Leadership Takeaways from Entrepreneurs in Pakistan

I recently delivered keynote talks in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, Pakistan.

If you had asked me a year ago if this was possible, I would have said, “not a chance, I’m female, and it’s Pakistan!”

My journey started in Karachi, the largest city in Pakistan and a bustling metropolis. While there, I had the privilege of visiting the biggest leather manufacturer in Pakistan. It was an unbelievable sight to see. 

The crowd at my first talk was so engaging, which put me more at ease, and I always appreciate seeing how people reflect on the leadership tools I speak about. 

While I was there, I had the opportunity to engage with some incredible entrepreneurs, and have jotted down some of my key takeaways:

1. Empower more people

The first leadership takeaway is that I know that I am well versed in my area of expertise in white-collar industries. Yet, I want to learn to take the tools I have and apply them to people who, for most of their lives, are working to put bread on the table and a roof over their head – i.e. the first layer of Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs. I should also focus on empowering our youth with these fundamental principles. How do we get our school children to learn the life skills you don’t get from reading a textbook?

2. Relentless rituals

Secondly, I was blown away by people’s dedication to ritual. As I was about to start my talk, I learned we would need to take a break for 10 minutes of prayer. Being religious myself, I totally got this.

Often, as a Christian, I go to prayer when I need something or when I am worried. Yet, seeing this dedication left me inspired. I have started thinking about how I can take my Christian beliefs seriously and act with intent. It was amazing to see how Pakistanis live out their beliefs. I might not always agree with certain aspects of different belief systems, but goodness, I respect their outright commitment, and for a moment, I felt ashamed of my laissez-faire approach. I felt challenged in my thought process by a culture I now understand so much better.

Additionally, I realised how quickly I find a reason not to stick to something important. I often cancel a team huddle because something ‘more pressing’ comes up, like a client meeting, a deadline or a client workshop that I have to run. 

I want to take a leaf from the Pakistan entrepreneurs I met and be relentless in my rituals, setting an example for my team members (and my children) to focus on what is important. It takes me back to the story of the “nutty professor” where he speaks about rocks, pebbles and sand:

Leadership Takeaways from Entrepreneurs in Pakistan | Helen Smuts

You haven’t lived…

In Pakistan, the saying goes, ‘you haven’t lived if you haven’t been to Lahore’. I felt like I was living! 

Lahore is also known as the city of Gardens. The tower of independence shines so beautifully at night with gardens that provide endless calmness when strolling in. The mosques are all lit, and the city is buzzing with people enjoying the beautiful evening.

Helene Smuts | Pakistan Trip 2022

The culture, tradition and relentless hospitality were inspiring. In fact, this was true for my entire journey.

I spoke with men, women and students who wanted to learn about trust and respect. Honestly, we could have spent a whole day just on this topic. There were so many in-depth questions which led to fascinating and complex discussions.

3. Respect

It was awesome seeing how respect shows up differently in our respective cultures. It reminded me of the crucial importance of communication skills. We expect people to treat others respectfully when addressing an issue or giving feedback. Yet not everyone knows how to do this well. I also think parents have gotten somewhat lazy for not teaching or showing children how to have these tough conversations. It is not something you are born with – it takes guts to give feedback and have sensitive discussions.

People desperately want to be respectfully assertive but lack the skills. We need to hone in on communication skills in our teams, as it is the basis for many high-performing needs.

I then travelled to Islamabad, an incredibly vibrant, alive and beautiful city. I loved my time there! My next trip will definitely be to the phenomenal mountains on Islamabad’s doorstep. To me, it felt like a city proudly saying we are growing, progressive and exceedingly inclusive.

It was encouraging how the entrepreneurs I spoke to saw the need to take the leadership tools I unpacked with them not just into business but in their personal lives too. Their spouses and adult children also attended the keynote talk. They believed these tools would be valuable when taught at a school level. As they would increase and build confidence in how we communicate, build trust, develop relationships and learn assertiveness. This is another valuable leadership takeaway that I am grateful for.

Pakistan blew me away with its hospitality and kindness, and none of this would have been possible without Entrepreneurs’ Organization Islamabad

I am so thankful for this opportunity. To all of the people I met during this trip, you made it an unforgettable experience!