I Attended Exclusive Sessions with World Leaders And Collected These 19 Lessons on Leadership

During the Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations 2021 (HPAIR), I had the opportunity of listening to keynote speeches, fireside conversations, and panel discussions of tens of influential figures and world leaders. As a higher tier delegate, I even got the chance to be part of smaller executive seminars and heard personal stories of many of those figures. Out of the many wonderful takeaways, since leadership and leadership development is a key skill I want you to develop and be informed about, I’ve decided to share those spectacular learnings with you so you can accelerate your leadership journey.

HPAIR executive seminar
Executive Seminar with Julian Tse

1. Passion

Leaders who are passionate about the role they have and go the extra mile in pulling it off successfully and trying to evolve themselves go a long way. Additional to that, leadership that is accompanied by a cause that the leader and their team is passionate about is another major plus. Your passions should guide you towards a bigger picture while you also seek goodness in the little things that come by. Through passion, you can also connect the effectiveness and need for ‘servant leadership’, as Kevin Sneader (Global managing director of McKinsey & Company) calls it. For good leadership to sustain, it must serve those whom it impacts. Gone are the days where fascist and dictatorial leaders sustain.

2. Vision and Mission

Great leaders are able to ensure that they do justice to their passions by converting it into a vision and mission for themselves and their team to follow. Without a vision and mission, an attempt to lead would be like shooting an arrow into the void. Almost every speaker at the Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations (HPAIR) recommended the adoption of a vision and mission in leadership so you should too.

3. Situational Adaptation and Contextual Application

Kevin Sneader further reminds us that there is no single framework of leadership that can be followed everywhere as the actions and perspectives that need to be taken into account differ as per the situation and context. Having studied Business in high school and now pursuing International Studies (politics and its cousins), I fully understand how different contexts shape leadership differently. To be a good leader whose leadership is valued constantly and not just sometimes, you should know when to do what tailored to the scenarios at hand.

4. Taking Initiative

Only dead fish go with the flow. Leaders are confident individuals that go the extra mile to make sure their goals are achieved and are done so mutually with the goals of the team.

mohammad amaan siddiqui trainer crescent english high school
A picture from a training session I gave to educators

5. Confidence

Self-doubt inhibits action. Corresponding to the previous characteristic, leaders are also confident individuals who are not afraid to voice how they feel and do what they think is right. However, while you adopt this thought, know that it should not be confused with being rude, uncompromising, or egoistic. To be an effective and confident leader, you should know where to draw the line.

6. Integrity and Ownership

Many of the speakers gave emphasis on integrity as a good characteristic of leadership when asked about the values they look for in their hiring process. Good leaders can authentically represent themselves and prove worthy without having to craft a new personality. Their sense of ownership allows them to maintain good relationships with others, and more importantly- with themselves. Ownership is an important characters for success in any field and not just leadership as it will allow you to craft authentic interpretations of internal and external factors that contribute to your successes and failures and the next steps that you should take.

7. Tolerance

In today’s world, a dictatorial rule sprinkled with punishments does not sustain in the long run. Good leaders show tolerance parallel to mentoring, calling out, feedback, etc. The only intolerance you should have as a good leader should be intolerance towards intolerance so that your environment can remain tolerant, e.g., opposing discriminatory ideas to keep your team inclusive and safe.

I saw this characteristic be exercised by a group of people in a group chat. An individual had messaged a few others privately with harassing messages and stalker-like behaviour. Many group members immediately stood up for each other and messaged the perpetrator privately with strong warnings. A group of tolerant and budding leaders had to show intolerance to continue maintaining a safe environment.

8. Ability to Deal with Rejection

Apart from being able to say ‘no’ at the correct times, leaders also have the strength and adequate back up plans to deal with being said ‘no’ to.

At HPAIR, many speakers emphasised on this by recommending budding leaders to have back up plans that they can fall back on in case the first one doesn’t work out. Additionally, the co-founder and inventor of Siri, Adam Cheyer, said that life is like a book and is comprised of different chapters. Each chapter is a different stage in life and the transitions between them can be beautiful but also daunting. Yet, what is important is your perseverance and ability to embrace change.

9. Mindsets and Empowerment

To be an empowering leader, you should break out of any boundaries that you might create for yourself by adopting a growth mindset and not a fixed mindset. Additionally, you should also have the mindset to develop and exercise the other skills mentioned in this post. That way, you also create an environment inductive of those learnings in your team members therefore being empowering.

empowering growth mindset

10. Ability to Show Love

The founder of Radii, Brian Wong, laid down a ‘Leadership Quotient’ as the sum of Emotional Intelligence, Intelligence Quotient, and also, Love Quotient. Impactful leaders create a warm and comfortable environment around them with compassion and kindness. Adopting this equation to your leadership quotient will make you even more effective.

Reflecting after a recent big project of mine where I found certain areas with scope for improvement, a Coursera course on ‘Leadership and Emotional intelligence’, and learnings at HPAIR helped me realize that while my emotional intelligence and IQ employed may have been great, developing a more compassionate environment would have produced much better results.

11. Good Listening Skills

The primary mindset you need to work towards good listening skills is to listen to understand the speaker instead of listening to respond. Don’t plan your replies before the speaker is done. Focus on trying to empathise with them, and then respond accordingly when they’re done.

