Accountability without control – learning from Dubai

I have been visiting Dubai for nearly 20 years now for both business and pleasure and was there again in the last month working with a group of high potential managers on some of the challenges of managing accountability without control in an international matrix organization in the region.

As always I was struck by the tremendous changes that continue in the skyline and economy of Dubai, and by the diversity and optimism of the people who operate from the city.

At one point we were discussing the challenge of accountability without control. It’s common in a complex organization that our accountability for delivering results is broader than our control over the resources we need to do so. In fact accountability without control is a large part of the point of the matrix as this means we need to get out of our silos, engage with others and mobilize other resources to get things done.

As the discussion continued I looked out of the hotel window at the continuing construction boom and reflected that this was also the story of Dubai, a city state that did not have the advantages of oil wealth but managed to create the most vibrant city in the region. I had a superficial understanding of the journey from my frequent visits but I decided to dig a little deeper.

I did some internet research, talked to some of the people working there and in the airport I bought a copy of the book My Vision by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Emir of Dubai 2006.

What struck me immediately was that a large part of the book was about leadership – with chapters on vision, leadership, management, decision making and teamwork. It’s a fascinating perspective on the topics written from the perspective of the ruler of a state.

I don’t agree with all of his conclusions and the approach seems to me inherently top down, which is not surprising given his background and perhaps appropriate to this stage of economic and social development in the region.

I am also aware that this development does not come without cost, for example in the past treatment of migrant workers in the construction and service industries.

The strategy has been to open Dubai to the world, to create an environment and infrastructure that attracts other resources to the region, through development of the airport and Emirates airline and focused development in areas including tourism, media, finance and technology hubs.

Without its own oil, with a small native population  and a sometimes unforgiving climate, Dubai had relatively few natural resources of its own. By becoming part of the UAE, opening itself to globalisation, attracting resources and talent from around the world and creating an environment where those resources could create economic development the results have far exceeded their direct control over resources.

It also serves as a stark lesson to neighbouring countries with much greater natural advantages that have not managed to create the same development and opportunity for their people.

For my corporate audience it serves as a lesson of what we can achieve through vision and leadership, irrespective of the resources we control directly. Now admittedly the ruler of a country has more control over resources than many of us, but that just means you need to set bigger and more ambitious targets.

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