Lessons from a Warzone by Louai Al Roumani

Leading a financial institution is tough enough at the best of times, but imagine running a bank in a warzone.

That’s what Louai Al Roumani did between 2011 and 2015, ending up as chief financial officer of the retail bank Banque Bemo Saudi Fransi (BBSF) in Syria, as his country plunged into civil war in 2011.

This autobiography is a series of scenes and observations tied together into a treatise on leadership, and at times it is really illuminating.

The idea that a bank operating from Damascus as the city came under siege from ISIS should focus on giving employees access to state-of-the-art training software offers an extreme example of best HR practice: to retain staff — even in the most difficult of circumstances — you must make them feel they can grow.

If you are facing financial constraints (BBSF’s Saudi investors pulled out following conflict-related political pressure), then often slash-and-burn cost cutting may not be the most sensible way forward.

Al Roumani explains how, in response to the bank’s sudden need to trim overheads, it stopped printing office documents in color across the business. Despite this it retained, and in fact expanded, the tea selection available to staff. This boosted morale and improved performance (tea has an extremely important and symbolic position within Middle Eastern culture).

There are moments when the book’s narrative feels too disjointed, and a summary of key bullet points at the end of each chapter make it feel a bit like an MBA textbook.

But despite this the title is replete with extraordinary details about operating a financial institution from a city decimated by civil war. The need, for example, to inspire confidence by piling up stacks of cash next to tellers serving customers. Or the need to invest in multiple back-up connections for ATM machines because they will likely be taken offline by rocket mortar attacks.

Above all, what comes across is Al Roumani’s humility, self-awareness, and determination to do right by his community and culture. Something most executives would do well to reflect on.

LESSONS FROM A WARZONE is published by Penguin, pp. 183, $29.95, April 2020.

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