Lessons from Syria: building resilient microfinance leadership in the Middle East and North Africa

November 4, 2013

Around the end of August, the weeks leading up to the Women in Leadership program (WIL) in Jordan, my team was glued to the news watching the events unfolding in Egypt, Syria and across the Middle East. Egypt had called a state of emergency and the Syrian crisis had come to a head with reports of chemical weapons and talk of a military strike. The influx of refugees from Syria continued to impact neighboring Lebanon and Jordan, increasing operating costs for institutions and straining clients’ ability to service their loans but also offering a new potential market of people in need of financial services. The situation was, in a word, uncertain.

2013-11-04 WIL Amman Blog Group photoBut, it was precisely this regional uncertainty that made it so important for us to go forward with WIL in Amman in September. One of the ideas that we explore in the course is Bill George’s Authentic Leadership in which he says that most great leaders have gone through a crucible—a situation that so fundamentally tests them that they become better people, and more resilient leaders for having gone through it. For many leaders and institutions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the current state of political unrest, economic uncertainty and change will be their crucible. We want to make sure that the high potential women who have already made it into management and leadership roles, and their institutions, have the capacity to navigate the challenges ahead. In thinking about how to best support leaders, we drew on advice from Dr. Youssef Fawaz, CEO of Al Majmoua, a member of the Women’s World Banking network in Lebanon. During a webinar last April, Dr. Fawaz discussed the unexpected challenges that the rapid influx of refugees to his country have posed for Al Majmoua. He stressed communication, contingency planning and a cohesive management team as key success factors to cope and excel during any crisis.

We were fortunate that the conditions in the region allowed us and our participants to travel safely to Jordan. It is also a testament to the participating institutions that they had the foresight to invest in their women leaders during a time when other issues could easily have pushed internal capacity-building to the background. When we arrived at the conference venue in Amman, it felt just like arriving in any of the many countries where we have run the Women in Leadership Program over the last four years. We were welcomed by our Jordanian partners and the program kicked off without a hitch. The impressive cadre of participants eagerly jumped into the curriculum and immediately began to form bonds based on their shared experiences as leaders.

2013-11-04 WIL Amman Blog Women discussing Very early on it was also clear that the conditions in the region were on everyone’s mind.  During the session on Strategic Leadership and Organizational Culture, the women openly discussed their concerns about political and economic instability in their home countries, becoming particularly focused on the role that personal and organizational values play in staying mission and customer-focused even when everything is seemingly turned upside down.

For instance, one of the participants shared how her organization’s success is partly due to having a rule-bound organizational culture that places value on clear policies and strict procedures, particularly around loan repayment. But during the recent political crisis, they were faced with a tough choice—continue to enforce these rules even for good clients now facing  tough external circumstances or make an exception in order to protect their clients, and perhaps in the long-run, the ability of the institution to serve its clients sustainably into the future.  There was a debate within the organization and a real test of leadership. Ultimately however, they realized that the solution was to refocus the conversation on  their core value of serving women and that being true to this value meant temporarily adopting more flexible repayment rules. Customer care, rather than strict policies, was allowed to take a front seat during the time of crisis even though a normal human response to uncertainty could easily have been resistance to change rather than innovation.

This discussion of values was so important that the conversation has continued even after the participants departed from Amman on our online Leadership Community for alumni of Women’s World Banking’s leadership programs. The focus of the online discussion forum is now on the skills and values that leaders need to be resilient when facing challenging circumstances. One participant came to realize that family is such an important value in her personal life that she is most successful at work when this value is lived through her team, when they practice mutual support and when each person recognizes her or his own duties and rights. Another participant shared that she values communication and believes that crisis can best be met when there is openness and feedback. For another participant, it comes back full circle to being authentic, recognizing that each person has unique strengths and own path to leadership.

We all agree that in a climate where divisive voices could otherwise rule, leaders can become positive role models for staff and clients alike by modeling good listening, tolerance and the value of diversity. Women’s World Banking was thrilled by the opportunity to help strengthen women leaders in this region through such a difficult situation. ”The situation facing Syria and its neighbors may be the crucible for these women and many other leaders in this region,” says Women’s World Banking Director of Leadership and Diversity Programs Elizabeth Lynch, “but we hope that through this program and the continuing support of the alumni community, our participants will stay committed to their values and use their leadership for the greater good of their institutions and the clients they serve.”

Co-written by Sarah Buitoni and Gayle Gatchalian