The best leaders are learners

One year ago, at a youth camp, a student who had been put in charge of his group confided in me that leading his team members wasn’t going as well as he had thought it would. “I’m just not cut out to be a leader,” he said, as he related to me what he thought a leader should have, which he didn’t: humour, confidence, wisdom and courage.

My reply to him, as one still understanding the ropes of what it truly means to lead was, “all these can be learnt, if you put your heart to it”.

It is said that there are approximately 50,000 books on leadership that are published annually – and this number may well be a conservative estimate – but if there is one indication that there is no final “destination” in this journey of becoming a leader, it is the countless number of resources that teach us how to better develop our awareness and management of ourselves and others.

Leadership is a relational endeavour; one cannot claim to be a leader without being able to inspire an action or a reaction in others. And because relationships are complex, one can only lead to the extent that he or she learns.

On the surface, it is painfully obvious that learning is imperative for any human enterprise – but I’d argue that in the long run, learning qualifies you to lead more than anything else (beyond promotions, positions, placement and power).

Here are three reasons why:

1 Learning equalises the years

How often have you heard the Chinese adage (often spoken by the elderly to the young), “I eat more salt than you eat rice”?

What is it about being “older” that makes one a wiser and better decision-maker? I’m convinced that the difference is not a matter of “years”, but a matter of “experience”.

We learn from our experiences, and our past outcomes that resulted in both positive and negative actions inform us as we negotiate between present choices.

But if experiences make us wiser, how do we attain more “experience”? Is “experience” purely a byproduct of the passing years, or can we, in the words of Sir Isaac Newton, see further into the future “by standing on the shoulders of giants”?

When we capitalise on the learnings and lessons of others and apply them in our lives, we are able to short-circuit the common bind of “years equals to experience” and accelerate our growth without wasting the time others have wasted.

Great leaders often ask themselves, “How can I avoid making the same mistakes, or how can I replicate others’ successes and take them further?”

2 Learning keeps you humble

Learning and humility feed off each other. On the other hand, the antithesis of humility, which is pride, has the sinister ability to deceive anyone into believing that he or she has “arrived”, that there is no need to adapt or change further, because he or she is superior and above reproach.

In contrast, great leaders are often the most humble people who are secure in themselves and do not see the need to put others down to elevate themselves.

John F. Kennedy once said “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other”.

Interestingly, most US Presidents were avid readers who invested much of their time in learning, despite their busy schedules.

It is said that Theodore Roosevelt read two books a day, while Abraham Lincoln, who had only one year of formal education, attributed his successful political career to his habit of reading.

A strong learning posture allows you to see from different perspectives, live in the experiences of others, and most importantly, empathise with other points-of-view.

It is only when a person is an avid learner that he or she is continually challenged in his or her current views, and thus able to grow in convictions. It is only when a cup is empty, that it can be filled.

Maintaining humility allows us to be intellectually curious – and curiosity always precedes discovery and creativity.

3 Learning enables you to give

Somewhere during my college years, an epiphany occurred to me: How much can I learn and grow, if I were to dedicate all my transit and waiting moments to learning something new?

In my frustration of waiting and chasing for buses to get to college, I found a treasure chest.

I had realised that an average Kuala Lumpur/Klang Valley resident would spend approximately 10 to 15 hours per week travelling, either by inching through heavy traffic or waiting at bus stops and light rail transit (LRT) stations, and what a waste of time it would be if all that time was given to staring into space or letting one’s thoughts run idle.

I then made a concrete decision to listen to podcasts, audio books (when I would be driving) or to read (when I was waiting for the bus or LRT), in order to redeem that precious time.

I have since listened to over 700 hours of podcasts on topics related to public speaking, general knowledge, story-telling, leadership, faith and personal development.

My greatest learning moments are no longer in the classroom, but in my car, when I am alone and can learn something new.

During the course of the last two years, as a teacher in a high-needs school and a church leader, these moments of learning and reflection allowed me to pass on what I learnt to my students and congregation.

Those opportunities gave me great pleasure, as I was communicating to others what I had learnt and internalised for myself. I never felt “burnt out” because the stream of learning was always flowing.

Leadership may have many faces, but all leaders have the same outstretched hand of giving. And we can only give from what we have learnt. The good news is that leadership can be learnt – if we put our hearts to it.

