‘‘Leadership is simple but not easy, complex but not complicated’’

Lee and Liran recently co-authored the book ‘First Time Leadership’ in which they have tried to answer what it takes for leaders to lead successfully with in-depth research and interviews with 220 leaders across the globe. The HRM talked with Lee and Liran about their book and the reason for writing it. Excerpts:

Tell us about your book First Time Leadership.
Daniel: A book that tells you what are the leadership traits needed for anyone who wants to be a successful first-time leader.
Avi: A collection of 30 lessons in leadership told in easy-to-read stories with fictional characters that were synthesized from 220 leaders (111 of them female leaders) from 37 countries.

What prompted you to write the book?
Daniel: In 2015, I was an aspiring leader responsible for a learning budget of USD5M for 4000 employees around the world. One day, my manager told me that I needed to show more leadership. I read numerous books over the years since and concluded that I did not understand what ‘leadership’ was. When I met Avi—and with his support, I decided it was time to answer the question of ‘what is leadership?’
Avi: It is a combination of a few things.
1. Inspiration: In my interview with Henry Chua, the first Chinese Executive Director of Hong Kong Jockey Club who started as a young management trainee and was able to go rapidly up the ranks with the same formula of making everyone around him much better.
2. Human need: We wanted to help aspiring leaders to step forward to their first leadership role, help them stand out to be selected to lead, then to shorten the learning curve so they can lead their first team to success.
3. Market gap: While there are 15,000 books published a year about First Time Leadership, there are a handful of books about First Time Leadership and most of them are not based on rigorous research
4. Doing: The most important thing in any idea is execution. Without my partner, lead author and researcher Daniel Lee, this book would have never been published. Daniel is the spirit, grit, and hard work behind this book. He heads the First Time Leadership practice. This journey had positioned him as one of the top consultants in the world to help companies with their needs to educate their first-time leaders.

What are the ideas and philosophy of this book?
Daniel: The philosophy is that leadership is a ‘combination of traits.’ Interviewing over 200 leaders from around the world, we come to see that these leadership traits are universal across the world, because human traits are universal. It is simply how we express those traits in the society and culture that we are in that separates one leader from another.
Avi: A lot of people have assumptions about leadership, we had assumptions too. We wrote them on the big windows overlooking the straits of Singapore. Within a few months, we organized the assumptions into the first leadership model. Then we went to the world and started to learn from the leaders themselves. The model changed 7 times. Many of our assumptions were proven as myths. And new concepts emerged.

Who are the targeted readers? Why should they read this book?
Daniel: There are three types of readers in mind. The aspiring leaders who want to lead others and be recognised as potential leaders. This book will give them the step-by-step guide on what leadership traits they need to develop and the confidence to step forward to make a move to declare their intention and be prepared to stand out to be selected for their first leadership role. First Time Leaders, who want to gain the respect of those they formally lead and show their bosses better results. This book provides them with the foundation they need to go onto future leadership opportunities. Experienced leaders, who want to hone their leadership skills, as the insights captured in this book also come from other experienced leaders and will help them to sharpen their existing leadership skillset.

What is new about leadership in this book?
Daniel: What sets this book apart is that it is based on the collective insights of over 200 leaders from around the world. Most other leadership books are about the perspectives of just the author.
Avi: The book has 30 easy to apply leadership lessons organized as 30 easy-to-read stories about fictional characters that are based on real life leaders’ experiences.

What myths about leaders have you debunked?
1. Myth: Not everyone can be a leader:
In reality: Many are born with the potential to lead, but a few make the conscious choice to be a leader. Leaders don’t wait, they take actions.

2. Myth: Most of the leaders started their leadership role in their first job.
In reality: Most of the leaders started leading early in life. Most of these early experiences were volunteering to help others.

3. Myth: Leaders have heroes that need to be better than others. Being great in their job will make them trusted.
In reality: Every leader needs develop to their own authentic blend of leadership. People trust genuine people. Do not fake it to make it as you will lose their trust.

4. Myth: Aspiring female first time leaders seize every opportunity to apply for their first leadership role.
In reality: Most female leaders shared they were actually ready to lead between 2 to 4 years before actually taking on a leadership position.

5. Myth: Leaders will promote more people that they like and that they are likable.
In reality: Likability can be a liability as a leader as it can distract you from doing what is right. The research reveals that leaders prefer to promote leaders who they trust to do the right thing, not what is easy or popular. Likeability is not and should not be a goal, it happens as a result of being respected, caring, developing, and doing the right thing with integrity.

6. Myth: Better have a big distance between yourself as a leader and the people whom you lead.
In reality: Everything is about relationships. When you invest in your employees and develop them, they will do things for you that they would not have done for the company.

7. Myth: There are limits to who can become a leader.
In reality: Anyone has a potential to become a leader regardless of age, race, ethnicity, experience, or gender but potential without practice will get you nowhere.

What makes a successful leader? What does your research say?
Daniel: There is no one approach or a silver bullet to being a successful leader. Every leader that was interviewed became successful in their own way. Some are powerful orators, strong motivators, or amazing connectors with people. Some were extroverts, other introverts. The key is for a leader to realise the situations, which allows them to bring forth their full authentic self. That is what makes a leader successful.
Avi: The most successful leaders know and learn about themselves all the time. They are aware of how they feel, think and act as well of the implications of their actions. They develop and constantly evolove their authentic leadership blueprint. They show character especially at tough times and are well respected by their employees and peers.

