Lessons from a Warzone, by Louai Al Roumani

My NHS Trust has an annual “Lessons Learned” conference, for sharing the lessons that teams have drawn out from incidents that have taken place in the previous twelve months.  Don’t waste a crisis by failing to learn from the experience.  This book is about lessons learned from a crisis, but is much more than just another business book.

Louai Al Roumani was the fairly newly appointed CFO of the leading retail bank in Syria when the Arab Spring turned into the Syrian civil war.  Most of his family fled to the safety of Kuwait as conditions turned nasty (ironically, they had been living in Kuwait when Saddam Hussein invaded in 1990, but missed the occupation because they were on vacation in what was then a very safe Damascus), but Al Roumani chose to remain, loyal to his home city and his company.

“Lessons from a Warzone: How to Be a Resilient Leader in Times of Crisis” recounts the lessons learned by Al Roumani over the next five years.  In this time, despite mortar bombs falling in Damascus and ISIS reaching the outskirts, his bank,  BBFS, didn’t just survive but thrived.  It did this by doing things that when explained by Al Roumani, and you should already have realised if only you thought about them for moment, make lots of sense even if they fly in the face of what many less insightful managers and directors might do (and, indeed, was evidence by departure of the two directors appointed the one of the major investors).

The lessons include going the extra mile to look after customers (airlifting safe deposit boxes out of a local branch as ISIS overran a provincial town), providing them with reassurance (displaying piles of cash when they queued up to withdraw their deposits and not restricting the amount they could withdraw), looking after staff and avoiding redundancies and cost-cutting around workplace hygiene factors ,and  robust systems testing and disaster planning.

He draws on his heritage as a Syrian, living in a city that claims to have been longest continuously inhabited community in the world (a claim of Damascus that Aleppo contests), but also sharing the nomadic transitions of hospitality and reciprocity of Arabi culture.  There are great insights relating to thinking about the long term health of the company, informed in part by a different “concept of time” from the one that he had been exposed to during his Harvard MBA.  He argues that you should not treat profitability as a critical success factor but that if you see your objective the long term wealth of your shareholders you will from time to time have to sacrifice short term profitability.  Although his bank was a creation only of the 1990s, he argues for playing “the long game as a third generation family business does.”  He tells a charming anecdote of a large purchase from a shop in the Damascus souq where, in contrast the lady ahead of him who haggled hard and secured no discount, the old gentleman who been silently observing the young man serving Al Roumani gave the instruction that Al Roumani should receive a discount to reward him for not haggling.  The account provided by Al Roumani explains why BBFS displayed such resilience through the Syrian civil war that it both maintained sustainable positions in relation to the marketplaces it deals with and also built the corporate and social capital inside the organisation not just to survive but the thrive.

Don’t read this book just for the business lessons.  It is a powerful tale of the resilience of a man and a society in the face of enormous threat and massive upheaval.  You will learn about the experience of a slice of Syrian society during the last decade and about the cultural hinterland that supports it.  It is also a human tale, which keeps resurfacing through the book and continues right through to the acknowledgements at the back – just for once, make the effort to read these as the book keeps on giving right up to the final page.