Contributed by Abel Cheah

Abel Cheah is associate manager in the Talent Acquisition team at Teach For Malaysia. He believes that leadership is something that is nurtured and cultivated. If you are interested in listening to podcasts, he highly recommends Umano (an app that narrates articles). He believes that the best leaders are great lovers of learning. You can get in touch with him at


It’s is our battle: Obama in Malaysia

The biggest takeaway from Barack Obama’s speech was that he really isn’t that interested in solving our domestic issues.

I WAS one of the lucky young leaders who attended the town hall meeting with United States President Barack Obama. It was an incredible experience and I was impressed by his energy, oratory and diplomacy.

However, that town hall meeting left our social and mainstream media buzzing with two issues – the questions raised by the participants and Obama’s quotes on affirmative action in Malaysia.

Many Malaysians viewed the less-than hard-questions asked Obama (such as the meaning of happiness) as a waste of an opportunity. They felt the most powerful man in the world needed to be asked some powerful questions.

I, too, had some serious questions for him. However, I am not, as some critics put it, “disappointed in the future leaders of Asean” for asking theirs.

Four hundred young people attended the town hall meeting but only eight questions were taken. Two were from the social media (curated by moderators and, therefore, bound to be “safe”). The social media questions and three others from the audience came from non-Malaysians, leaving the remaining questions for only three Malaysians.

Might it simply then had been an unfortunate coincidence that Obama happened to pick the three Malaysians, in a sea of raised hands, who chose not to ask about the TPPA (Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement) or human rights?

Obama is a role model to many. Not all young people are political journalists, critics of his foreign policy or otherwise determined to tembak him.

The Asean participants are my friends and fellow alumni of the US State Departmentsponsored exchange programmes. I know them well enough to know they have a different take to politics than we do.

Malaysians thrive on discussing issues of the day in a kopitiam, at a forum or via Twitter. We’re practically hardwired to talk politics. Contrastingly, my Asean friends are here on a leadership initiative. They’ve attended numerous programmes, conferences and workshops all geared towards helping them become leaders of civil society.

Their focus is to find solutions to poverty, climate change and human trafficking – not to zoom in on policy and trade agreements.

Their questions simply illustrate that they’re more concerned with bettering themselves and their world than turning everything into a debate. This was a town hall for young leaders on leadership. Expect some young (read: naïve) questions on leadership.

At one point during his address, Obama said “Malaysia will not progress if non-Muslims are not given equal opportunities.” I, like many others, took his sound bite to social media.

Many people went further, calling on Obama to pressure our government into reform, to “save us”! And of course we had people labelling Obama a hypocrite, his comment either ridiculous or irrelevant, and condemning those who looked to him as a saviour.

These reactions reminded me that we are once again stuck in our dichotomy of “accept wholesale or reject wholesale”.

I personally think the biggest takeaway from his speech was that he really isn’t that interested in solving our domestic issues.

Many times, he urged us to fight a good fight, but he made it a point to remind us that he has his own problems in America to solve. I couldn’t agree more.

Realistically, the US president has bigger problems to deal with than us.

Idealistically, we shouldn’t need him to help in any major way. My Sejarah textbook taught me that time and again when our rulers were faced with domestic problems, they opened themselves up to colonisation by seeking help from foreigners instead of facing up to their countrymen.

However, I disagree with those who dismiss Obama. Yes, this is an issue we’ve been dealing with for so long that the US president isn’t adding anything substantive to the debate, but that doesn’t make him irrelevant!

It’s like any other old debate such as abortion or creationism. You’re perfectly entitled to roll your eyes and say “Yeah, I’ve heard this one before,” but to some people it’s a big deal to have the leader of the free world publicly say, “I’m on your side.”

Others cite his domestic and foreign policy to label him a hypocrite, but you can agree with what he said yesterday without having to agree to what he said last year or did in Syria.

I highly appreciate the public relations value of the leader of the free world demonstrating an awareness of my cause, but it doesn’t have to follow that I adore him, agree with all his policies or think he’s Superman.

In a week’s time, people will forget what he said. But the fight goes on, right?

So, instead of obsessing over whether he had the right to say what he said, whether it matters that he said what he said, or making idle wishes that someone else had said what he said, let us focus on the more important part of his speech – that it’s our battle.

Marina Tan

Open Season by Marina Tan

> Marina Tan won the 2012 English Speaking Union International Public Speaking competition. She is presently studying at Kolej Yayasan UEM and will be going to Yale University in the United States in August to pursue a double major in engineering and economics.

