Conventional methods of study are great but before AlBaraa H. Taibah started his own business and learnt about leading people, he learnt how to lead sheep in the Sahara Desert
I was studying for an MBA in Boston when I realised I wanted to see what I could discover about leadership, decision-making and adapting to change outside the classroom. So I ventured way out of my comfort zone and into the hostile environs of the Sahara Desert to take on a unique challenge: herding a flock of sheep safely through its deadly sand dunes.
The stakes of my experiment were high. I knew if that if the herd didn’t trust me and wouldn’t follow me to the areas where they could drink and graze, they could die. Without any modern technology or any way of communicating if I needed help, I soon realised the enormity of the task I’d set myself.
But when, a few years later, I began my own business, it was the lessons I learnt in the desert, not in the classroom, that equipped me with the skills required for the job. So what did I learn and how can it be applied to running your own business?
When I first arrived in the desert the flock barely acknowledged me. I tried asserting my authority out loud: “Hello, I am your leader.” But they responded by turning their backs to me. Each day I offered them food and water, opened gates for them and cleaned up their leftovers. Gradually, they allowed me to get close to them. I realised it was only when I served them that they began to accept me.
It wasn’t about my skills or my leadership ability. It was about bringing value to them. It poses the question of all of us as business leaders, what value do we bring to the individuals who work for us?
Next, I needed the herd not just to accept me but to follow me. I found it was only with continuous commitment that they started taking the path I took and stopping when I stopped. They needed to slowly build trust in my ability to make good decisions.
Trust is the key stone to leadership. Without it, it’s only a matter of time until the relationship collapses. Do we trust the boss who assumes he or she alone has the solution for everything, who treats people like machines or who thinks only of profit margin? Of course not. We trust the leader who puts the same trust and respect into his or her employees as he or she expects back.
One of the biggest lessons I took from the experience was how to manage change. In the desert, as in business, I was constantly faced with new and unexpected threats. I realised that self-awareness was key to my ability to successfully react to this. Without building full awareness of my thoughts and emotions I was unable to make balanced, clear-sighted decisions.
We invest time in understanding our products, services and markets. Yet, without investing time in understanding our own skills, weaknesses, triggers and emotions we can’t successfully manage a business.
I found that silence and space are essential to our decision-making ability. The silence I experienced in the desert drove my mind to think in a way I wouldn’t otherwise. Without stepping away from screens, emails, ringing phones and the constant knocking on the door it’s impossible to follow a clear, reasonable thought process.
I try to ensure I bring isolation into my work day whenever I can. Even if only for a short period of time, I set myself apart and remove myself from all the distraction that surrounds us so I can focus and prioritise effectively. This ensures we can function at our full capacity.