Interview with David Lim

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“Once I knew that life would not be the same again after my disabilities, I wanted to push the envelope – to see what a partially disabled climber can do, with minimal support.” David Lim

David Lim is best known for leading the landmark 1st Singapore Everest Expedition in 1998 (as well as the second in 2001). Partially disabled from Guillian-Barre Syndrome, a devastating rare nerve disorder since 1998, his comeback story of overcoming the odds made the cover of the Readers Digest magazine in 2001, and has since been translated into eight languages. Since 1999, David has been a sought-after leadership coach, with expertise in motivational and negotiation skills, and, building high performing teams. David has a B.A. in Law from Cambridge University and has delivered more than 600 motivational keynotes and team improvement solutions in 25 countries and 50 cities, and is the first (and only) Singaporean to earn professional speaking’s highest credential, the Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) designation. We had the privilege of interviewing David Lim for this issue to find out his views about leadership in today’s world.

Today there are many people who teach about leadership, motivation, overcoming obstacles etc. – what makes your message unique?
Many leadership experts are book learned, academics – and they sometimes produce very insightful pieces of research about human behaviour in the leadership field. Other experts are experts by experience, but often limited to a narrow domain field. My message is unique as I combine both my personal experiences as a leader over 70 ascents and expeditions; and what the latest research in human behaviour is showing us about leading self and others. And, I can transfer that knowledge in a way that makes people want to take action. Many of my clients have emphasised how important authenticity and real-time experience is in their decisions in getting external help in a change management, teamwork solution or motivational skills requirement.

Is it possible to be a great leader without facing adversity?
I think it’s highly unlikely, as it is adversity that tests a person’s character, as well as practices and ideas. Adversity is also humbling and compels people to reinvent, reframe and refresh their minds, teams and beliefs ; hopefully, for the better.

What is it that makes some people leaders and others followers?
To be a good leader, I think you may need to have followed someone, sometime in the past. A great contributor is someone who knows when to follow and when to take the lead. In some cases, some prefer to take the lead more often than others. But leading is always a risk. You risk failure (or worse), and have to constantly work on goals while building trust between yourself and the key contributors in your team. You are all at once a goal-setter, and professional hope-giver as a leader.

Do you think that leadership is an innate quality?
Leadership is learned. That being said, some are born more easily into that role for a whole variety of cultural, familial and contextual situations. But essentially, anyone can learn how to lead better. Whether or not they choose to is measured by other metrics like propensity to take risks, ability to operate with imperfect information; an ability to create an environment that motivates others, and most importantly, manage one’s emotional states on this journey.

Is there anyone in your life who’s been an example to you or inspired you to become the person that you are today?
I owe who I am today to many people who gave me hope when I had little, who inspired me to believe I could be more than what I thought I was – and these include my father, great mountaineers and friends like the late Rob Hall, Sir Chris Bonington, as well as my wife Maureen who constantly reminds me that change can be good.

What are some of the key lessons from Everest that you can you bring to the work environment in terms of motivation to not quit when the going gets tough.
I look at the concept of ‘sunk cost’ often, and if you’ve invested so much to climb a mountain, remindng yourself of this fact can help drag one out of a temporary period of sadness or discouragement, and apply what you know and can do – to climb to the top. Another concept is social support – many would not have made the summit without strong companions on the journey who encouraged and sometimes, kicked our butts when it was needed.

How is “resilience” a vital element for today’s business leaders?
Absolutely. Your success in life is largely dependent on your ability to weather adversity and bounce back from rejection, failures, encounters with bozos and such irritants and setbacks.

What do leaders today have to do to get people to trust them?
Do what you said you would do. Share your thoughts about actions that will impact the whole group or team. Discuss matters of universal importance with a view of taking on board all views, but not necessarily deciding on just one narrow set of views. Be accountable for your actions, and for goodness, say “I am sorry” or “I don’t know” when it needs to be said. Don’t speak through a PR expert or spin doctor.

“In Everesting, it seems more and more people want to get to the top without investing in a long and often rewarding apprenticeship in mountaineering.” Could the same be said today of many young people who are aspiring to become leaders in business?
An interesting piece of research by Walter Frick in Harvard Business Review showed that a large percentage of startup companies’ CEO’s average age was about 31 – not exactly what the media often suggests; so even at the startup level it seems that many leaders have served at least some kind of apprenticeship somewhere. For Everest, total neophytes have succeeded in reaching the top with enough luck, Sherpa support, professional guides, bottled oxygen and whole host of aids; this does not mean they are anywhere close to an “expert” mountaineer. Essentially, an apprenticeship involving the honing of judgment about external forces, people, and skill acquisition serves the same purpose in business as it does in mountaineering.

You’ve said “I dislike people with overly strong fixations about a peak or a route; who are lazy on a mountain, and who don’t look out for their mates, and who don’t share the camp and cleaning chores.” If you have people like this on a team, what’s the best way of dealing with them – for the sake of the team’s success?
The operative word is “if”. If you already have such people, either you or someone else made a bad mistake of including them on the team. But if you have them, the best way to manage these people is to have fierce dialogues with them i.e. intense conversations about the matters of concern for both of you regarding how you will work together with such diametrically opposed values or character traits. In the corporate world, a combination of coaching and communication can work. But beyond a certain point, for the good of the greater team, either they leave, you leave, or you fire them from the team. Both of you will be so much better off, and I think more bosses should use the 3rd option more often.

This article was published in the Jul-Sept 2015 issue of Inspire Magazine. Download it here!