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Meeting Valerie Lim feels like catching up with an old friend you haven’t seen in a long time. We exchange hellos and are lost in conversation moments into meeting. This ex-hockey player turned President of SMU Windsurfing had never sailed before SMU, and joined the sport for the challenge of a new experience.

“At the start, windsurfing is like dancing on water, you have to be one with the sail. What comes after? Playing chess on water.” Valerie explains the steep learning curve that beginners have to climb. Beyond physical challenges like balancing on the board and manoeuvring the sail, windsurfers have to be quick to adapt to the constantly changing natural elements and in using this as an advantage against opponents.

A strong support system

It’s her second year in SMU, but Valerie has quickly risen from one of the youngest players to president. She is fearless. “I’m fortunate to have a supportive alumni and seniors whom I can go to for advice. Their generosity with their wealth of experience is always reassuring.”

Earlier, just weeks into her presidency, Valerie was posed with a difficult decision that involved numerous stakeholders and lots of moving parts. Naturally, she turned to the alumni for their advice. “Everyone came back to me with differing opinions, and with good reason behind each rationale. I felt conflicted, until an alumnus advised me that his decision might not be the best, and I should listen to my inner voice and trust my instincts.”

Standing firm in decisions

Friendly as she is, Valerie believes it is important to be relatable to everyone, but to also know when lines must be drawn. She constantly reminds herself that a leader must not be easily influenced, but be firm with decisions. “As a leader, many people look to you for guidance. Once a decision has been made, you have to project confidence in order for others to trust and follow your lead.”

Valerie’s firm leadership is especially clear in the way that she prepares the team for competition. “I make sure that I understand the team’s strengths and weaknesses, so that I can discuss strategy with each member prior to the race, build up confidence, and most of all, let each member know that someone else understands the competition and has their back.”

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Leadership lessons

Outside of competition, Valerie devotes the same attention to each team member’s welfare. “Understanding your team well allows you to give them the right motivation, support them in ways that matter, and build strong relationships that are based on trust and respect. From our day-to-day conversations, I try my best to find out what their interests are, and what drives them, so that I can align the team’s agenda with each member’s goals.”

When asked about the challenges of leadership, Valerie is quick to highlight two key lessons. “A leader must know all stakeholders and ensure that every concern is addressed. This moves everyone forward, efficiently and without miscommunication.” “It is also important to keep a strong front,” she remarks thoughtfully, “when a team member loses a race, I encourage them to learn from mistakes and keep looking forward. When I lose a race, even though I feel terrible, I have to set a good example as leader and walk the talk, put up a strong front, and continue motivating the team.”