Leadership Journeys: Guler Sabanci - IEDP
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Leadership Journeys: Guler Sabanci

Leading from the Inside Out

Wednesday 06 January 2016


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One day Nasrettin Hodja was riding his donkey backward, facing towards the back. “Hodja” the people said, “you are sitting on your donkey backwards!” “No,” he replied. “My friend here wanted to go one way and I wanted to go the other, so we are compromising.”

Nasrettin Hodja is a beloved figure in Turkey. He was a 13th century, Chaplin-like character of his time. His presence is still felt today in Turkey and around the world. He is a symbol of Turkish humor and you will see statues peppered throughout the country of Nasrettin riding backwards on his donkey. His stories of teaching and leadership have been passed down through the centuries.

There is much in this Turkish folk story to serve as allegory to Guler Sabanci's leadership journey. As Turkey's business superwoman, she navigates in a man's world, sitting between East and West where the past and present can block or accelerate the future.   

Many analysts believe Turkey is poised to become the new China. Turkey is the ‘T’ in the acronym, MINT. It is one of the four countries (along with Mexico, Indonesia, and Nigeria) who are current darlings of global investors and economists. With favorable demographics for at least the next 20 years and good economic prospects, Turkey has a lot going for it: It is in the West and the East.  Its politics and the combination of a Muslim faith and a desire to do things the Western way is both its advantage and its unique challenge. 

The future for Turkey is both glorious and forbidding. While all the ingredients are there to skyrocket Turkey to one of the top ten largest global economies, it sometimes seems to teeter on the brink of instability. The geopolitical position of Turkey sets it in the path of ongoing conflicts with ISIL, Syria, Kurdish militants of the PKK; leaving a general atmosphere of political uncertainty.  

Sabanci is in the middle of this world – excelling, pushing, challenging and leading. As the Financial Times put it, “Sabancı is more than chairwoman of one of Turkey’s largest corporations. She is also an important force in the country’s political, social and cultural life.” Add to that its philanthropic life. Sabancı also chairs the Sabanci Foundation (www.sabancivakfi.org) and Sabanci University (www.sabanciuniv.edu).

Living and leading on the cusp of change can be tough for any leader. For Sabanci, it is particularly complex and complicated. Sabanci's leadership motto: Keep moving forward (not unlike Nasrettin Hodja's guidance). That is exactly how Guler Sabanci lives her life and leads her companies. Part of her success comes from selecting paths open to her and not becoming discouraged by cultural, political or historical resistance. Sabanci leads with aplomb, balancing the need to move forward while acknowledging the role tradition, religion, politics and economics play in the future of Turkey.

Sabanci boldly describes her company’s philosophy: “In one hand is the business -- profitable, competitive and successful to be sustainable. In the other lies philanthropy. We cannot claim to be successful if we are only doing business to satisfy our shareholders.” Her philanthropy towards women and girls is particularly obvious. In a 2011 interview with Global Giving Matters, she was asked to comment on how she viewed her role in raising the status of women in Turkey. Her unequivocal answer: "I believe that raising the status of women in Turkey is a responsibility shared by everyone. It is not only in Turkey; we are still in need of serious support for the role of women in business and society all around the world. Women leading big corporations and assuming various important social and political roles is still considered newsworthy, which clearly shows the need to further support and enhance the role of women in society. I am pleased that my work has been recognized and I hope to be a role model."

Guler Sabanci's Leadership Journey Lesson #1: Confidence

At a time when CEOs are preoccupied with the next disruptor in their industry, Sabanci must deal with technological, geopolitical, religious and economic disruptions – often all at the same time. Perhaps Sabanci has leadership confidence in her DNA. Growing up in the shadows of her grandfather, Haci Omer Sabanci, who began the Sabanci Group, and her uncle, Sakip Sabanci, who expanded it into a worldwide business empire, she thrived in the business world, even though the culture was not women-friendly. This, Sabanci had to grapple with on her own.    

In a 2013 CNN interview, Sabanci explains how she can so confidently navigate the man's world: "God gave me the courage to change the things I can change. God gave me the patience to accept the things I cannot change and given me the wisdom to know the difference." She says she lives by this saying and wisely picks her battles; sage advice for any leader.  

Reflect on your leadership...

Are you a confident leader? Confident leaders, especially in crisis, have the ability to remain calm and be in control. This is a skill, it can be learned and practiced. You need to know what you're good at and how to work on your weak spots. We all have hot buttons that can trigger raw emotions or visceral reactions. Responding from either of these places will undermine the confidence others have in you as a leader. You can change yourself. Then learn what you can't change and pick your battles wisely.

Guler Sabanci's Leadership Journey Lesson #2: Courage

Leading is a deeply personal act. Who you are drives what you do and how you perform. In 1994, Sabanci's uncles asked her to lead the establishment of a new educational institution, Sabanci University. At the time, she said she was heavily involved in realizing business projects and wasn't sure she had the bandwidth to achieve such a high profile goal.  But she accepted the challenge. Today, Sabanci University is making a difference in the higher education system in Turkey. Sabanci now fondly shares this story of how happy it made her to realize her uncles’ dream.

Courage to do the right thing, amidst all the other leadership pressures and results expected of you, is part of being a healthy leader. The university that Sabanci built, made headlines last year when it published a report on the impact of domestic violence against white-collar working women in Turkey. It was the first study of its kind in the country.

Reflect on your leadership...

How courageous are you? Courage to take action as a leader is often blocked by our own anxieties or a myriad of negative fantasies that may be lurking in our brain. Have the courage to fail. It opens you to deeper self-awareness, growth possibilities and respect from others. Learning from mistakes, failures and setbacks is a key requirement of healthy leadership.  And take a page out of Sabanci's leadership rules and follow the idea "having the courage to change the things I can change ..."

Guler Sabanci's Leadership Journey Lesson #3: Commitment

If you watch any videos of Sabanci or read any of her interviews, you will understand that one of her higher purposes is helping others. She deeply believes that altruism is a good investment. If you act as an island of self-interest, you will not be able to move forward.

Sabanci's 2015 New Year message to employees emphatically stated "we will continue to lead the entire Turkey about empowerment of women." Her unparalleled commitment to advancing women in her region has won her high praise, recognition and awards across the globe. In 2011, she earned Clinton Global Citizen Award for her philanthropy and leadership. Her commitment to helping women is unwavering, even as her companies faced a downturn in growth in 2014. Sabanci continues her movement forward regardless of the struggles going on around her and around Turkey.   

Reflect on your leadership...

How does Sabanci stay committed? One answer may be she has learned to be emotionally detached from outcomes. Staying calm and focused allows you to pivot while staying committed to your core beliefs. It is a critical skill for leaders in our fast-moving, uncertain, competitive world.

To be 100% committed, you must be 100% detached. It may sound crazy,but commitment is the foundation of your success as a leader. Detachment is the safety valve, making sure your emotions do not get you carried away. Sabanci's version of detachment is knowing what she can change and knowing what she can't change and being okay with it.

Even though you can be fiercely committed, detachment lets you step back from work and your responsibilities so you can recharge and reflect as an independent thinker. This mental process allows you to be resilient and bounce back in the face of adversity. It also allows you to pursue your higher purpose and have the confidence to shape your environment.

The notion of sitting backward on a donkey – like Nasrettin Hodja – may not be such a crazy idea for 21st leaders after all, especially if you believe that moving in many directions at once is a leadership strategy that will bring you success.

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