Peace keeps you centred. Our Co-Founder, Kane Fitzgerald, taught me about quiet confidence, and we’ve made it a core value at RefMasters. We are all drawn to those with a certain calm, and referees must be great at tuning out the noise. It comes from focusing on the present, ignoring the uncontrollable and seeing challenges as opportunities.

We are living in the Renaissance of Work. Just like great artists know that an empty canvas can become anything, great leaders know that an entire organization — and the people inside it — can become anything, too. Master Artists and Mastering the Art of Leadership draw from the same source: creation. In this series, we’ll meet masters who are creating the future of work and painting a portrait of lasting leadership.

As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Sony Tiwari.

Sony Tiwari is the CEO and Co-Founder of RefMasters, a SportsTech company that has built the premier social and educational platform around the rules of the game. He began his career in higher education, first as a music professor and later as a leader in economic and community development. Since then, he has helped develop talent and culture in several high-growth SaaS companies across Industrial Supply Chain, Real Estate, Data Governance and FinTech. His workbook ‘The Art and Science of OKRs’ has been used by teams worldwide, and Sony is frequently invited to consult companies on their goal-setting programs.

Thank you for joining us. Our readers would enjoy discovering something interesting about you. What are you in the middle of right now that you’re excited about personally or professionally?

I’m so fortunate to have recently joined RefMasters as Co-Founder and CEO. We’ve built a social and educational platform to elevate referees while teaching the game to coaches, players, and fans.

The entire world of sport is facing a referee gap. Games and sometimes whole seasons are being cancelled. Our mission is to bridge this gap through education, community, and the ability to match the perfect referee for each game. Combining virtual reality-based referee education and a roster of pro-officials across multiple sports, we can grow the talent pool through immersive experiences and world-class expertise.

Early traction is promising. Our app on Google Play and the Apple Store continues to grow monthly, and we’re already meeting with professional sports leagues interested in partnering with us. It only takes a little for the idea to click with people. I’ve previously had roles that were quite challenging to explain to my family.

With RefMasters the idea is simple, and the need is obvious. Sometimes, you’ve got a great solution to a problem that isn’t real. This is the total opposite.

Our team is tightly knit, and everyone is world-class at what they do. Two of the Co-Founders have been officiating NBA basketball for over a dozen years; the other is a serial tech entrepreneur. They are all leaders, and I love learning from them.

We all get by with a little help from our friends. Who is the leader that has influenced you the most, and how?

I studied musical conducting in college, and my mentor is someone we all lovingly call “Doc.” Conducting is the ultimate leadership role. You combine gut instincts, deep intellectual understanding, and the ability to relate with others to bring the abstract into existence. You don’t produce the sound, but you manage the vision and work with others to help shape that vision. Great conductors invite ensemble members to bring their own artistry to the work.

Doc can only do that because he spends many more hours studying the most minor details than everyone else. That type of obsession is incredible but understandable. As a conductor, you are front and center, and your level of responsibility is asymmetric from the rest of the ensemble.

As the founder or executive, you must manage this imbalance between the weight of your ownership and those around you. Being a fountain of energy without boiling over is tricky. Doc told me in his office once, “I take my work seriously, but not myself.” I’ve come up short many times, but that is a lesson in humility that I try to apply daily.

Sometimes, our biggest mistakes lead to our biggest discoveries. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a leader, and what did you discover as a result?

Not realizing that at the highest levels of leadership, you are tethered to everything and everyone. I recall an instance where I brushed aside a situation because the person wasn’t in my department. The CEO looked at me like a disappointed parent and said, “They are all your people.” Maybe I thought that abstractly, but the reality and the implications of it had not washed over me until that moment. Simon Sinek talks about pivoting away from being in charge to thinking of those in your charge. I wish I had learned it sooner, but sometimes you must go through the fire for things to meld with you.

How has your definition of leadership changed or evolved over time? What does it mean to be a leader now?

