Leadership Qualities You Need To Create A True Impact Sylvia Rohde-Liebenau


How do you create a true impact in your life? Resilience and embodiment. The show's guest today is Sylvia Rohde-Liebenau, the Founder and Executive coach of Connect4impact. Sylvia talks with Tony Martignetti about how when you build empathy for yourself, you pay attention to your body and understand your inner state. In doing so, you're better able to have empathy with others and understand their inner turmoil. Listen to this episode to create a true impact!


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Leadership Qualities You Need To Create A True Impact Sylvia Rohde-Liebenau

It is my honor to introduce my guest, Sylvia Rohde-Liebenau. Sylvia is a real blessing to be on the show. Sylvia is a leadership expert, coach, artist and dancer. She has worked on leadership and change since university and throughout her career in International Relations on social and civic action and within organizations in their management systems. As a corporate HR leader, she has been known as innovator leading initiatives in many areas, including leadership, coaching and mentoring and organizational health. As a coach, she helps leaders bring out their vision and unique qualities to create a true impact. As an artist and dancer, she brings a unique and powerful approach to emotional and body intelligence and its practical applications for leaders. She lives in Luxembourg. It's the first time on the show for somebody from Luxembourg. She has two teenage daughters that she absolutely adores, as well as the husband and the dog. I want to welcome you to the Virtual Campfire, Sylvia.

Tony, how wonderful. Thank you. I'm thrilled to be here. Let's roll.

As we often do on the show, we have this ambiance of the campfire. It's great to be able to share stories and dig into people. How they got to where they are now and making the impact they are making. We do this through what's called flashpoints. These are points in your story that ignited your gifts into the world. You have many gifts to offer. I know we're going to have a lot to share. I want you to share what you're called to share. We'll stop along the way and see what's showing up. With that, I'm going to turn it over to you.


Thank you, Tony. I shall start slightly different from your question of flashpoints. It just came to me, the thought that when I started out still at school and after school. What I always struggled with is, I had lots of different interests. In school, I did the brainy thing. I had ancient Greek. What I loved about that was the philosophy and understanding how human society and state work, reading Plato. I did a lot of dance and art. I was a painter and I studied art at school. I often felt like, “Am I this or that? Should I become an artist or should I study and become an academic?” That's what I was thinking of at that time. That has accompanied me for a long time. “Is it this or is it that?

What I found out during my life is it's completely possible to be several things at a time. It's a bit difficult because you can get confused. Everything that you do gives it a very personal enriched perspective rather than being only one thing. That is the context of who I am and where I come from. Thinking about flashpoints, the first one for me was when I did my PhD. I came from Political Science Security studies. There was this opportunity to have a scholarship, paid PhD, in Security Studies. At that time, I was getting more and more interested not in the guns and bullets part of it. More in the communication and soft power part of it.

I ended up doing my PhD on how the civil rights movements in the East and in the West collaborating together have influenced the governments, the state system. It has been a very important factor in bringing about change in the former Soviet and socialist countries and how that actually worked, how communication and collaboration work to change power realities. For me, that was a flashpoint because I realized you can innovate thinking in a field where people at first will think, “What is that? Where does she come from? What does she mean?” Make an impact where I have seen to my great delight is that book has been read and quoted a lot. It has made an impact on people's thinking about international relations and the working together between civil society and governments. For me, that was the first moment where I thought I could create counter-established thinking to make a difference in the world.

I love how you set it off in this element of seeing that you're being pulled into many different places and feeling as though, "Do I do this or do that. Why can't I have it all? Why can't I bring it all together?" I think a lot of people feel that struggle. This element of wanting to not have to choose, to be one thing or another. We all contain multitudes, as women said. That's a beautiful way to approach life. We are not in a box. We can create life on our own terms. When you approach this situation that you walked through, is thinking about it from the perspective of, “What do I stand for?” I stand for seeing that there's a way to approach these problems in a different way. My way, although at first people might see it as, "Why this person?” It could actually be seen as an approach that could be utilized.