Why do many people find it hard to understand leadership?
Daniel: A common question I get asked by those who seek to understand leadership is for the one skill / traits / strategy / technique that will allow anyone to master leadership.
Aspiring leaders want shortcuts. Experienced and successful leaders recognise that leadership is about people, and people are varied and dynamic. To lead them requires a wide understanding of what would make a person want to follow others.
Avi: There is a famous cartoon drawing showing humans searching for easy options. In leadership you do not get all the answers, you discover them. Daniel made his mission to help people understand the simple principals behind successful leadership. Simple but not easy. Do the work, read the book, apply the lessons and you will figure it out.

You interviewed an equal proportion of female and male leaders. Why and what did you find? What are common of different in their leadership traits?
Avi: Our target was to interview 100 leaders. Our interviewee number 92 was the legendary Garry Ridge, the chairman and CEO of WD40 who later wrote the forward for our book. He asked us how many female leaders we interviewed. At that time, we had only 22. He then told us that in WD40 there are equal female and male leaders. In fact, the head of his operation in China, which is his biggest market, is a woman that started about 30 years ago as a secretary. That inspired us to make an extra investment. We want to see more female leaders.
Almost all the female leaders that we had interviewed shared that they were ready for their first leadership role two to four years before they dared to step forward and apply. We hope that this book will inspire many more women to step forward much faster. This will impact their future success as they will reach faster more senior jobs.
Daniel: Personally, I wanted to find out if leadership was different for males and females. Turns out male and female leaders use the same traits listed in the book. What separates them is the emphasis. Males, by nature, may take a more action-oriented approach while females may be more intuitive and inclined to conversations first. Overall, successful leaders employ both masculine and feminine approaches to resolve a variety of situations.

In a developing economy like Nepal, leadership and organizational management are some of the major emerging topics at the moment.
Avi: One of the top leaders that we interviewed was Piyush Gupta, the CEO of DBS which has been voted for the last few years as the best digital bank in the world. He said “Company culture always trumps country culture”. The people in Citi bank (where he came from) do not have the same culture as other company nor as the country culture. We are confident that there are unique culture codes that influence how people view leadership in different countries like in Nepal but at the same time, one can see different behaviors and expectations from the multinational companies. Successful leaders will tap on the best practices that can be learned from both.
Daniel: Leadership, or the lack of it, is an important topic anywhere. The key for any successful leader is to learn from a variety of people, and then decide what is most relevant to them and their leadership.

What are your suggestions to aspiring and first-time leaders?
1. Be an avid learner. The world is changing rapidly; you need to catch up and stay informed. As an old Chinese saying goes “One can learn in three ways: Learn from your own experience, learn from books, and learn from other people’s experiences.” Through our book, a First Time Leader can get two out of three. Each story in the book combines experiences of a few real-life leaders.
2. Be authentic. You can learn from everyone but you do not want to be a copy of them. Do not try to imitate other leaders’ styles. People trust genuine people and are very suspicious of those who put on a show.
3. Become aware. At the core of the First Time Leadership model in our book, you will find “Self-Awareness.” Not being aware is like driving with your eyes closed. The first step is to invest time in getting to know yourself. What do you stand for? Why do you want to lead? Why should they follow you? You can start this inner journey by discovering what your personal core values are. This will give you a clue what are most valuable in your life. Your true values will be your anchor in turbulent times and will influence your actions. Values are the compass that will guide you. Become aware of your strengths and learn how to maximize them so they will make many of your weaknesses irrelevant (as long as you can be humble and vulnerable to seek help).
4. Contribute: In the model of First Time Leadership, you can find that the engine of the rocket is contribution. Most of the leaders that we had interviewed started their leadership journey in early life. They volunteered to help others. They volunteered in school, in Sunday school, to do good for others. One of the great ways to practice leadership is to volunteer in an organization that you care about. For example, if you are an HR practitioner, join the HR association of your city and volunteer to help in events. As you volunteer, you will get to know others with the same mindset of contributing to the collective. With time you can volunteer to the committee and start your first leadership journey.
5. Find a mentor/coach: Don’t wait for them to drop from the sky. Be proactive to look for experienced people whom you admire in your company or elsewhere and ask them to mentor you. Seek feedback all the time but not because you are insecure but because you want to learn more. Don’t just expect a free ride, reciprocate the kindness and do somethings for your mentors to show your appreciation.

Daniel: Leadership is simple but not easy, complex but not complicated.
Leadership is simple because it is really about an understanding of people. However, people come in a wide variety, and are dynamic creatures that seek to be led, not controlled.
Leadership is complex because it takes a mastery of numerous traits to be a successful leader. However, it is not complicated to the point where you cannot understand it at all. The book already lays out each piece of the leadership puzzle for you.

What things they should be mindful of when it comes to people management?
Daniel: Ask yourself why you want to be a ‘leader’. Is it only for career advancement, or to move everyone around you forward? Here is a simple exercise. List down several reasons why you want to be a leader. Then ask yourself the reasons why you would follow someone else as a leader. You will find the reasons differ greatly.
Successful leaders understand the reasons why others follow them, and are constantly giving others those same reasons to keep following them.
Avi: These people are trusted in your hands. You have a responsibility to lead them to success, in great safety. You need to create phycological safety for them to be themselves. You are serving them and need to take care of them. When they come home happy to their families and wake up excited to work on your team, you made a difference.

What will your next book be about?
Daniel: Right now, I am toying with the thought of what it takes to be a successful middle level leader in any organisation anywhere across the world. I wonder if the traits identified in First Time Leadership apply evenly to middle leadership, or are some traits more important than others.
I do not have the answers, and just like with First Time Leadership, there are many First Time Leaders out there wondering of what they are doing and how they are leading will eventually get them their next promotion. This could be a question worth answering.
Avi: “Delivering Delight” is a book in process to help leaders bring the best of themselves to support a delightful culture that creates delightful experiences for customers and employees. The book I am writing in parallel is called “Life Continuums”.

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