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Surviving the hero

Oct 15,2017 - Last updated at Oct 15,2017

The corporate world can sometimes be more fascinating to observe than the world of politics, with surprises cropping up at every juncture. Take, for instance, the story of Samsung.

This time last year, Samsung suffered a serious blow when its flagship phone started to behave like firecrackers on the Chinese New Year and had to be withdrawn. 

As if that had not been enough, its chairman Jay Y Lee, ranked the 40th most powerful person in the world, with a net worth of about $6 billion, was arrested in February and in August a court sentenced him to five years in prison for his role in a political and corporate scandal.

Then, to prove that calamities come in threes, Samsung’s Electronics chief executive officer resigned citing an “unprecedented crisis”.

This may indicate that we have not yet seen the last of Samsung’s leadership troubles.

So, how is Samsung faring under these blows? 

Surprisingly well, as a matter of fact. It is still the world’s largest smartphone maker and its new mobile phone, the Note 8, received the highest number of pre-orders ever. Moreover, Samsung’s operating profits in the three months to the end of September have tripled from a year earlier.

This reminded me of an insight given to me a few years ago by a friend who worked at the Ministry of Industry and Trade: You rarely see a Jordanian enterprise older than 20-30 years, because enterprises hardly ever survive their founder. No matter how financially solid the enterprise is, as soon as the founder retires or dies, his heirs immediately fall out and carve up the enterprise between them.

That, unfortunately, is the inevitable fate of any organisation that depends on the personality of one charismatic leader, because in Jordan, as elsewhere else, there are examples of enterprises that are institutionalised and are still going strong long after their founders retired.

This inability to grasp the importance of institutionalisation is a serious cultural failure at many levels. Take, for instance, our educational system. As a child, I was taught Islamic history according to the Ministry of Education syllabus, as a succession of great men who forged empires entirely by virtue of their piety and strict religious observance. These empires collapsed immediately after their death purely because their successors were less observant.

This is why I was elated when I attended the parents’ open day at King’s Academy, where my son goes. In two history lessons, 15-year-old children were asked to compare and contrast the security strategy of the Chinese and Roman empires, then to analyse Napoleon Bonaparte’s reforms and their impact on France. No reference was made to great men and their piety.

The King’s Academy was an inspired initiative at creating a centre of excellence. Now the Ministry of Education faces the challenge of universalising this example in the whole country.

Jordan and the Arab world will make a major leap forward when we stop searching for heroes and start working on institutions.



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