Marina Tan The Star-ESUM Public Speaking Competition 2011

Related post:

Can Asians think? CAN Asian Think is a provocative book written in 1998 by the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the Nat…

A Brain-Food Surprise!

A familiar brain-food takes on yet another starring role! Fat-rich fish.

Fish_Fat RichFat-rich fish is loaded with vitamin D. Neuroscientists now believe that your brain is the biggest beneficiary of vitamin D.

Consider vitamin D a stealth substance… is all around us, but increasingly elusive. You get vit D from the sun. We are told to stay out of the sun or use a sun screen. This makes sense, because of potential skin damage and related cancer concerns. The result, though, is that many people are deficient in vit D. A lack of vit D in the brain is not good news.

Here is what we know:

Too little Vit D in the adult brain increases the risk of stroke and dementia.

Vit D thins blood and protects neurons in your brain. Mood disorders are linked to low levels of vitamin D.

A link has been discovered between inadequate levels of vit D and autism and schizophrenia.

I have started to include more of these vitamin D rich foods in my diet:salmon, mackerel, sardines, shrimp, milk, and eggs

Recipes that use these foods could be considered a day of sunshine!

I have become very aware that I have one brain and that it is involved in every thing I do. I am doing my best to look after it.

For more on the brain benefits of fish check out Brain Bulletins 26 and 33 in the Brain Bulletin Archive.
In the last Brain Bulletin I told you that I had just started reading an amazing book:The End of Overeating by David Kessler

It is an absolutely remarkable book in that it approaches eating as a brain behaviour. I saw myself on just about every page. I could not read it fast enough!

Many of the questions that I get asked in my live presentations relate to eating. Usually about eating too much, or continually eating the wrong foods. I have told people for 25 years that you eat with your brain, not your mouth. The End of Overeating really illuminates how your brain interacts with food. You will enjoy it and remember, I don’t get a penny for recommeding it.

Last week I was in Barrie, Ontario keynoting the Aim Language Learning Conference. I met lots of great people and I got to celebrate Canada Day in downtown Barrie. It was lots of fun! This week our daughter and soon to be son-in-law, Taryn and Jeff, get married. I get to spend the rest of the month presenting seminars in beautiful Vancouver.

Everyday new horizons appear in your life and new doors open all around you. Train your brain to look for them and……

Remember: “You are a genius!”

By Terry Small.
Terry Small is a brain expert who resides in Canada and believes that anyone can learn how to learn easier, better, faster, and that learning to learn is the most important skill a person can acquire.

Startups Are All About the Execution, So Tell Me How ?

When entrepreneurs come to me with that “million dollar idea,” I have to tell them that an idea alone is really worth nothing. It’s all about the execution, and investors invest in the people who can execute, or even better, have a history of successful execution. Execution is making things happen, and for startups it usually means making change happen, which is even more difficult.

Sean Covey image via FranklinCovey >>

For most people, execution is one of those things that seems obvious after the fact when done correctly, but is hard to specify for those trying to learn to do it better. Recently, I finished a new book on this subject, “The 4 Disciplines of Execution,” by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling, which seems to talk to startups as well as the corporate world it was written for.

These authors argue effectively that the hard part of executing most strategies is changing human behavior – first the people on your team, then partners, vendors, and most importantly, customers. No startup founder or leader can just order these changes to happen, because it isn’t that easy to get other people to change their ways. Changing yourself is tough enough.

Here are four key disciplines that I believe the best business leaders follow to expedite the change and forward progress implicit in the successful execution of a million dollar idea:

  1. Focus always on one or two top priority goals. We all live with the stark reality that the more we try to do, the less well we do on any of the elements. Thus focus is a natural principle. Narrow you and your team’s focus to one or two wildly important goals, and don’t let these get lost in the whirlwind of daily urgent tasks and communications.
  2. Identify and act on leading measures first. Some actions have more impact than others when reaching for a goal. Hold the lag measures for later (results available after the fact), and focus on lead measures first (predictive of achieving a goal). For example, more customer leads is predictive of more sales revenue later.
  3. Define a compelling scoreboard. People on your team play differently when someone is keeping score, and even better when they are keeping score, and even better when they have defined how their score is measured. This is the discipline of engagement. If the scoreboard isn’t clear, play will be abandoned in the whirlwind of other activities.
  4. Create a frequent forum for accountability. Unless we feel accountability, and see accountability on a regular cadence, it also disintegrates in the daily whirlwind. It’s even better if team members create their own commitments, which become promises to the team, rather than simply job performance. People want to make a contribution and win.

