Jordan: What Leaders Learn From What They Don’t See.

Many of you know that Jordan is a middle eastern mostly Muslim country located just to the east of Israel. Perhaps best known for the ancient historic site of Petra, developed in approximately the 1st century B.C. by the Nabataean Empire, it was also the home and domain of the infamous King Hussein and Queen Noora Al-Hussein (born in the United States) until the King’s death in 1999. It is hard to imagine all that has shaped this country over those many years, as much has never been seen by visitors today or even archeological experts who claim much more is to be discovered.

My friend and I recently traveled there for a horseback sojourn through the Wadi Rum, or the Valley of the Moon. This 280 square-mile valley in southern Jordan is rumored to have been created by a great flood, cutting through the granite and sandstone rock. The wind has shaped each facing of stone with different patterns, and the main residents, the Bedouin, have made it their home for many centuries. Today part of the Wadi Rum is a UNESCO World Heritage site visited by many tourists for hiking and rock-climbing. My traveling partner said, “It is one of the countries I never knew I had to visit until I did.”

What makes Jordan so special? As we spent hours riding through the desert and taking in all the unique formations, it was clear that what I saw and observed took years to become. And what shaped it, I couldn’t see. But it created what exists now. I began to wonder, as leaders who are responsible for shaping the future, do we pay attention to that which we cannot see but clearly has a transformational impact on our businesses and the people in them? 

Historical Influence

Jordan contains history that most of us have heard and read about but can never witness. It includes the importance of Mount Nebo to Moses, which allowed him to see at the end of his life, the Holy Land God promised his people, although he was never to enter it. T.E. Lawrence, a British officer in the times of the Arab Revolt (1917-1918) later penned a book titled “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, capturing his impressions of the country and all that he learned there. Wadi Rum has been inhabited by many human cultures since prehistoric times, with many cultures–including the Nabataeans–leaving their mark in the form of petroglyphs, inscriptions, and temple ruins, and those we were able to see. The point is these acts, which were moments that occurred well before our time, influence the country even today, and have left a permanent imprint that still impacts us today. What is influencing your world? How is its history influencing its future? History doesn’t bind us, but it indelibly influences us. We acknowledge it for the role it has played but we are not captive to its legacy for the future. For example, if you have not historically been an innovative company, you are able to become one, and the sooner the better! If your manufacturing location is in a town without an adequate labor pool, it requires us to see beyond our beginnings and change as needed. We own our history but must create our future. 

How the Winds Blow

Wind has been a contributor to the formations in the Wadi Rum, especially since the rocks are mostly made of sandstone which is quite malleable. As I rode, I often saw images in the rocks—an elephant, an eel, a lizard, an eagle, even a monkey hugging a poodle. Some facings were sheer, and others were full of round imprints. Arches had been formed on prominent points due to wind forces. But we don’t see the wind. When we talk about “how the wind blows” we are often talking about changes beyond our control yet with a direct impact on the future. They could be political winds, legislative winds, industry winds, or similar. We only are aware of them if we are staying connected to what people are thinking and feeling which is the precursor to action. Most of us have had to make decisions that require anticipation of the direction of the winds. The better able we are to reach beyond the four walls of our business to a larger system of connections, the better and more accurate we can “read the winds” and act accordingly. We must also acknowledge that we will miss some. Sometimes sandstorms surprise us all (Covid). Our goal is to have a clear strategy and values in place to guide us in times of high uncertainty and not just react to an unexpected incident.

