What the Christmas Trees in Zanzibar Hotels Teach Us About Good Leadership and Inclusion

While consulting to the Minister of Health of Zanzibar and the State University of Zanzibar this December, I noticed something peculiar here. In hotel lobbies across the island, there are Christmas trees of all shapes and varieties. But the island is almost 99 percent Muslim, with almost all of the hotels run by families who are not Christian, or from cultures that would celebrate Christmas. The answer of why then they have Christmas trees in the lobbies of a predominantly Muslim region of the world, may seem obvious. But it also provides us insights, we may not have considered, for leadership in diverse settings.

It makes complete sense that the hospitality industry succeeds by making the client feel comfortable. But their success is not just about anticipating the needs of the customer, but more importantly their ability to anticipate the way their customers think. When we can successfully understand the way others think, then we get closer to making them feel understood.

Culture, ultimately, is a set of beliefs, thoughts, and practices based on a way people live. How we live varies, based on many variables, be it culture, religion, sexual orientation, gender, even our socioeconomic status. Many of the tourists coming to Zanzibar are from European or North American countries, who do celebrate Christmas.

Christmas tree, gingerbread houses, and other baking at The Park Hyatt, Zanzibar, Tanzania. 2017

Christmas tree, gingerbread houses, and other baking at The Park Hyatt, Zanzibar, Tanzania. 2017

Understanding the cultural importance of Christmas to many Western cultures, hotels who cater to this population of people are wise to create an environment during the Christmas season, that elicit good memories of home for those away from home. In some hotels, there are gingerbread houses, Christmas baking with locally sourced ingredients, and even a group dinner for residents on Christmas Eve. This attention to detail of the way people might think, not only makes patrons of the hotel feel more comfortable, but it is also very good for business. 

It’s a basic understanding (supported by research) among clinical psychologists that the most predictive factor to the success of therapy is the quality of therapeutic relationship. That means that above therapeutic modality, the nature of the relationship between the therapist and the client determines emotional and psychological growth and success.

This makes logical sense too, as it is difficult to trust good advice if we feel that we cannot trust the source. In terms of the way we think, the ability to change patterns of thinking have to be based on experiences. And to change patterns of thinking to be more positive, we need to have experiences that make us feel more positively.

These are critical values to keep in mind for leadership, in particular when dealing with matters of inclusion. When leaders reflect a diverse group of people, their natural inclination is to behave in a way that reflects their own personal cultural life experiences. But excellent leadership is about being mindful of the people being represented.

To overcome an unconscious bias, good leaders must be critically mindful of the diversity they represent, and ensure that their decisions (particularly with policy and practice) make those they represent feel understood, rather than  simply reflect the leaders own world views. These are qualities that take some experience and time to develop, but can also be anticipated and developed sooner, if organizations are mindful to look for such insightful qualities in their leaders.

The psychological process that occurs is like a chain reaction. When a leader reflects the needs of a diverse group of people, it increases the belief from a group, that a leader is trustworthy, and has the interest of the individuals within that organization at heart. That belief triggers then an emotional response of admiration, respect, but also a motivation to engage more in the organization. These two building blocks then trigger the most important aspect of all; behavioral change. Which in the end, will be the critical factor that drives an organization to success.

As leaders of diverse groups of people, it is easy but not successful to think the way their own culture has trained them to think and lead. Although a challenge initially, it is  more fruitful and empowering, when leaders think and govern the way other cultures and groups might think. After all, it is global thinking, that produces global and dynamic leaders.


Rehman Y. Abdulrehman, Ph.D., C.Psych. 

@DrRAbdulrehman