These four disciplines must be implemented as a process, not as an event. That means your team needs to see them as a normal and continuous focus, not a one-time push which fades in the rush of other daily priorities. The team needs to see the process practiced by the startup founder, as well as preached regularly.

Startup founders also need to realize that building and managing a company is quite different from learning to search for and solidify an idea that can grow into a company. Every entrepreneur has to navigate that personal change from thinking to doing to managing.

It’s not only the change from thinking to managing, but also the change and learning from constant iterations. Major changes, called pivots, are terrifying to a team that has put months of constant focus into executing what they thought was a great idea. If you don’t have an execution process, you have chaos.

Overall, every entrepreneur should be concerned if they don’t regularly feel stretched beyond their comfort zone, meaning mastering the art of execution if you are mainly creative, or developing creativity if you are mainly process driven. Don’t forget that the fun and challenge is in the learning, so enjoy the ride. The entrepreneur lifestyle is not meant to be comfortable.

Martin Zwilling

Martin Zwilling, Contributor

Newscribe : get free news in real time

The 3rd Alternative, 21st century win-win

21st century win-win paradigm

Title: The 3rd Alternative
Author: Stephen R. Covey
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

ALL hail the king of motivational theory and practice, and reigning monarch of corporate leadership coaching. Stephen Covey recently hit the big eight-O, but the acuity of his mind is as impressive as ever, on the evidence of The 3rd Alternative.

The multimillion-selling author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which in 1989 kick-started the whole genre, is acknowledged by many as the most influential business text of the 20th Century.

His publisher has presented The 3rd Alternative as a wholly fresh work. But this is slightly misleading. What this is, in actuality, is a well-penned and timely rehash of the book that made his name, thanks to its ground-breaking focus on the importance of synergy and on the win-win paradigm.

Is this a bad thing? No. If you have read now admittedly dated The 7 Habits, you might find The 3rd Alternative underwhelming. If you haven’t, it would behove you to skip it and go straight to this, which has similar content and almost identical messages, but is written from a 21st century perspective instead of that of the good old days of the bullish late 1980s.

The last person to widely use the term the “third alternative” as an approach to living was the late Muammar Gaddafi, whose Green Book expounded an alternative to communism and capitalism through a mixture of theological claptrap and goofy economics.

Hailing from the American rocky state of Utah, Covey is a hard-boiled capitalist, and a Mormon. And so there is an element of religiosity in Covey’s work. But his grasp of the fundamentals of economics is vastly superior to the late Libyan dictator’s. That said, it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to call one’s latest book “the 3rd alternative”. However, the book achieves its lofty goals, and is written with the clear-eyed lucidity that Covey’s legions of fans have come to expect.

The 3rd Alternative presents productive approaches to conflict resolution and creative problem solving. In these pages, Covey unveils a powerful methodology that he claims can resolve thorny professional and personal conflicts and yield solutions to apparently intractable challenges.

In any conflict, the first alternative is “my way” and the second alternative is “your way”. The fight usually rages over the question of whose way is “better”. There are numerous methods of “conflict resolution”, but most involve grudging compromise.

The 3rd Alternative goes further it’s about creating, what Covey terms, “a new and improved reality”. A departure from the usual strategies, this book illuminates a more productive mind-set one helpful to anyone seeking urgent solutions in their professional or personal lives.

Covey amplifies his message by means of wide-ranging examples of “third alternative thinkers”. There’s the local police force that transformed a crime-plagued community by casting off its entrenched “them against us” mentality. Another example tells the tale of a father who, during the course of one extraordinary evening, rescued his daughter from years of clinical depression. Then there’s the judge who brought a swift and peaceful end to a massive environmental lawsuit without setting foot in a courtroom.

Like many of the titles examined in the highly influential Read To Succeed column, this is an America-centric text, but there’s a whole generation of budding Stephen Coveys in this part of the world. And I’ll be bringing more of them to your attention in the Year of the Dragon.

