The Amazing Race: Leadership Lessons From Istanbul

May 30, 2015 — Leave a comment

As those of you who read my posts frequently know, I travel internationally a lot and I truly love experiencing other cultures and different ways of life! This past spring I had the opportunity to return to Turkey for pleasure instead of business… Here is what I was thinking about:

I returned to a city with an ever-evolving modern character that is still, at its core, bound by tradition. As I was observing the frenzy of activity going on around me in the only city in the world that resides on two continents,  I began to think (once again) about how there are unique leadership lessons in every environment.  It is easy to overlook the reminders that abound and think to yourself, “what can I learn from a country that has been riddled with unrest, struggles with human rights issues and is in a constant state of flux?” Yes, these things are true… but it does not negate the fact that Turkey is a beautiful country with beautiful people and there are some important reminders (lessons) that impact how we interact with people as leaders and how our views, as leaders, affect those around us. I have found that often, a change in scenery offers a valuable change in perspective.  Here are just a few of the things that came to my mind as I experienced, once again, one of the most amazing cities in the world:

  1. Business and personal relationships do not have to be mutually exclusive…

Living and visiting countries all over the world on a regular basis throughout most of my life, I remain very aware of how unique one location is from another. However, it also reminds me that despite the differences, there are some core foundations that we should all observe and deploy. In the western culture, we tend to believe that work and life are separate. However in Istanbul, where East meets West, business and personal relationships are heavily intertwined.  The diversity and complexity of individuals is shaped not only by their culture, but through relationships that are consistently valued and continually evolve throughout a lifetime. As I attend client meetings that are focused solely on getting know one another better, I am always reminded how the Turkish people, in general, only do business with people they know, like and respect.  In Turkey, business will only materialize if effective personal relationships are built. This is not only important in the moment, but throughout a lifetime. Later, as I made a visit to the world famous Spice Bazaar, I was reminded once again how relationships can thread through our lives –  both as people and leaders – as I stopped to chat with a shopkeeper and was invited in… not just for a sale, but to build a relationship. We chatted for twenty minutes, shared some delicious apple tea (a hospitality must in Turkey), and exchanged contact information. On my next visit will I stop in and purchase from Iskandar? Of course, but I will also recommend this particular shopkeeper to anyone I know visiting Istanbul!  As leaders, it seems to me that we could be infinitely more effective if we slowed down (both in our personal and professional lives), borrowed a page from the Turkish playbook, and took the time to get to know our colleagues on a more personal level – facilitating an extensive and priceless network of not only colleagues, but friends, that will benefit us for a lifetime.

2.      The most important responsibility of a leader is to learn from those above and teach those below…

It’s very easy to be caught up in the exotic surroundings in Istanbul. However, there is far more under the surface of the city than one would expect – literally and metaphorically. It is a place where you can find every modern convenience, yet an ancient cistern runs under the city and the people are strictly bound by tradition and values. One of my favorite sounds in Istanbul is the evening call to prayer because it reminds me of the value of ancient traditions and causes me to pause and think about how western civilization often falls short. One such area, specifically in business, is the loss of deference for those who have come before us and possess valuable knowledge and insight – we often overlook  them in our own quest for success. At the same time, we often fail to guide and instruct those who come behind us – failing to ensure continuity and neglecting to pass on the value of the history we bring so that it becomes a unique aspect of our organizations – not to mention our legacy. In Istanbul, I repeatedly witness an unwavering respect for elders and those that came before – for the knowledge and tradition that they bring and impart on those around them. On the other side of the same coin, there is an explicit responsibility to guide and develop those who come behind. Loyalty and respect are vital aspects of Turkish society and have a critical impact on Turkish business practices. As much value as there is in learning and respecting the elders in the company, teaching is equally regarded by those who hold long-standing knowledge and insight. This represents a continuum that bridges past and present… and values each equally. What could we all gain by investing in one another, respecting both what has come before and what we have to offer those who come behind?

3.     Cultural inclusion provides the opportunity to prosper.

Culture can be interpreted in many ways… it can refer to people of differing descent or it can be different organizational or departmental cultures, just to name a few. Istanbul is a remarkable example of cultural tolerance and inclusion as a city that blends not only eastern and western cultures, but also religious cultures. I had the opportunity to visit Hagia Sofia on several occasions – one of the oldest churches in recorded history.  It was a church for 1,093 years and was then taken over and became a mosque for another 478 years. Subsequently, it has become an amazing museum representing both the Muslim mosque and the Christian church under one roof. It is an amazing artifact and testament to the unique history of the city.  It is open to everyone – every day people from all cultures and religions are permitted to come and see these differing religious relics under one (enormous) domed roof. Istanbul is a city of contradictions, but it works. There is East and West… there is modern society and there is tradition…there is Islam and there is Christianity – all interacting and combining to create an amazing sense of diversity that both honors history and embraces change. If we could deploy this mentality in our global organizations, imagine the impact! Differing cultures would be valued, respected and included to create organizations that actually leverage what each individual culture brings to the table.  Unfortunately, more often than not, I see regions, countries, divisions and departments hoarding information and struggling against one another to ensure they come out on top… shouldn’t we be leveraging all the talent we have to create a sense of cultural inclusion that facilitates the best solutions for everyone – especially our clients?

Istanbul is a place whose contradictions are obvious – a place that honors and respects tradition, while accepting and encouraging change. In many ways Istanbul represents what we should strive for in global business. Like anywhere, Istanbul has its challenges and its opportunities – the difference is that they are as committed to their reforms as they are to their traditions. There is much to learn in Istanbul… no matter where your interests lie.

At the end of the day, our experiences contribute a great deal to who we are, but the level of attention we give to them determines who we will ultimately become…

If you enjoyed this post, check out Leadership Lessons From Japan.  I would love for you to engage the discussion and let us know how your unique experiences remind you of what good leadership is all about. Please feel free to contact me at or by visiting our website at Check back next week for the next installment of Leadership Across Boundaries and Borders.


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Sheri is The Global Coach, founder of Luminosity Global Consulting Group, Global Executive Coach, Speaker, Writer and Global Business and Cultural Expert.

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