Rocky road for a born leader

Published on December 23, 2011 on

Ghaleb Darabya was still a child when he was arrested and imprisoned for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers.

At first he was frightened, but the feeling was quickly replaced by pride.

“You don’t know where you get this energy from, but you get this energy of being proud that you are doing something for your people and your country,” says Mr Darabya, who went on to become a Palestinian Authority diplomat in Washington before later studying at Harvard University.

Now a leadership consultant based in Dubai, he describes growing up in Gaza as the most remarkable experience of his life, which shaped who he is today.

His parents were forced to flee their home during the Nakba, or catastrophe, of 1948, and lived in a tent near the border for about a year, when they gave up hope of returning and settled in Gaza.

By the time Mr Darabya was born, his father had managed to reestablish himself, becoming a business owner and the head of the trade unions in Palestine.

Mr Darabya was just turning 14 at the time of the first Intifada, or Palestinian uprising.

“To live in a society when you always have fear, where you are deprived of your most basic rights, the right to be free was really an eye opener for me,” he says. “I was questioning all the time, why don’t I have a normal life like everybody else? Why do we have these people in army suits inside our streets all the time?”

Mr Darabya immediately signed up to the Fatah movement. It was during the first month of the Intifada that he was arrested and held for 10 days – despite an international agreement banning the incarceration of children.

“At the very beginning, the first day of the arrest … different groups came and beat me and asked me to do stupid things like tear the Palestinian flag. I didn’t,” he says.

He and six other youngsters were eventually released with the help of the Red Cross.

He remained in the movement, but his father became concerned he was getting “too carried away” with the resistance and sent him abroad to study when he was 17. Could his life have been different if he had stayed? “Probably,” he says, although he does not know how.

Once in London, Mr Darabya’s father wanted him to study law or business administration, but he went against his wishes and opted for political science.

“For him it was shocking. We were part of a nation that didn’t have a state, didn’t have a country, so why was I studying politics? Politics is for people who want to work for a government. And we didn’t have one, so the logic was stupid. It was different for me. It was a risk worth taking,” he says.

He went on to earn a master’s degree in diplomatic studies after completing his undergraduate course and later worked in media at the Middle East broadcaster, MBC.

After nine years away, he decided to return home and joined the Palestinian Authority, where he initially worked as the executive director of diplomatic training.

But after the September 11 attacks on the US, the Palestinian Authority decided to ramp up its operation in the US and Mr Darabya was selected as the first to go there.

Working in Washington was unlike anything he had ever experienced, he said.

“It is where decisions are made over coffee or dinner. You make policies. You know the headlines almost a week ahead of time,” he says.

But it was not easy, and although he refuses to reveal the specifics of discussions, he describes the posting as five “tough years”.

You would be forgiven for thinking he holds a deep personal dislike of George W Bush, the former US president, who he met as part of a Palestinian Authority delegation, but that is not the case, Mr Darabya says – even if he does strongly disagree with his politics.

“He is so friendly on a personal level, so down to earth, so simple,” he says. “The problem is that he lacks a lot of knowledge. He doesn’t see the bigger picture and long-term.

“He could have diverted all this energy towards something positive, not wars. The first thing that came to his mind [after 9/11] was war: we will teach them a lesson. He was doing exactly what Osama Bin Laden wanted him to do.”

A few months after Yasser Arafat, the former Palestinian leader, died, Mr Darabya quit his job and accepted a full scholarship – which was partly funded by the Dubai Initative – to pursue a master’s degree in public administration.

Not sure what courses to pick, he asked the programme director for advice and was directed towards a course which would be the start of a new career.

“She said ‘Ghaleb you have to decide this. But I advise you there is one course that you cannot afford to miss and that is the leadership course’.”

“I said ‘what are you talking about? Is this an American thing, leadership’? I have always believed that leadership is something you’re born with. It’s not something you can learn in a classroom.”

Mr Darabya said he took the course and never looked back.

After working at the Dubai School of Government for a time, he decided to go out on his own and set up a branch of Cambridge Leadership Associates, a company owned by two Harvard University leadership professors. He describes setting up the Dubai arm, which teaches leaders how to adapt in challenging environments, as his proudest achievement.

There is no doubt Mr Darabya, who is also a managing partner of the leadership organisation Dynargie Middle East, has had a remarkable life, but he is genuinely surprised to learn that people may be interested in hearing about it.

He is a devoted family man who is creative, ambitious and charming, says Marty Linsky, co-founder of Cambridge Leadership Associates.

“Coming from Palestine and having worked for the Palestinian Authority, he has a remarkable strength of optimism and a willingness to engage and be open,” Mr Linsky says.

“Having gone through a lot of bumps in the road, he is still optimistic and believes he can change the world.”