You are not going, are you?

Learning to love Tahdig and other impressions of working in Iran by Heidi Gutekunst

Early in January 2020 it became clear that I would take a one-week work trip to Iran a month later. This resulted in numerous questions and plenty of advice from people around me. Fears, assumptions and projections were generously shared with a sense of curiosity: “You are very brave. How do you dare? Do you understand that women have a very different position there? You cannot behave like your normal self. You are crazy. You are not going, right?”

Due to the Ukrainian plane being shot down on January 8th and the threats from the USA, I gave it quite a bit of consideration and inquired into the many aspects of going or not going with a few colleagues. My conclusion was that the only three people who could convince me not to go were my three sons and that everyone else would need to deal with their own fears, rather than letting this impact my decision. I am delighted I did.

Flying into Iran was exciting, I had done my homework about culture. I was traveling with my Iranian colleague, and everything was carefully planned in advance – I had the luxury of purely taking care of myself, the work and uncovering my relationship to this country, it’s people, culture and business. My practice is to be as free from expectations as possible when entering something new and learned once again how difficult it is.

My first impression was like the pollution layer over Tehran visible from the airplane. I knew there would be amazing depth of beauty underneath and it took me a full 24 hours to start grasping and tasting the extent of this beauty. In the first two days I learnt that I was one of the most conservative when it came to the hijab. In my mind I was trying to show respect and realized that it wasn’t about respect, but about a rule that most people, women and men, found unnecessary. Early on I experienced Taarof – the Iranian kind generosity, being embraced by a warmth and delight by friends. A similar touch of richness is seen in the ancient architecture and the handmade carpets. Overwhelming beauty, detail and wealth and a real contrast a few steps away in the poorly developed infrastructure of traffic and local cars.

The first ever Amara workshop happened an hour outside Tehran and offered much learning and facing more of my misplaced assumptions. The group consisted of leaders from different fields such as manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, agriculture and advertising. The intention of the three days was to learn about the action logics and using action inquiry that is the only approach statistically confirmed as reliably generating both personal and organizational transformation. We co-created a non-judgmental and playful learning environment. The group explored and openly shared personal insights and reflections, examined the forming of our little group/system and the dynamics within it whilst getting familiarized with the individual and team action logics in ourselves and others. Intellectually and in embodied ways. Moving between clarity and confusion.

In the exploration about action logics, the shifts between them and transformations in organisations we had interesting conversations about how governments, societies and culture may trigger certain action logics. To what extent does a government like Iran’s, that has highly centralized, unilateral power, operating in an extremely uncertain environment with strict rules drive the “opportunist” in us? It is characterized by short-term wins, corruption and underground tea parties.

The “diplomat” frame was found to be highly present among families and friends. Who would want to rock the boat among those you can trust and find safety in?

I witnessed the “expert” frame in that a large share of people in business prize the professionalism in extensive education, doctoral degrees are highly valued. In my limited, one-week experience, I could see the emergent “achiever” frame in the ways that the half dozen companies I had conversations with were stepping into more creativity, collaboration and systematic ways of approaching business.

One of the important questions of this time, in my opinion, is the presence of women in decision making positions. I believe one crucial ingredient for addressing the largest threat of our time – climate change, is to increase the number of women in top decision-making positions in political and corporate fields. I observe how women, including myself, are treated with great curiosity and attention wherever I go. My assumption was that being a woman doing work in Iran, I may have some disadvantages and again, I was wrong. At no point did I feel disrespected or overlooked because of my gender, something that still happens in my home country Finland, one of the most gender equal countries in the world. As an outsider I have a privileged position, which isn’t comparable with Iranian women overall.

The local women I met in Iran were amazing, strong, kind, professional, grounded and focused. Many of them working for a better future and not letting the structural obstacles be in their way. I am eager to learn more through a few new friends and hope more of us could have the richness of these kinds of cross-cultural collaboration.

I fell in love with Iran and its many aspects, the people, the history, the roots – I can feel the astonishment of this country in my bones. Iran was lovely to me and I believe my presence brought value too. For the next trip I know that I will need to eat the delicious Persian “soul food” rice dish, Tahdig, as soon as it lands on my plate if I want to keep it to myself.

FURTHER READING

Heidi has a M.Sc. (Econ.). She has worked most of her career in traditional and digital advertising agencies. Heidi has several national and international awards in innovative advertising, branding, design and digital service design. She started her career working as a Human Resource Manager and continued from there to key account management, strategic advertising and … Continued

What are Amara workshops like? See how the participants experienced the Action Inquiry and Global Leadership Profile workshop in Helsinki 2018.

The following text is taken from the introduction of the book Street Smart Awareness and Inquiry-in-Action, written by Amara’s co-founders Jane Allen, Heidi Gutekunst with William R. Torbert We, in Amara, encourage our fellow human beings to commit personally to and be responsible for raising their awareness in order to grow as individuals, in service … Continued