I used to believe leaders were primarily defined by the knowledge they possess. They read books and memorize information. But these days, our knowledge is externalized. ChatGPT could perform this interview quicker and with more polish than me. But ChatGPT can’t do my job; it can’t be a human being. That’s what leaders are today. They drive progress through what they don’t know. They ask questions not just to fill a knowledge gap but to unleash the power of a question to move a person or inspire a group.

In one of my favourite movies, City of Angels, Nicolas Cage asks Meg Ryan what a pear tastes like. “Describe it like Hemingway,” he instructs. She proceeds to explain a pear’s taste in detail. Suddenly self-conscious, she says, “You don’t know what a pear tastes like?” “I don’t know what a pear tastes like to you,” he responds. That level of curiosity and care is so moving. ChatGPT could never make a person feel the way a perfectly timed question can.

So, being a leader today is about asking questions. But then again, some great leaders of the past were intensely curious, too. Perhaps it’s coming full circle. Because of the proliferation of knowledge, we are revisiting a time when leaders have the best questions, not the best answers.

Success is as often as much about what we stop as what we start. What is one legacy leadership behavior you stopped because you discovered it was no longer valuable or relevant?

I used to project 24/7 availability to the teams I worked on. I was responding to emails at all hours of the day, making time early and late to meet. My intentions were primarily noble: to show my commitment to others and our goals. But I realized over time that the desire to be “always on” was partly fuelled by my ego, putting undue pressure on others.

Many people you partner with only want to be on some of the time. They aren’t as obsessed with work; they have other priorities. And that’s okay; in fact, it’s admirable. I mostly only communicate with colleagues during regular business hours. They don’t need to know if I work at 2 a.m. or spend Saturday afternoon at my laptop. They need space, and it’s better to reinforce the value of truly living life, however that might look for them.

What is one lasting leadership behavior you started or are cultivating because you believe it is valuable or relevant?

I’m trying to shrink things down radically. It’s easy to make things complex. Simple is hard. It’s about asking, “How do I reduce something to its essence?” In music theory, there is this idea of the fundamental form in a song; the Germans call it “Grungestalt.” I’m always looking for the idea’s purest, most straightforward version, down to an indivisible unit.

Have you ever worked hard on a project and shared it with leadership, only to have your work bent and twisted in so many complex shapes that your head hurts? I’ve been on both ends of that table.

I spent a lot of time earlier in my career trying to add details, processes, layers, flourishes, and ideas with my particular flavor. Now, I look to see what could be taken away. Stripping something down is challenging, but you know whatever’s left is potent. This aggressive preference for clarity has an exponential impact as ideas travel between increasingly larger groups of people.

What advice would you offer to other leaders who are stuck in past playbooks and patterns and may be having a hard time letting go of what made them successful in the past?

I would advise in the form of a question: Are you playing a finite or infinite game? Finite games have a clearly defined endpoint with winners and losers. In an infinite game, everyone is working to keep the game going. Leaders and organizations can run into trouble playing a finite game where the game of business is an infinite game that will outlast every company in existence. Choosing between an infinite and finite game is a matter of a focus obsessed with your vision, who you are and how you show up.

You may have felt like you were playing a finite game to ascend in your career. But being a leader means not playing to “win” or “beat the competition.” That is myopic. Instead, you’re constantly pivoting and advancing to continue the play in all its different forms. That shifts your mindset from immediate self-interest to the bigger picture. Follow that line of thought, and the old playbooks suddenly seem old.

Many of our readers can relate to the challenge of leading people for the first time. What advice would you offer to new and emerging leaders?

Your leadership ability comes down to your best and worst 3–4 traits. Most of the middle is noise. The higher you ascend, the less it needs to become. Otherwise, you will be overwhelmed and ineffectual.

You’re leading peoples’ perceptions, which are flawed for better or worse. We aren’t stenographers, noting every single action and word. When theme park goers are surveyed on their experience, the result is a composite of the high, low, and most recent points. It’s not an average of the entire experience by hour. Our memory is weighted, and we experience relationships similarly.