But let’s get back to the man who started it all. Speaking to the press recently about his new release, Covey explained: “Most negotiators are trying to get their way. Through rounds of haggling, they usually arrive at a compromise, in which both sides concede something to get an agreement. By contrast, a third alternative’ requires no concessions at all because it’s truly a better deal for everyone. You get to it not by haggling but by asking, Would you be willing to go for a Third Alternative that is better than what either of us has in mind?’”

And that’s the message in a nutshell. Of course a win-win compromise is often a very tough nut to crack for those in the corporate community, and compromising with grace, even more so. The 3rd Alternative provides a whole toolbox of nutcrackers.

It’s a return to form. Totally fresh and original it isn’t, but seeing as it sources Covey in his prime, one cannot go far wrong. Hardcore Covey fans will love this. The newly interested should go here first, and maybe approach The 7 Habits and his other nine titles if they find Covey a sufficiently engaging guru. Many do. He’s got an enormous fan base, because he’s doing something right. And he’s been doing it for over 20 years.

Review by Nick Walker

Related articles

Entrepreneurs Never Leave Their Comfort Zone

One of the biggest impediments to starting a new venture is the “terror barrier,” as popularized by Bob Proctor, a 75-year-old millionaire and world renowned entrepreneur. This is the imaginary barrier that always seems to appear at the critical point where we would step out ahead of peers or competitors, but fear causes us to stop short.

Everyone has a comfort zone, or level of risk, where they feel in control. The problem is that if you stay in that comfort zone too long, you don’t learn and achieve new objectives. According to Bob, all growth takes place outside that comfort zone, and the edge of that zone is called the terror barrier.

If you want to be an entrepreneur and start a new business, you must be willing and able to break through your terror barrier. If you hope to succeed with any real “new” opportunity, you must be willing to learn new skills, set high goals, and get out of your comfort zone.

Overcoming the terror barrier requires first a passion for the new dream, willingness to take a risk, and determination to never quit. In addition, it helps to have a few specific strategies, outlined by Ingunn Aursnes a while back, to help you push through:

  1. Reconfirm how you have dealt successfully before with terror barriers. Everyone has had to deal with terror barriers, since the day you were born. Convince yourself that this one is only incrementally larger, not a huge jump. Contemplate the things that have worked before for you, and things that cause you to go off track.Some people procrastinate, make excuses, or feel real fear. We all have our “security blanket,” like sessions with a trusted friend, classroom training, or prayers to reduce the pain and keep us moving forward.
  2. Set specific goals, rather than rely on a generic dream. Make the goal increments small, so you can see yourself making each step, rather than face a step the size of a mountain. Create a picture in your mind of you achieving your end result, like you getting a Nobel prizefor curing cancer, or relaxing on a beach with no more money worries.Then write down and prioritize your goals. If they are not written down, they don’t exist and it’s easy to forget the real meaning behind them. But don’t be overwhelmed working out the details and all the steps required just now. Work on one step at a time.
  3. Take the first step toward your first goal. You never get anywhere until you start. It doesn’t have to be a big step, but it has to be in the right direction. Put a stake in the ground, and start measuring how far you have gone. Remember that everyone takes one step backward for every two steps forward, so setbacks are normal bumps.Everyone learns more from failures than from successes. Moving forward, accomplishing goals, is a process rather than a continuous motion. After the first step, the second is easier, and after the first goal gives you confidence, the second will be easier.
  4. Recognize the terror barrier and see it as a growth opportunity.Take satisfaction in widening your comfort zone, the opportunity to learn, and the progress toward your goals. Use your mentor or support organizationto get you over the hurdle, and celebrate the success.For team members, don’t forget your responsibility to help other members over their terror barriers. Helping others is the best way to forget your own fears and build the satisfaction of leadership as well as learning.
  5. Iterate the process, picking up confidence and momentum along the way. The more you persevere and keep moving in the direction of your goal, the easier it will seem and the better the results you will achieve. Even if the terror barriers get tougher, they will seem easier as momentum helps you achieve more of your goals.

People who avoid facing the terror barrier, or who back away easily, are actually falling behind, and they will quickly become less confident, less determined, and less happy. You want the spiral to go the other way, toward greater levels of success, ability to achieve greater goals, and to be a successful entrepreneur. Follow these steps and put your terror barriers behind you.

Martin Zwilling Martin Zwilling, Forbes Contributor

I provide pragmatic advice and services to entrepreneurs and startups.

+ Follow on Forbes

Newscribe : get free news in real time

%d bloggers like this: