Afsaneh Nahavandi: Real Leadership Is Serving Others

With the goal of harnessing the untapped potential of Iranian-Americans, and to build the capacity of the Iranian diaspora in effecting positive change in the U.S. and around the world, the Iranian Americans’ Contributions Project (IACP) has launched a series of interviews that explore the personal and professional backgrounds of prominent Iranian-Americans who have made seminal contributions to their fields of endeavour. We examine lives and journeys that have led to significant achievements in the worlds of science, technology, finance, medicine, law, the arts and numerous other endeavors. Our latest interviewee is Afsaneh Nahavandi.

Afsaneh Nahavandi is Professor of Leadership Studies at the University of San Diego and a professor emerita at Arizona State University. She is an established and highly regarded authority in cross-cultural studies, leadership development, and organizational behavior. She has a BA in psychology and French from the University of Denver, and an MA and PhD in social psychology from the University of Utah. Prior to coming to USD in 2013, she taught at Arizona State University for 26 years in the Business School and in the School of Public Administration. While at ASU she was director of the MBA program and associate dean of University College and of the College of Public Programs. She was ASU’s 2004 Professor of the Year, and the recipient of several other teaching awards. Prior to joining ASU, she was an assistant professor of Human Resources Management at Northeastern University in Boston.

Dr. Nahavandi’s textbook The Art and Science of Leadership, (Pearson: 2014) currently in its 7th edition, is one of the best-selling leadership textbooks in the United States. She has several additional books including Ancient Leadership Wisdom, which focuses on unique leadership lessons from Iran, and Organizational Behavior: The Person-Organization Fit, Organizational Culture in the Management of Mergers, as well as many other publications about leadership, culture, teams, and ethics.

Tell our readers where you grew up and walk us through your background. How did your family and surroundings influence you in your formative years?

My family is originally from Rasht in Northern Iran, but I was born and grew up in Tehran. My father was on a diplomatic mission in Belgium until I was five, so I grew up speaking French and attended a French Catholic primary school, named Jeanne d’Arc, in Tehran until fourth grade. I graduated from the French-language high school, Lycee Razi, also located in Tehran. My pre-college education was not Iranian but French, and I grew up with kids from all over the world. As a result, I am fluent in French and English, and Farsi, of course, and can manage Spanish well enough. I got engaged to my husband, Ali Malekzadeh, when I finished high school. Since he was already a student in the US at the University of Denver, I decided to also go to the US, rather than France or another French-speaking country for university. I started at the University of Utah and got my BA from the University of Denver and then went back to Utah for my masters and PhD in social psychology.

My father was a university professor and entered politics in his 30s as the Minister of Housing and Urban Development, and then president of Shiraz and Tehran universities, and eventually the Minister of Education. My mother did not work outside the home but was in charge of running a family and a very active social calendar. My sister and I grew up in a highly intellectual family, where education was critical, contributions to family and society were emphasized, and respect for others was essential. Those lessons have stayed with me.

My husband, Ali Malekzadeh , and I were already in the US attending University when the 1979 revolution happened. Because my father was a prominent politician, we were not able to go back and we were granted political asylum in the US. We have never gone back. Both our families are also out of Iran. We both had been raised with the clear expectation of finishing our education and going back to Iran to contribute to the tremendous growth and development that the country was experiencing before the revolution. While the revolution changed those plans, we have still achieved considerable success as academics in the US.

What has been your personal key to success? Who and what were the biggest inspirations for your career?

The most important key to my success is my family: my parents and the principles and values they taught me, my husband our own family — I have two daughters and a granddaughter. They are my rock. Related to that are education and hard work. I have been surrounded by successful academics! My father, Houchang Nahavandi, is as well-known for his scholarly work which he continues to this day, as he is for his political career. My sister, Firouzeh Nahavandi, is a prominent sociologist who teaches at the University of Brussels. My husband, Ali Malekzadeh, is the president of Roosevelt University. They all continue to inspire me.

You have demonstrated that ancient Persian wisdom and philosophy can provide useful alternative approaches to modern challenges. Could you develop those approaches for our readers?

My field of leadership studies is dominated by Western thought. We often undervalue the world that existed before the Industrial Revolution in the West. There were leaders and thriving civilizations before the steam engine and cotton gin were invented! And, there are still many outstanding leaders and effective organizations outside of the Western world. While the current Western-based scholarship in leadership addresses many of our challenges, what appears to be a single-minded focus on profit and individual success creates challenges and has its drawbacks. Other cultures and ancient philosophies can provide guidance.

