Learning about strategy from Elders: Past lessons can provide tomorrow's solutions

I finally got all the essays back from the Strategy Students - Strategy is... You can read about the assignment here in detail, but basically students had to interview an Emirati older than 60. I chose that age because I wanted students to talk to someone who would remember the differences from pre-UAE (before 1971) and after the UAE came together as a country and the discovery of oil.

The students, from Fujairah, RAK, Al Ain, Hatta, Ajman and Abu Dhabi - chose both women and men, family members and tribal elders, from all strata of society. They all said they were happy to have had a reason to ask questions and to learn about the past... they all learned things they did not know and were reminded of how blessed and easy our lives are today.

A few of the scholars

Of course, as a strategy professor, I look for patterns, for commonalities that could provide me with insight into what "strategy" was in the past - so I can better teach it and do research on it in the future. the reason I used quotation marks is because strategy is not a term that would have been used by their grandparents (or my own) - the strategy was survival through working hard, working together, working with the materials on hand and working for the future.

What were the themes that ran through all the essays? Well the first of course is the deep respect and reverence for the late Sheikh Zayed - who united the country in 1971 and all the ruling families. Another, is the strong role of the mosque and Islam. The mosque in the past was where young boys (and girls) were educated in Arabic, mathematics, geography, and of course religious studies. Education was always seen as an important part of life. Apart from these core fundamentals there were a few themes that stood out for me: equality, transportation, collaboration, economy, and sustainability.

First, I was incredibly proud that many of the essays included significant discussions on the equality of men and women - and that when schools began opening in the UAE after 1971, there were schools for both men and women. This pride came from their elders and was nurtured in these young men.

Second, was how difficult and long transportation was in the past. There were camels, donkeys and horses, but horses could not be used for long distances over the desert. Of course there were boats along the coast, but there were no motors. These modes of transportation were slow, arduous and fraught with danger. Bandits would lay in wait for the caravans traveling between villages and towns and towns and cities. Camels could and did die along the way and the only option would be on foot. Since travel took such a long time, when family came to visit, they stayed for long periods of time. As well, people did not travel alone. There was safety in numbers and also a number of hands were needed for basic survival along the desert journey.

Collaboration was not just used for traveling. Collaboration was the only way to survive the daily effort of providing the food, water, shelter and medical care that were needed. To paraphrase one Elder "the problems of one member of the family, was a problem for the whole family". People worked together, in small and larger groups organized in tribes. People would help one another. This of course would lead to the lessons of life that another Elder mentioned, "Life was difficult before the union, but it taught patience, tolerance and hard work".

This collaboration and tolerance are necessary ingredients of the barter economy which was the economy in much of the UAE. The surpluses of one family were traded for the surpluses or skills from another. One elder women interviewed was widowed early in her married life. She developed herself as an artisan - using palm fronds to weave mats and items. In modern terms I would say that each family or person needed to develop distinct competencies to be an active participant in the economy. Of course the same is true today, although the required skills have changed. Many of the Elders said that the only hard currency came from trade of surplus fish, dates, pearls, produce which were brought by caravan to the cities.

Finally, sustainability. I loved that all essays mentioned that everything was used and shared - palm trees gave a vital source of food, but also material to build houses and also fuel for cooking fires. Rocks from the mountains were used for construction (as it is today) and tools would last generations. Older generations taught younger generations through working alongside and working and learning together.

I know, this is a romanticized vision of the past, but my goal is not historical scholarship - it is finding the patterns that worked in the past, which are still an inherent part of the culture, society and economy. With these patterns we can better understand the present and I can better teach my students - who are the future generation of leaders.

I extend my debt of gratitude to the Elders who shared their stories with my students, knowing they would be shared with me. Also, to my readers, I hope you think a little differently about the past and present here and see a little of the richness of the culture and heritage I experience on a daily basis through my marvelous students.

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