Leadership in Saudi Arabia: women’s perspective

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By Rebecca Nestor

In June of this year I was privileged to work with a group of sixteen high-achieving women students at the University of Dammam, Saudi Arabia, on a new five-day programme to support their personal and leadership development. I adapted and customised a programme from one devised for male students delivered by Leadership Foundation associate Glyn Jones in 2012*. The programme aimed to provide a supportive group learning experience leaving participants with insight into their individual personality type and personal leadership style and understanding of high-performing teams, how organisations work, leadership principles, influencing, networking and organisational change. The programme was part of the University of Dammam’s contribution to the current government’s efforts on improving women’s access to the professions.

Dammam gave the Leadership Foundation a high-quality brief, including feedback on the 2012 programme and how they wanted to see the young women’s programme take shape. Just as importantly, they put me in touch with Dr Mona Al-Sheikh, who teaches medicine and is also in the University’s medical education unit. Dr Al-Sheikh proved to be a great partner in the development of the programme. We talked via Skype and exchanged emails while I was adapting Glyn’s design. She gave me some excellent background on the prospective participants, from which I learned that they had been selected not just by their tutors but also by their peers, using criteria including morality and helpfulness as well as their academic performance. And they were, I was told, very enthusiastic about the programme and excited about the opportunity it represented for them. Mona encouraged me to focus the programme on helping participants to understand their own potential and to work together – so plenty of activities, team-based exercises, and personal reflection, processes that she explained would be relatively unlikely to form a part of their normal university studies.

With no previous visits to Saudi Arabia to inform my planning, I wondered what the participants’ previous experience of leadership would have been. In a segregated society, what role models would these young women have seen and how relevant or appropriate would my leadership background feel to them? How could we talk about women’s leadership in ways that respected Saudi culture, Islamic values and my own principles?

The answer turned out to be threefold. First, I drew on my experience of women-only personal development programmes and made community-building a key part of the design. The group started with personal timelines, focusing on important events in their personal lives; they worked in pairs and small groups, returning to the small groups several times throughout the programme so as to build a supportive network; and they practised giving and receiving feedback to each other. As part of this community-building, I shared my own experiences of leadership at community level and to some extent opened up my own life to their scrutiny. One participant said at the end that she had shared things with others on the programme that she had never previously discussed outside her family. Secondly, we discussed and articulated our values explicitly during the programme, both in leadership stories and in the practical activities (see photos). This enabled a focus on the morality of leadership, and of Islamic leadership, which seemed to me to resonate powerfully with participants. And thirdly, my colleague Mona acted as a role model herself, discussed other women leaders, and brought in female leaders in days 4 and 5 of the programme so that participants could hear their stories through the frame of the ideas we had discussed in days 1-3.

I’ve learned a lot from the experience. My cultural antennae have been sharpened, which can only help my consultancy skills; I took some risks in design and delivery, and the programme benefited from it; and on a personal level, visiting Saudi Arabia (albeit only for a few days) was an amazing learning experience for me, and I loved getting to know the women in our programme and understanding a little about their lives. I had a couple of delightful social gatherings, including a trip to the mall, and was the subject of traditional Arabic generosity and hospitality.  I got some great advice on how to fix my hijab properly (though I fear making it stay in place is something that only comes with more practice than I had time for). The photo shows me in the abaya or long gown which was a present from Mona, and with my hijab in place thanks to help from the students.

Reflecting on the relevance of this experience for leaders in UK higher education, I’m struck by the power of drawing on one’s own personal experience, and how this helps engage with others with whom one might have thought one had little in common.

*The 2013 run of the Dammam programme for male students took place in Greenwich, London 26 – 30 August and was led by Glyn Jones. 

Rebecca Nestor is the Director of Learning For Good Ltd, and is an associate and regional co-ordinator of the Leadership Foundation