The Malta Independent 20 April 2024, Saturday
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My tickbox test for Robert Abela

Mark Said Sunday, 26 March 2023, 08:38 Last update: about 2 years ago

In any democratic country, a political leader is held accountable to the people for the choices he or she makes, and whether they result in better outcomes, such as greater prosperity, security, and quality of life, for the individual, family, community and society. Of course, Robert Abela headed to a resounding electoral victory in the last elections. This formidable achievement was either by default or because he had been satisfactorily tried and tested during the months of the run-up to those elections, or both. I am, however, leaving on the wayside that other debatable issue of the ‘Ġaħan syndrome’ or electoral gullibility.

Yet now he has been quite some time in office and although no leader can ever be perfect or free from any type of criticism, today I wish to run a tickbox exercise for some aspects of Abela’s administration so far. I intend to dwell on a number of essential leadership values that could make or break a great leader.

In assessing any political leader, one must see what are the underlying beliefs that guide his decisions and actions and ultimately shape the days and careers of the populace. So one of Robert’s leadership values should be a subset of those values that positively influence his ability to lead effectively or be a ‘good leader.’ However, as with many of anyone’s character traits, he will probably have a tendency toward one specific leadership skill or another. What values ostensibly guide his personal life? From what we know, he comes from a highly respectable family, adhering to core Christian values and morality. Compared to previous Labour leaders this is legitimately on the plus side of Abela’s testimonial.

How has he reacted when, on more than one occasion, he came across common and uncommon situations, such as when confronted with change? Saving a few exceptions, such as the Żonqor issue and the Marsascala marina controversy, his reaction was one of firm determination and a tendency to ride roughshod over public concerns or lamentations. This was clearly discernible in the abortion legal amendment debate, in the Valletta late night-music allowance and during the peak and critical periods of the Covid-19 pandemic. In this sense, Abela does not score well as he risked and risks destroying Labour’s support in what are its heartlands by riding roughshod over public opinion.

This might sound somewhat paradoxical, especially when contrasted with other undoubted leadership qualities in Abela. The pace of change in Malta is head-spinning. Advanced technologies continue to reshape business models, customer and employee expectations, and entire industries, creating a complex and uncertain workplace. Our country needs a new type of leader to meet these challenges and opportunities, one with skills and capabilities beyond those of the past. If he wants to, Robert has all it takes to meet these expectations.

While the traditional principles of leadership will always be important, effective leaders of the future require a better development of strong soft skills, such as problem-solving, influencing, communication, and coaching. The demands on our nation today can create a lot of emotional turbulence and tension. This leads people to become self-protective, prioritising their own self-interests over the goals of their country. Performance weakens, people leave, and culture erodes.

Abela has already demonstrated that he is capable of having strong emotional intelligence, such as empathy and interpersonal skills, to help build trust and engagement during challenging times. Being able to express empathetic concerns about difficulties helps people feel understood and shows transparency, which can restore commitment. Other soft skills, such as situational awareness, risk tolerance, and having a growth mindset, are inherent in him and may even thrive with change. He has the potential to be better able to tolerate ambiguity, have a greater awareness of his environment, and flex when conditions fluctuate. Yet he is faltering in his ability to build a highly effective team and create alignment amidst shifting needs and priorities. In this sense, he is too often being let down by the team around him.

I make out Abela to be an ambitious political leader, but, sadly, he does not fully live up to the traits of good leadership. In fact, he appears to be severely lacking in some of the most essential qualities of a good leader, such as integrity and accountability. But experience tells us that only a handful of politicians come near to the principles of leadership and show strong indicators of a successful political leader.

Robert’s leadership is vital in the coming months. He will have to determine the allocation of power and money through governmental policies, establish partnerships with other stakeholders, and make decisions that can have a major effect on our nation’s well-being and its citizens. But first, he has to undo and make up for a number of bad, corrupt and scandalous decisions taken or willed by his predecessor. To date, here, he scores poorly.

Once he manages to break free from those shackles he will have to focus on our country’s long-term betterment, above and beyond any short-term personal gains. Abela has a mixture of charm and honesty and if he exploits them to the full he will be able to evaluate any circumstance and make a judgment based on what will be better for the majority.

At the moment, however, he is still lacking in statesmanship. His visionary dream still lacks clarity and he is struggling to turn his visions into success stories. Robert is occupying a seat where actions that have a huge effect on people are taken. A leader should think long and hard before taking a decision but stand by it once the decision is made. It was not always that Abela was capable of making the right decision at the right time.

Given the reality that politics may be complicated and often messy, Robert is known to balance his actions with what is right for a nation and is able to take severe actions in the interest of the country if required.

All in all, Robert exhibits good leadership values but his opportunities to build wisdom can easily be lost if he is not willing to recognize and process mistakes. Humility also means knowing when to ask for input from others.

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