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The ‘tameer’ of leadership

I wanted to write this week’s column on the amazing story of Tameer Bank as narrated in a new book by Nadeem Hussain, who was the founder and CEO of the bank before it was bought and taken over by Telenor.

Luckily, as I read through the book, I realized that ‘A Bank is Born’ is not a book about Tameer Bank but rather about how leaders are made, and what makes Nadeem Hussain uniquely qualified to write about leadership. In these times of immense economic and political uncertainty, and with such a profound failure of leadership as what Pakistan is currently going through, it is important to spend time thinking about leadership.

But, first, a disclaimer: I know Nadeem personally, so my treatment of his book is unlikely to be entirely objective. To thousands, including me, he is not Nadeem, the star Citibank-er turned microfinance guru – he is instead, quite simply: Coach. Coach also happens to be Nadeem’s formal title at Planet N, the tech incubation aggregator that he began almost exactly six years ago in the afterglow of the sale of Tameer Bank. The Coach’s job is to make sure that the CEOs of his portfolio companies are able to take advantage of their innate talent in an ecosystem that puts young people with good ideas at a distinct disadvantage.

Coach is the ecosystem corrector for the companies and people that he works with. I don’t work directly with Coach, but I do benefit from his advice and insights. I have a deeper bond with Coach too. Coach is married to one of the most important mentors I have had the privilege of working for: Senator Sherry Rehman. The first job I worked in after graduating with a Bachelors back in 1997 was at the monthly magazine Herald, where she was editor. Sherry gave me my first shot at working in the media – a privilege that I benefit from to this day (through this newspaper column and numerous opportunities to share my views in the mainstream press). She has continued to help me, mentor me and create opportunities for me since.

If you buy ‘A Bank is Born’ and I highly recommend that you do, you should also read it. Too many book collectors think they are avid readers, but are too entranced by the algorithms on their smartphones to actually be able to put them down long enough to read a book. I would know, as I am among this lot. A ‘Bank is Born’ is an ideal habit breaker from this perspective because of its two most immediate and obvious qualities.

First, it is written the way Nadeem talks and conducts meetings: Short sentences. Decisive. Key information conveyed. There is little by way of artfulness of prose, which may be taken as an insult by many, but would be received by Nadeem as a compliment. Coming from a writer that often struggles to keep sentences short, that’s exactly what this is: a compliment. Second, it is short. And not short, like only 200 pages short. No. It is really short: 138 pages from start to finish – not including the very nice foreword that Dr Ishrat Husain has written for the book. The book is eminently readable and should not take an avid reader much more than the gap between Asr and Maghrib prayers in these pleasant April rozas.

The most arresting quality that Nadeem exposes in the book is the one that is most important in today’s Pakistan. This is a man that does not hesitate to compliment and thank other people. The book is titled ‘A Bank is Born’, and ostensibly tells the story of Tameer Bank, but it is essentially a long love letter to the people that have helped Nadeem be who he is and achieve what he has.

The most obvious reflection of this is the chapter she dedicates to enumerating Sherry’s role in his personal and professional journey, but Nadeem’s compulsive gratitude to others is manifest throughout the book. The way he describes his core startup team at Tameer Bank – including two key leaders that left much sooner than he would have liked – is an object lesson in leadership.

How do you win people? How do you motivate people to go above and beyond their job descriptions? How do you get the best out of people? How do you inspire and move people to think beyond themselves? Recognize them. Celebrate them. Identify their strengths and emphasize them. Build them up. Talk them up. Raise them up. Read Nadeem’s book. Notice how he talks about other people. It is something else.

In a chapter that provides a snapshot of his journey as an international banker with Citibank over three decades, Nadeem identifies and names almost every person he ever worked for in the global Citibank bureaucracy. Even when he describes those that he didn’t have the best relationships with, Nadeem finds adjectives and descriptors that are kind and where possible, complimentary.

Throughout the book, Nadeem repeatedly thanks people and credits them for the success that Allah has blessed him with – personally and professionally. It is an object lesson in a society that has increasingly been lacerated by the absence of examples for basic human conduct. Nadeem’s book is a reminder that a lot of ‘reform’, ‘change management’, and ‘transformation’ is actually about much simpler and more boring concepts.

The overarching concept from Nadeem Hussain’s biographical description of the Tameer Bank journey is the idea of leadership, not as the capability to command people and their behaviour – but rather leadership as the fulfilment of the responsibility to be a steward and guardian for the interests of your core team members.

I have no doubt that Nadeem himself would have as many examples of instances where he has failed to achieve that level of leadership, but his track record indicates he also has a long track record of providing exactly that kind of leadership: nurturing, respectful and celebratory. This is how great teams are built and how those teams go on to become force multipliers for the same spirit of team building and leadership. A lot of this is fuzzy and warm and feel-good. But Nadeem is an international banker – surely something is amiss?

The missing part is personal discipline and the value of time – especially the importance of keeping meetings short and object-oriented. This is an area that I struggle with, and in my experience Pakistani leaders struggle with even more. Some of us lean on the excuse that our work requires creativity and the creative process can’t be rushed. There may be some element of truth to this – but meetings at the Planning Commission, or with heads of key national security agencies, or in service of measurable and tangible outputs and outcomes should never end marathons during which key participants speak for long stretches with no clear objective underpinning their contributions.

Nadeem’s meetings are 30 minutes and done. Because of the pace at which he conducts himself, one is often left with about five minutes at the end of a meeting in which he will tell a funny anecdote or narrate an embarrassing incident that humanises him. Another fantastic leadership quality.

Nadeem was privileged to be born to a high functioning family, raised in circumstances that afforded him numerous opportunities throughout life. Nadeem also got lucky, over and over and over again. But these caveats apply to large swathes of Pakistani elites. There are hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis, if not millions, that had the circumstances and luck that Nadeem Hussain did. But he is the one that eschewed the safety of the international financial services bureaucracy, the one that built an enterprise in a vastly different ecosystem, but that utilized his core skills, the one that didn’t sell too early, and didn’t wait too long.

His ability to get lucky, at scale, repeatedly speaks to the quality of leader and person that he is. It is wasteful to repeat the caveat that no one is perfect. It seems like an apology for speaking highly of someone unreservedly. If there is one takeaway from ‘A Bank is Born’, it is that we need to shift away from a culture in which we hesitate to celebrate others. Read the book.

Mosharraf Zaidi, "The ‘tameer’ of leadership," The News. 2023-04-11.
Keywords: Social sciences , Security agencies , Planning commission , Bankers , Ecosystem , Nadeem Hussain , Pakistan , CEO