My Extreme MBA
How hardship, chaos, and the fog of war made a stronger, wiser, more resilient leader.
A Conversation with Rory Stewart by Lew McCreary
Rory Stewart, a Scot in his thirties, left his career in the British Foreign Office to walk 6,000 miles across central Asia and then spent a year with the Coalition Provisional Authority, which temporarily ran Iraq after the U.S.–led invasion. In this edited conversation with HBR senior editor Lew McCreary, Stewart describes his stint as deputy governor of the Maysan and Dhi Qar provinces and other experiences that taught him to balance principled commitment with canny pragmatism.
Without much direction from Baghdad, Stewart and the other CPA delegates tried to create conditions of relative stability, prepare the way for democratic institutions, and orchestrate a modicum of cooperation among tribal and ethnic factions. But Iraqi distrust, compounded by security conditions that went from bad to worse, made progress extremely difficult. As he faced these challenges, Stewart drew heavily on lessons from his trek, particularly from his time in Afghanistan. The nature of that journey had sharpened his senses. He’d learned to quickly size up people and situations, so when he joined the CPA, he showed ingenuity, flexibility, and uncommon insight into Arab cultures.
Now back in Kabul, Stewart is the CEO of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, a nongovernmental organization devoted to preserving the city’s old commercial district, teaching vanishing artisan skills to young Afghans, and developing markets for Afghan crafts. Stewart’s foundation aims to reclaim some of the glory of Kabul’s heritage while giving purpose to lives that might otherwise drift toward anarchy or nihilism.
Executive Summary: From Harvard Business Review, Oct 2007.