This is a transcript of the Talking Point Article in the Times of Malta October 2014
Whilst this title does carry political innuendo, the subject of leadership spans across every aspect of social, political and economic activities in Malta and yet we perhaps are not giving it due attention. The emphasis of our education system to develop academic and technical ability to the highest level seems to be pushing the ‘soft skills’ such as leadership, decision-making, empathy and emotional intelligence by the wayside. Are we failing to develop leadership skills across all aspects of society?
I learnt leadership at scouts, captaining the basketball team and being the eldest of 4 brothers. Hardly any leadership development was instilled in us throughout school or university. We graduate with excellent competencies but with little people-skills or emotional intelligence required to lead a team, run a business or even understand a customer properly. As a result, many of our graduates are moving up in the workplace solely based on their technical ability. Whilst this is part of progress, technical ability will take you only so far.
Many business leaders I speak to are repeatedly voicing their concern on the lack of soft skills and leadership abilities of their managers, making empowerment and delegation impossible. There is an ever-growing gap between the entrepreneurs vision for growth and the abilities of their senior teams to run these organisations through executive empowerment. This gap is both stopping these top people growing their business exponentially, as well as stifling the rise of executive talent within business. As a result, top leadership lacks trust in their senior teams, micromanaging them and not giving the executives space to develop. This catch 22 is widening this leadership gap even further.
Leaving my place of work of 15 years to venture off into new pastures was a very difficult decision but one that I took with peace of mind and conviction. This was because I knew that smart, dedicated and passionate people would take over where I left off at Inspire. Having a great team behind you allows you to look forward, rather than crane your neck to keep an eye on things all the time.
Yet succession is such a remote item on the agenda of most leaders because they are so busy steering the ship to even consider who will do so when they move on. As a result, they are stuck in the control room of their vessel when they could have outgrown it. Not only should a good leader seek opportunities that challenge them, but they have a duty to create space for others to aspire to fill. Sustainability requires succession.
It seems to me that Malta has a serious problem of developing thinking skills and leadership at executive level. We have so many driven and passionate business leaders that are stuck in their small tug boats when they could be steering ocean liners. I use the tug boat analogy purposely, because they continue to use their talent and business acumen, often in the shadow of much larger foreign businesses which are simply better at sustaining growth through internal leadership and succession planning. When the captain wants to set off and explore new seas, their ship stays on course while they focus elsewhere. When there are storms, the crew is trained to weather them with agility and quick decision-making. This executive agility in an ever-changing market is what makes for successful businesses.
I’m not suggesting ‘auto-piloting’ the business through processes and procedures. I am implying that executive teams need to learn to think for themselves. I am seeing family businesses growing around competent family members until such time that they are working 16 hours a day spinning all the plates, with little burden sharing from management. They are so busy doing this that they don’t have time to mentor their teams and create a virtuous cycle of empowerment and personal growth. They invest very little of their time to create the very team that can take their small business forward and leave the legacy that the founder dreams of.
As a result, we have very competent people in top positions in businesses that, from a technical and academic standpoint, overtaken their bosses. This creates frustration on both ends of the gap and stifles progress and creativity, creating brain drain. Executives are not being given enough chance to learn from taking decisions and making mistakes, so they are not being equipped to proactive and strategic thinking. In reality this, not resources, may be what holds many of our small businesses back.
On the flip side, it’s been great to see some passionate leaders push their senior teams into taking on new responsibility, and investing in company-wide leadership development. Some create sideline projects for their executive team to experience decision-making without anyone breathing down their necks. Others offer executive coaching and one-to-one mentoring. This nurturing approach to leadership development has enabled some good companies to become great ones. A culture of leadership across the organisation enables everyone in the company to make decisions, take responsibility for their actions and to not shy away from challenge. It weeds out the ‘yes men’ and creates space for those engaged and motivated individuals to level themselves up both personally and career-wise.
If our aspirations as a nation are to have a greater impact within and out of our shores, we’d be better off investing in developing leaders and thinkers, than churning out more technicians.