Apply the Pareto Principle here: 20% of your work will produce 80% of the results. In that 20% is your very best and very worst. Who you are as a leader comes down to your 3–4 things. Lead with the very best you have to offer, and make sure you have people who can point out the things you don’t do well because you have plenty of them.

Your true playing field, the 20% that really matters, exists in three tiers: the person who manages you, the colleagues at your level and the people who report to you. Every leader naturally inclines towards 1 or 2 of these, and preference for one comes at the expense of the others. Think about it: focus too much on being there for your reports, and your manager will feel like you are overprotecting them. Focus too much on your manager; your reports will feel you don’t have their back. Focus on your colleagues, and you risk being seen as lazy by the other two groups.

It’s not about a perfect balance of the three, that is, “have it all”; thinking that usually will not pan out. It should be a choice based on your 3–4 best and worst traits. Ask yourself if the mix you’ve settled on is because the team needs it or because it’s your comfort zone. Your comfort zone is a straight path to more of the same. Leading outside the comfort zone means making tough decisions that will result in others disliking you. Sometimes for good reason, too!

You can’t have it all, so be strategic. If you’re too focused on everyone liking you, you’ve probably turned your strengths into weaknesses. If you are experiencing conflict with someone, does it have a productive point? Or is it just your frustration? Use both your best and worst 3–4 traits wisely!

Based on your experience or research, what are the top five traits effective leaders exemplify now?

  • It all starts with love, as long as it’s authentic and not put on. It might be love for the people around you, the problem you’re solving or what you’re building. Love is a choice. If you don’t love the mountain you’re climbing, the universe will self-select for someone else who does. Very few people want to follow a martyr.
  • Joy is contagious. Have you ever met someone who emanated joyfulness and said to yourself, “Geez, I hate being around this person?” Me neither.
  • Peace keeps you centred. Our Co-Founder, Kane Fitzgerald, taught me about quiet confidence, and we’ve made it a core value at RefMasters. We are all drawn to those with a certain calm, and referees must be great at tuning out the noise. It comes from focusing on the present, ignoring the uncontrollable and seeing challenges as opportunities.
  • Generosity helps you scale. The highest form of generosity doesn’t involve our pockets but our perspective, seeing people in the best possible light and offering them grace towards their words and actions. It’s easy with people we like. But can you step back from a difficult interaction and avoid assuming negative intent? Can you understand why a person is acting or speaking in a way you wouldn’t?
  • Self-control is your foundation. Remember, we said earlier, that peoples’ memories are weighted. One dreadful moment can erase a dozen good ones. Can you refrain from harmful tendencies, like being sarcastic or reacting too quickly to critique? Do you gossip or joke about others when they aren’t in the room? You may tell yourself that it’s just to vent or build camaraderie. But remember, when you decide to lead, you are putting other’s well-being in your hands. Live for your purpose rather than for pleasure.

American Basketball Coach John Wooden said, “Make each day your masterpiece.” How do you embody that quote?

I have always been drawn to the arts and great works of music, literature, and painting. One through-line is that often, masterpieces are born from intense turmoil. Beethoven went deaf, Dickens was stunningly poor, and Kahlo struggled with the guilt of surviving a bus accident.

Life is a struggle, and that’s okay. Conflict creates the tension from which creativity springs forth. I appreciate that part of the process. Sometimes, I get too carried away with the beauty of an idea, but fortunately, I’m surrounded by a great team that keeps me in line!

What is the legacy you aspire to leave as a leader?

My Father always said to leave things better than how you find them. He would clean the table at Taco Bell better than the employees did! I apply the same concept in my life. It’s why I am thrilled to be working with RefMasters. We’re changing the way people view something they truly love. Every day, I see evidence of the shift taking place. Being some small part of it is humbling. And exciting! We are moving the needle in how people play and experience their favourite sport.

How can our readers connect with you to continue the conversation?

It makes my day to connect with people on Instagram, Twitter or email.

You can also view our work on the RefMasters app, which is available for sports officials, coaches, players, and fans on Google Play and the Apple Store.

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!