Embedded in Dubai – From the Front Lines of Association

As I sit here basking in my many Freedoms (thank you Constitution and Bill of Rights), it is easy to think that we as American association leaders are the center of the world. Much like Sargent Schultz’s evil twin, we “know everything, evvvverything”.

We often forget that there are many associations outside of the United States. We forget about all the association leaders who direct these organizations. From northern Europe through the Middle East and down through Africa and across Asia and the Pacific, we have colleagues working every day to advance the cause of member-based organizations. Usually, without our knowledge.

This winter, I was fortunate to be invited to participate in the Dubai Association Conference (#DAC2022) held in late March 2022.

I have a weird role at these events.


Generally speaking, I’m neither a buyer nor seller. I get invited because of Association Laboratory’s sector research, arguably the most recent, relevant, and useful data on the association sector. It gives me a chance to speechify (and travel and eat). I also get invited cause I’m awesome.

In 2019, I reported from the Indian Association Congress, my last global trip pre-pandemic.

Now, following my time in Dubai at the Dubai Association Congress (DAC2022) held at the Expo 2020 Dubai (#worldsfair) I’ve come up with some notions.

So, without further ado, let us begin the notioning.

Communication isn’t about speaking, It’s about understanding.

Like many of the attendees at DAC2022 I speak several languages. For example, I’m fluent or proficient in the following languages.

  • American English
  • Southern English
  • English English
  • Consultant English
  • English Profanity
  • International Language of Love

I can also ask where the bathroom is in English, French, Spanish and Italian. I can scream, “TAKE HER NOT ME!!!!” in no less than 15 different languages, including American Sign Language. Please don’t ask why.

My time at DAC2022 reminded me how important it was to listen. Too often we breeze over what people are telling us, jumping to conclusions. This is particularly true in consulting or when discussing something with a member. We’re hearing something that is new or unique to the other person, but something we’ve heard a thousand times.

When folks are talking in their 2nd or 3rd language, you need to be patient.

Try it out. Listening that is. Practice with your pet, or better yet, your spouse. Like anything, good listening takes practice. Pretend you’re a bartender if that helps. #visualization

Find the environment that develops you.


Global work for me is part of my personal and professional development.

People often discuss getting out of their comfort zone. The problem though, is that comfort zones are, by definition, comfortable. Why would I want to leave?

In reality, it’s hard to really put yourself in a situation where you must look at the world through a different lens. `In your normal everyday life, you can slide by. You can fudge it.

If you put yourself in a new, unfamiliar environment you need to be more thoughtful – about understanding, about communicating, about the nuance of language, culture, business, strategy, politics, etc. It forces you to hone your intellectual knife more sharply.

Successful personal development isn’t just about the book you read but the environment you place yourself in.

People are awesome.


Everyone I met at the Dubai Association Conference (#DAC2022) was warm and engaging.

The more I work on global issues, the more I meet others dealing with similar opportunities and challenges. I can say quite seriously, nearly everyone I meet is wonderful. Global work forces you to listen more than talk. It encourages empathy. It incentivizes curiosity.

You need these traits to be successful working with people from varied cultures, speaking different languages and dealing with complicated problems.

I enjoy the patience that these types of people bring to conversations. The intentionality in which they listen. How some laugh at you behind your back while others laugh in your face based on their culture.

This doesn’t mean global assholes don’t exist (looking at you Putin). But these types of personalities struggle with the personal empathy and patience of global work. The more narrowly focused and the fewer perspectives you have on life the harder global work becomes.

Think how you can apply greater empathy, patience and listening to your everyday life and applied through different perspectives or lenses. While it’s a lifelong field of study, the benefits are tremendous.

People beat systems.


I had nothing but travel hassles to and from Dubai. A well-meaning person from our northern suburb of Canada, happily and helpfully put me on an earlier flight to my connection city, Toronto. City motto “We Also Have a Lake”.

Unfortunately, this kicked me out of United’s system. Probably a coincidence that this occurred when the USA played Canada in Olympic hockey.

In Toronto, another nice person, put me back in the system, into my comfy light flat seat for the 9-hour trip to Dubai.

On the return trip, at Dubai Airport (at 1 am), the happy Lufthansa folks discovered I didn’t exist for their flight. Working overtime and talking with the United people, they got me back on my flight connecting via Frankfort, Germany.

At the end of the day, a series of people took me aside and fixed things. They saved the day.

The lesson? Don’t rely on your technology too much. At the end of the day, associations are about people, not databases.

Nuance is important (and hilarious).


My favorite keynote speaker at DAC2022 was Bo Kruger from Denmark. He gave a compelling talk about how the future is uncertain. We need to embrace this uncertainty and navigate it like a ship navigates fog.