12. Collaborative and Considerate of all those in the Team

To be considerate of the team, you need to know what’s there to consider. For that, the previously mentioned good listening skills play a major role. As you find out what to consider, being considerate and collaborative is an easy decision you can make. To start off, it may take time and practice but the growth mindset has taught us that it is not impossible!

Of course, I understand that being a good leader does not mean the same as being a yes-person (someone who fulfils ALL requests). Being considerate and being a good listener enables you to deny and modify proposed ideas in a manner that won’t offend your team which would likely have been the case if you did not have those skills. Sometimes, more important than the message is the style in which it is delivered.

13. Ability to Find Common Ground

Hari Nair, the Vice President of Procter&Gamble presented 5 principles of borderless leadership. One of the five characteristics was “the ability to find common ground.” He also mentioned that despite all the diversities, people inherently have very similar needs and wants. One of the tasks of a leader is to find those similar needs and wants to create a sense of community in their group. In most simple settings, the common ground can be found by addressing elements of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Even then, you should remember the third lesson from this post (contextual application) and be prepared to understand the situation instead of attempting to apply the same framework everywhere.

14. Inclusive

To be an inclusive, approachable, and 21-st century adaptable leader, you need to be inclusive and judge people for controllable factors like what they bring to the table and can bring to the table instead of uncontrollable factors like their gender, ethnicity, and identity. Even semi-controllable factors irrelevant to the cause and goals of the team like physical appearance should not be taken into account.

Some worrying statistics:

  • Weight bias: According to Business Insider, “A difference of about 64 pounds translates to a 9 [percent] decrease in wages […]”
  • Makeup bias: Over 67% of employers in above survey said they would be less likely to hire a female applicant without makeup as opposed to one wearing makeup to the interview.

If you end up in the corporate world, your goal should be to make sure you don’t account for that 67% or be responsible for the mentioned wage gap.


15. Deliver Wins

Hari Nair also listed “deliver wins” as one of the principles of borderless leadership. Your wins don’t have to be successfully beating major world records or reforming the United Nations. Small wins are still wins. And as long as those wins have brought more value than any mishaps, you’re good to go! P.S. don’t use this as an excuse to avoid proactively working on rectifying the mishaps.

16. Resilience

Janice Lao, the ESG director spoke at length on why she did not give up on her dream to be an environmental scientist in a world where women in STEM were few and were not regarded. Ms. Yang Lan spoke about how she tested her boundaries and forged her career. Instead of feeling intimidated in the world of gender biases. Citing these, among many other examples, a delegate – Lorinda Adu-Gyamfi from Ghana says that HPAIR2021 taught her to “be the architect of her own life.”

Janice Lao also talked about her experiences in life as an Asian. Something a lot of us can relate to, is how we are always taught to “respect our elders.” Many times, this also translates as “never disagree with your elders.” While I’m not here to discuss the validity of this claim, what Janice and I can tell you is that it affects our ability to disagree with people who are hierarchically senior to us. The ideology has its effects both ways. This means that even elders or people in senior positions may sometimes dismiss the opinions of a junior if they are opposing. Despite this, she was determined to work a way around this instead of giving up to the thought of not being able to persuade others. Without resilience, she would have put an immediate full-stop at her career. The next point will teach you how she worked around this!

17. Gentle Persuasion

To bypass the difficulties created by this belief, you have to once again employ the idea that “more important than the message is sometimes is its delivery.” This is where the art of gentle persuasion comes in. Instead of being directly opposing, which will trigger decades of upbringing and even an emotional defensive response, you can get your points across by asking carefully crafted questions that will direct them to your point or ease them into the bomb you’re going to drop ahead.

I can actually relate to this from one of my recent roles. As I mentioned earlier, I did a course on Leadership and Emotional Intelligence. While employing what I learned, as my role of content director for a blog post prompt, instead of outright disagreeing with certain ideas my team had, I asked them questions like “what will the readers take away if we adopt that style?”, “how do we effectively segue into the next item if we mention that here?”, etc. and it helped bring changes while keeping the atmosphere calm and considerate.

There is yet another important value embedded in the adaptation to the difficulty of belief and persuasion.

18. Reflection

Bonus point! Even though Julian Tse and I talked about this quite a bit. I guess it went without saying for the qualified atmosphere at HPAIR, but reflections are a very important part of success in any field of life, not just leadership. Starting from HPAIR itself, if a delegate e-walks out of the conference without reflecting even a little bit on what they’ve learned and how they can apply it, their chances of retaining the value in a few weeks are minimal.

But even beyond that, reflecting over your successes and failures gives you a better idea of why the glass was half empty, or why it had water in it, what you can do to add water to it, and lastly- how you can make sure that the glass remains full, and yet another bonus- how you can learn to fill different types of glasses.

journaling and reflection

19. Deliver on promises

Bonus point. I mentioned in my previous post that I’d be sharing a collection of leadership lessons from HPAIR soon and here you are reading this. To be a good leader, you must keep your impulses at Bay, make meaningful commitments and deliver on them.

If you’ve attended HPAIR, what were some of your leadership development takeaways? And, if you didn’t attend HPAIR, which one of these do you want to start applying first, and what other lessons or personal examples do you have that you can share? Drop them in the comments! I’d love to read what you think.

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