement that improves the commitment levels of employees and leads to higher levels of engagement and satisfaction. Through receiving feedback, the leader can see the perspectives of the employees and their needs and concerns, which in turn leads to a better understanding of what stakeholders want and expect from the organisation and the leader.

A desire to take more risks and dream big, but a deep fear of failure

At their heart, entrepreneurs are dreamers. As they become more entrenched in the role of a leader, however, the responsibilities thrust on them can lead them to take fewer risks out of fear of failure. Leaders have the ultimate responsibility for all their stakeholders, which can often create enormous pressure to make the “right” decisions via traditional methods of leadership, rather than to explore new opportunities. It is because leaders are so responsible for the well-being of others that they begin to feel that their dreams are unachievable. If leaders were able to tap back into the mentality that they had when they were just starting out as entrepreneurs, they would be able to free themselves from the fear of failure and learn to dream big again. Through the act of dreaming comes new ideas, which the leader can transform into even greater business opportunities.

Personal values that do not always align with organisational values

The personal values of the leader go a long way in inspiring their followers. When a leader doesn’t believe in the organisational values, however, it takes away from their authenticity. This has a direct impact on the leaders’ followers, who can sense that the leader may not fully support the organisation’s goals. If the leader is unable to be authentic and have their personal values align with organisational goals, it has a negative impact on employee trust, which in turn reduces the loyalty and satisfaction levels of employees.

One of the greatest aspects of entrepreneurship for leaders is the ability to align personal and professional values within a new business. Not only does the leader become more invested in their own vision for the company, but it inspires those around them to connect to the shared vision within the organisation. Ultimately, this brings success for leader, their followers, and the organisation.

Failing to develop new leaders

In the Global Leadership Forecast conducted in 2018, one of the more alarming statistics was the lack of leadership development worldwide. Within the Mena region, leadership development is far more important, given the difficulties experienced with finding skilled labourers to support the current economic growth.

Developing new leaders within an organisation is critical to the success of entrepreneurship, but many leaders neglect this area of responsibility. One of the primary reasons for this is the belief that leadership is a natural trait that develops on its own. Leaders will often forget their own experiences with formal or informal mentors who gave them the chance to learn and develop their skills.

Leaders must be aware of their role as mentors, particularly among the younger generation who have shown a great aptitude for entrepreneurship and innovation. By taking the time to recognise potential leaders in the workplace and create strong leadership programmes to improve autonomy and leadership skills, the leader will create a strong support network within the organisation, which will reinforce the organisational culture and climate that the leader has developed.

Entrepreneurial leaders face a number of challenges, especially in the Mena region, but by creating a culture of feedback and input from followers, addressing the underlying fear of failure and re-learning how to take risks, aligning personal values with the organisation’s values, and creating a strong leadership development programme, they will be able to set themselves up for even greater success.




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