Those Who Paved the Way

Jordan is not a country built on one great event or one period of time. For most of its existence, it consisted of nomads who wandered where their needs took them. There have been great leaders who made history of course. But the vast majority of this country’s legacy is found in the wanderers, the ones who dared to create a path for others to follow. When I saw a dusty footprint in the sand, made by man or camel, it was intriguing to think about where they had come from and where they were going. We saw some of the petroglyphs created for travelers, indicating water sources or warnings to help guide safe travel. The country was one of the friendliest that I have ever visited. The Jordanians are very welcoming which is an important tradition in their culture. While in Madaba, we were wandering the streets on our own, and ducked into a tourist shop. We had a conversation with the shop owner that we wanted to try some genuine Jordanian food, not just hotel food. She temporarily closed her shop and walked us two blocks to her cousin’s restaurant, and he cooked for us a native dish called Maqluba. Mind you, this is during Ramadan where the Muslims fast during the day for approximately a month. We had the place to ourselves. The owner of the restaurant proudly showed us a picture of President George Bush’s visit to his place and mentioned he was having U.S. Congressman the following day. We would never have had this experience on our own; yet we were treated like royalty because of the act of kindness of one casual encounter. As leaders, how are we changing the world for those who are to follow? Is our legacy one of culture, of knowledge, of kindness, of inspiration that encourages higher performance or better results? I have always believed winning coaches, especially at the high school and collegiate level, don’t always have the best players but they have the best team. They know how to bring out the collective best in others, whether those are current colleagues or a legacy for those who are yet to come.

Moments that Become Memories

Our best memories are often of moments we didn’t realize would be profound or meaningful. Too often, we approach life as a series of things to do and complete, or check off, so we can get on to the weekend or date night or a special trip. And those are important. But what about taking time to just have a conversation, to look at what is around you perhaps with an eye to how it could be even better with your help or guidance, to see not just what is there but what could be there? Do we pass by too many moments that could be tremendous memories in favor of getting on to the next thing? Jordan is a culture of purpose. They are industrious but they combine it with the culture of hospitality. People take pride in what they do. We rode 25 miles most days but took a four-hour siesta during the heat to let the horses rest. It didn’t feel like a culture of busyness which is a common plague in the U.S. As leaders we have the opportunity to celebrate wins (and even failures for the learning acquired), to build connections through our culture inside and external to our business, to have values that people take pride in and can be honored for and be intentional in creating moments that shape others’ memories. That unplanned restaurant experience is one of my favorite memories of the trip. Another is the camping under the stars. Now mind you, I almost didn’t go because I didn’t want to camp—no showers, no toilets, and bugs for bed mates. While the first two were true, I didn’t sleep with any bugs of which I am aware. Instead, I gained a priceless gift of feeling cocooned in time in the Wadi Rum, living as others before me had and having a greater sense of the wonder that can be found when you reflect on all that has come before—unseen but felt.

Time Doesn’t Stand Still

We can’t see time either, but we know it is passing. The world doesn’t stay the same. Technology, or the change in how we do things, brings us options we never thought possible. We routinely travel in jets when the first flight was credited to the Wright Brothers just over a century ago. What will our world look like 100 years from now as the rate of change happens faster? On day one of our trip a young lady struggled with a horse while I was gifted a very cooperative mount. That afternoon we changed horses. Amir was a very pleasant fellow, but boy did he like to run. And a bit in his mouth was only an inconvenience not a control that day. The next day our guide, Hashem, fitted him with a new bit. He still loved to run and there wasn’t a horse that proved he was faster than Amir when we got to go, but with the new tack, it was a different experience. How many manufacturers regularly question how they might change the tooling, or the workflow, or the technology that controls speed or accuracy to ensure they have a more productive outcome? Most I imagine. How many act on it? Possibly fewer. Having the best tools can make a big difference in the outcome. It is something your customer will never see but will benefit from just the same. Interestingly, at the end of our 100-mile journey, we passed the track for the camel races. We didn’t witness any but were told that riding racing camels is dangerous, they often collide. They have started racing camels with robots on their backs. The jockey on the ground controls the “arms and legs” of the boarded remote jockey as they race. Watch here!

Recently, I received an email from a client about the latest segment of 60 Minutes which featured a story on AI being used to “train” robots to play soccer. It blows the mind to think of all that technology will do for us in the next five years let alone the next 100 years. New solutions to old problems are a combination of innovative ideas with new technologies. What are some of the consistent historical challenges faced by your industry or company that may have new solutions? Are we challenging ourselves to ask those questions? Stop Tinkering with AI – HBR article.PDF is a Harvard Business Review article declaring that AI is no longer something of the future but a key ingredient in our business solutions today. If we don’t “see” the possibility of these things happening, it doesn’t mean someone else won’t!

Hope you enjoyed sharing some of this experience with me. I am blessed to be able to take such trips and explore the world from the back of a horse. Thanks for your patience while I was gone.

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