What made his speech more than generally compelling was that Bo gave it in English, probably his 213th language or something like that.

When he spoke the word “fog”, he clipped it short, so it sounded like the English curse word “fuck”.

Imagine an entire keynote asking you to focus on, deal with and be comfortable with fuck and you get a sense of how hilarious it was.

Because Bo is awesome, he thought it was hilarious when we told him and personally, many of us encouraged him to give the speech straight to American audiences. He’d be rich, rich and richer. Seek him out, I insist.

The point isn’t to kid Bo (disclaimer – I did tell him I’d reference him in this blog) (disclaimer 2 – I may have been a bit vague on the type or subject of the reference).

The point is that sometimes it’s the subtle things that count.

Look to the changes at the bottom of the graph not the top, review how a minor program is changing over time not the big program. It’s often these subtle things that add up to new insights. The canary in the coal mine, so to speak.

BTW – Bo’s example highlighted how we’d all been there at some point in time. I once confidently walked up to a bartender in Brussels and ordered a Horse in French, mispronouncing the beer. On this same trip, while attempting to get money, I asked where a cash machine was located (in French). The person at the hotel asked me, in English, to please speak French. #heavysigh

In classic one upmanship, one of our association colleagues went through an entire rebranding process to discover their new name in Europe was a German slang term for masturbate.

Good times.

The world is amazing.


DAC2022 was held at the Dubai Exposition Centre on the grounds of the Expo 2020 Dubai UAE. Honestly, click on the link and check it out.

Dubai 2020 is the World’s Fair. More than 130 countries had pavilions. By pavilion, I meant giant multi-story constructs showcasing their Vision of the world and often designed by leading architects. It was amazing.

Every pavilion told the respective country’s story in three parts.

  1. Our history is awesome.
  2. Our future is awesome.
  3. Welcome to the gift shop.


In a “relatively” small area, approximately 1 ½ square miles, more than 8 million people will visit.

I ate food from the Emirates, Korea, India, Italy, etc.

I saw dance and music troupes from Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, India, America, etc.

I saw art, everywhere.

Literally, every country participating, was trying to show off.

Sometimes you have to brag at your association and in life. That’s ok.

Masking a problem or catastrophe, doesn’t get rid of it.


Imagine a scene from Star Trek where the characters beam down into some futuristic city. Everyone is different. They look different. Some people are dressed exotically, some less so. There isn’t any garbage or crime. All these folks are talking to each other and enjoying art or culture or something.

That’s Exposition 2020 Dubai.

It looked like a futuristic utopian city in Star Trek. Everyone looked different and dressed differently. I saw people in everything from full body black burkas and white flowing dishdashas to the latest cropped tops and short shorts. There wasn’t any crime, garbage, or strife.


My last day in Dubai was spent at the Expo and I visited the Ukrainian Pavilion. Although modest, like the others it told an exciting story about their Vision for the country. How great the people are and describing investment and tourism opportunities.

It was heartbreaking.

My visit coincided with the day Russia invaded Ukraine. You could tell the natives, flown in special from the Ukraine for the Expo by the 1,000-yard stares.  They never looked up from their phones.

I live in Ukrainian Village in Chicago and wondered if I’d ever see an independent Ukraine or another wonderful exhibit in the future.

In the beautiful Russian Pavilion, recommended to me and visited a few days before, the story was about how all of us were connected. From our genealogy to digital contact, we were all one people.

Today, the hopes of all those Russian designers, builders, and staff, optimistically hoping you’d come to Russia, lie in ruins. The price of global sanctions and an unnecessary war.

Perhaps the lesson, from the Pandemic and from events in Europe are necessary to remind us that the world we know isn’t necessarily going to be the world that will be.

We can’t take the good for granted. We can’t assume, bad things don’t happen to good people.

Our efforts working on behalf of the Mission are never done. Our defense of the right to associate and to advocate on behalf of people choosing to associate through associations will never end.

Don’t sanitize your association. Look challenges in the eye, pursue opportunities with optimism but defend against the attacks  you know or at least assume are coming.



I want to thank Martin Sirk, the organizer of DAC2022, the other speakers and attendees and the many fine people across Dubai who made my trip so fun and educational. Thanks also to Tommy Goodwin, for organizing my speechifying and making my insightfulness so obvious. Sorry you got the spicy cough and couldn’t attend.

The lesson for me, while watching the pandemic wind down and the war in Europe ramp up?

Far more people are trying to make the world a better place than wreck it. Embrace them, support them, and join them.

I can’t wait to go back to Dubai (or India) (or Brussels) (or Singapore) or a lot of other places (I’m looking at you Australia, Africa and South America). 😊

Just some thoughts from My Seat at the Bar.