Rory Stewart's Experience in IraqI find it hard to imagine a better example of how someone exercises good judgment in an executive position the subject of yesterday's post than the story of how Rory Stewart handled his job as deputy governor of Maysan and Dhi Qar provinces in southern Iraq during an eleven-month period in 2003-2004.
Before I came upon the account Stewart provides of his experiences in Iraq that appears as an interview in the October issue of the Harvard Business Review, I had already been introduced to his remarkable ability to work across cultures by reading The Places in Between, his account of walking through Afghanistan in 2002. This Afghan memoir is replete with episodes that testify to Stewart's emotional intelligence and resiliency.
In the HBR interview, Stewart describes to senior editor Lew McCreary the daunting complexities of trying to promote order in the provinces he was managing for the Coalition Provisional Authority. He comments that
... I felt the trek [in Afghanistan] had given me an instinctive feeling not only for how to greet people or negotiate with them or appeal to their sense of honor but also for what was politically possible.Once in Iraq, Stewart explains:
I focused most on two things. The first was my sense of what Iraqis wanted and expected. Above all, they wanted security and order, justice and fairness and many of them were quite willing to resort to whatever means they thought necessary to achieve those ends. But I was worried, too, about the reputation of the United States and Britain, because there were a lot of pople putting the worst possible complexion on our motives. As things began to disintegrate, I felt that we should be judged not just by the number of jobs we created or the number of schools we restored. Our purposes were also political, moral, and symbolic. How would Iraqis perceive our character, our moral character? ...Stewart offers examples of how he learned from his colleagues, delegated responsibilities to Iraqis, and cultivated the art of the doable.
I really did want to create a situation in which, if we did nothing else, Iraqis at least would say, at the end of this time, that we were honorable. We weren't corrupt; we weren't torturing people. They might judge that we weren't particularly competent, but they'd see we were trying to serve the people, trying to help. I think and this is not a statement about me, it's really a statement about my colleagues by and large we achieved that. [emphasis in original]
And he points out that one can overdo catering to supposed cultural differences. For example, he observes:
... in rural areas of southern Iraq ... people care greatly about the idea of quwah. They translate it as "strength," though it doesn't necessarily mean strength in a physical or military way. It's more about personality: the sense, first, that people are courageous; second, that they actually believe in the things they're saying; and third, that they're able to resolve disputes within the community and represent the community to the outside. So it's a society that isn't as alien to us, in the United States and Europe, as we might think.In related comments, Stewart suggests:
... I ... think that one of the ways in which we hurt ourselves in Iraq was that we failed to realize that our idealism as much as it could be an impediment was also a great strength, something that Iraqis could relate to. In many respects, these are quite romantic cultures, and often the people attacking you [in meetings] are thinking idealistically. They're thinking about honor or religion or some great abstraction.For a fuller account of Stewart's experiences in Iraq, you can read his second 2006 book, The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq.
The HBR interview closes with an update on Stewart's current projects in Kabul urban regeneration, schooling in traditional crafts, and business development. His comments about misguided training provided by non-governmental organizations are particularly striking:
... in my opinion, a whole generation of young Afghans has to some extent been ruined by training courses financed by nongovernmental agencies over the past four years. When I'm interviewing young Afghans now, I might say, "Look, I've got a real problem in the school, and I need somebody to come in and solve it." Often the person I'm interviewing will say, "What we need to do is redefine the job descriptions, focus on teamwork, and write a mission statement!" And I'll say, "Please, I don't want you to do any of those things. I want you to stop the senior ceramist from murdering the junior ceramist! And I want you to make sure we're productively fashioning woodwork."To learn more about Stewart's activities in Kabul, you can visit the web site of his Turquoise Mountain Foundation.