Part of my work has been on leadership lessons from Iran and from India, two civilizations that share Indo-European roots. This Indo-European Leadership (IEL) approach focuses on caring for others, integrity, action, accountability, and effectiveness. Comparative studies of leadership show us that we can take care of people, lead with principle, and still get things done. Many highly successful Indian modern business organizations are run based on those principles, and I think our current organizations and leaders everywhere can learn from them.

Your book Ancient Leadership Wisdom details the long history of Persian leadership wisdom and advice based on values and principles that have endured for over 3,000 years. Could you elaborate on these principles?

I became interested in Persian mythology and philosophy as a source of leadership lessons, and subsequently found a treasure trove of information. Many ancient texts, poetry, and historical accounts focus on the importance of leadership in moving society forward. The very clear emphasis is on integrity, accountability, kindness and fairness, action-orientation, and moderation. These themes can be found in written material that are thousands of years old! There is amazing permanence and consistency in those ideals, and they have guided some powerful and effective leaders who weathered challenges and crises much worse than what today’s leaders face. We can draw on their experiences and apply some of those principles to help us lead better.

What are the modern applications of Iranian mysticism to the study of leadership?

The modern world and the West in particular seem to have become so short-term oriented; we look for immediate gratification and focus on the quick accomplishments — the bottom-line dominates. The ethical scandals, the lack of civility, and the leadership challenges we face are partly related to this approach. The historically grounded Iranian leadership ideals — even though they are not usually practiced in Iran — teach us that integrity, kindness, moderation, accountability, and balance are really key. All of us, but certainly those who have the responsibility and privilege of leading others, must connect to something bigger than their own immediate individual needs and accomplishments. Leadership is about serving others and Iranian ideals of leadership emphasize that idea.

Could you please share with us some of Saa’di’s (famous 13th century Iranian poet) leadership lessons?

I have focused on the work of Saa’di and also Persian mythology through Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, Saa’di, whom most Iranians learn about early in school, has very specific guidelines for leaders.

Saa’di’s most famous poem, which graces the entrance of the United Nations building, is one of my favorites:

The sons of Adam are limbs of each other, Having been created of one essence. When the calamity of time affects one limb The other limbs cannot remain at rest. If thou hast no sympathy for the troubles of others Thou art unworthy to be called by the name of a human.

It is such a powerful and beautiful message about the essence of being human. As a leadership scholar, that saying is also the essence of leadership for me: connectedness and responsibility for others’ well-being.

Saa’di also tells us that the “sheep do not exist for the shepherd. It is the shepherd who exists for serving the sheep,” reminding us that leaders are tasked with taking care of their followers. Along with lessons of caring, kindness, and responsibility, there is a strong call to action with integrity, moderation, and consultation.

Here are a few more wisdoms from Saa’di, powerful lessons from seven centuries ago that are relevant to all times. Interestingly, they also agree with many of the principles of good leadership that we teach today.

“The leader who protects the weak, protects the country and the state.”

“The only thing left in this world is a good reputation.”

“No oppressor lasts forever, but the curses upon him will last eternally.”

“You must kill the wolf in the beginning, not after the sheep have been killed.”

“Avoid quick anger. You can kill a living being; but you cannot resuscitate the dead. If you break a precious gem, you cannot restore it.”

“Cherish and respect the men of science and religion and put them ahead of others. The leader must consult them on how to govern.”

What lessons could students and others learn from your book The Art and Science of Leadership in their day-to-day lives?

The book is intended as an integration of modern thinking and organizational leadership. I strongly encourage readers to consider many different models and approaches to leadership. While we often seek simple answers and solutions, leading is a complex process. It takes an understanding of self and of the context. Being an effective leader is a journey and not a destination. No one approach works all the time and in all contexts. To lead well, one must learn and grow and seek knowledge and advice from many sources. There are no simple answers.

How does your book Organizational Behavior help students to understand the “big picture” of organizational behavior?

That book looks at the very broad and complex context of today’s organizations. It is so easy to only focus on leaders and forget that they are just one piece of the puzzle. Being effective, either as a leader or as a member of an organization, requires an understanding of self and context. A good fit between what the leadership wants, needs, and values, and conversely what the context and the organization offer, is key to both personal and organizational effectiveness.

Can you share your thoughts on your Iranian-American identity? What does being an Iranian-American mean to you?

Being an Iranian-American is a very strong part of my identity. I have been in the US for over forty years and I feel fully integrated into this country. On a daily basis, I draw both from my cultural roots, and from those of my adopted country; family, respect for others, working hard, accomplishment, kindness — they all blend. I have felt welcome here and I strongly feel that blending cultures is what the US is all about. Except for Native Americans, we are all from somewhere else, we are all immigrants; we all bring different values, and our strength in the US is that we respect and capitalize on these differences.

This piece was initially published on Huffington Post.