Elie Khouri - Omnicom Media Group MENA
Leadership | 03.06.2015

How growing up during the war made me a better leader

I was 10-years-old when the civil war in Lebanon broke out. The years that followed were some of the darkest I’ve witnessed. From corpses dragged around the streets by pick-up trucks to the startling sound of bombs dropping, I saw and heard things no child ever should.

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Still, I now appreciate how growing up during those tough years helped me learn important lessons in all areas of my life including business and leadership.

Here are three ways in which my childhood helped shape me into the man I am today.

#1: You learn the importance of being shrewd

When you grow up during a war you tend to live your life with a good degree of street smarts – always looking for opportunities to better your situation and do the best with what you have. For me it was entrepreneurship or as I thought of it then, making more pocket money.

I will never forget the moment I was watching firecrackers go off at a religious celebration and I had an idea. What if I bought and sold these firecrackers myself? The next day I used all my savings to buy the crackers from a wholesaler, set up a small table on the side of the street and sold them at a higher price. It was easy business and it was just the beginning.

Soon I began to sell canned tuna and beef in the neighborhood during the raids when there were food shortages. I used the money I earned to indulge my passion at the time: fashion. I would spend all my cash on clothes – and of course, after a time, I would sell those clothes too and make my money back.

#2: You learn how to solve problems creatively

At the end of the day, I don’t think it really matters which cards you’ve been dealt but rather how you choose to play them. Growing up during wartime with limited means meant I had two ways to look at my further education: accept that it was a financial burden too large to take on or come up with a plan to push through regardless. The latter is what I did. When I was 16-years-old, I created a brand for children’s clothing for a contact I had in Kuwait whom I connected with a local garment manufacturer. The hard work paid off. My first attempt at white-labeling helped fund my university education and to take care of my personal expenses for the years that followed.

#3: You never underestimate the power of hard work

I tried my hand at many things throughout my childhood which resulted in varying levels of success. The one thing that was consistent through all my attempts was hard work. I am a firm believer in the saying, ‘if first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again,’ – a lesson I learned from my father.  As a chef at the famous Casino Du Liban, he worked long hours, coming home well past midnight everyday so my siblings and I were well taken care of. His commitment was a daily reminder of the need to be resilient, to be tough and to work hard for something despite how bleak the future may appear.

 

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And finally while growing up during war time helped bring out the best in me, it isn’t something I wish upon any child. War may push people to explore hidden leadership and entrepreneurial characteristics – but there are less disruptive and more effective ways of getting the same result. What we need the most in the Middle East is to create the right educational mechanisms and professional opportunities to encourage the rise of Arab business leaders who aren’t afraid to take risks, be creative and work hard.

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Art work featured:

Self-Defense, Omar Fakhoury

Burj El Murr : Ayman Baalbaki 

Cover image: Ayman Baalbaki

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Elie Khouri - Omnicom Media Group MENA
Elie Khouri
Chief Executive Officer at OMG