Being several things at a time enriches what you do rather than being one thing. 

The fact that I was active in the arts, made me interested in what these people were doing. Many of these civil rights movement people were actually also active as artists or as writers. Take, for instance, Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia, who became the president. He was in the opposition movement and he was a writer. Many of these people came to the opposition from a different point of view of what it means to be human and to be in society. It's probably also this artist's view on things that helped me to say, “Maybe it's not only guns and bullets and state power. Maybe there's something else to it that is really powerful in social change.”

I’m going to ask a question before we get any further. Do you think that sometimes people get stuck in these places of thinking because they get programmed into thinking certain ways and they get stuck? Do you think that they've never seen another approach of looking at a problem? There's something about what you described. There's either not knowing a better way versus having an ill will to be able to create a better path. I'm thinking about how the experience you had in this world, was it more so that they couldn't get out of their own patterns?

I'm a believer in the perspective that our world is a constructed world. Also, from another angle of human beings, except for a few psychopaths or sociopaths, do not ever do something out of ill intent. Most people do things of the best will and understanding how the world works. When you are brought up in a certain system, you accepted that this is the way it works. People tell you that this is the state, does this and governments work like that. This is how the world is put together then that's how you will see the world. Unless you have people who offer you different perspectives, it's not so obvious to question that. Not because you're stupid but because you're mainly busy with other things that you want to figure out. You take these questions of how does society works or how do our relationships work. You don't take that as a humane puzzle. You just accept that this is what people have told you.

That's well said because I think what I was getting at is that we need sometimes a person to come in as a catalyst with a fresh perspective who can challenge the dogma on common thinking and give a new way of approaching a problem. It's no ill will. It's just that people get stuck and in the world that they're living. Let's get back into your story. I want to hear what revealed you into the world. Were there other moments that moved you?


The next one was probably when I almost finished my PhD. I got a job at the European Commission in Brussels. What I realized is, “Sylvia, you're not made for academic work. You're much more made for working with people in impractical situations.” I simply realized my brain would function better and I would write even better when I knew that this was for a very specific purpose and context. I was in dialogue with other people. That was for my personal pause that was very decisive. My intention was to have an academic career. I realized, “I can do that but it doesn't make me happy.” I'm actually better than when I'm in an active and more directly purposeful context. That was, for me, a very important point. At the commission, I learned something else, which for me, has influenced the way that I see leadership. You don't have to be the content master of things to be successful but you have to be a collaborator. What happened in that was it was in a development corporation and they gave me the telecom sector to manage. Neither was I particularly interested in telecoms at that stage nor did I know a lot about it. How do you make that work? I had to learn something. I didn't start by reading books about it. I didn't have the internet at that time.

I was very open to collaborating with our colleagues from the Director-General of the commission that was responsible for telecoms and technology. That was being criticized a little bit or sometimes much at the beginning by my own hierarchy. Being in an institution, they felt this is our domain. If Sylvia collaborates, that might open the door for these other colleagues to hide, like “What are we doing?” They learned by collaborating, we would finally be successful in that area. We were working with foreign governments, partnering with the World Bank, which was much better staffed than we were, had more people on the ground and etc. Without our colleagues from DG Telecoms, we were not fit to do it. For me, that was a huge learning. I did not know the subject but I was responsible for managing something. How do you do that? You open up and collaborate. You also have to let people in and have them share a piece of the cake. That was, for me, a very important and formative experience.

It's something about this that you're sharing that gets me thinking about how a lot of organizations and especially governmental organizations can construct. They want to have control. They want to have the ability to govern in a way that says, “We know how we're going to do things. We want to make sure we structure things in our own fashion.” When you start to collaborate, you're letting go of control. You're giving freedom away to other people to have an opinion. This role that you took on was probably a scary role. First of all, scary because you didn't know the industry. You didn't know the players. You were put in the center of it gives a focal point, if you will, of this issue.

Maybe it's the benefit of being young. I want to make this work. There's no fear than like, “How do I do this?” Since I was pretty young, I finished my PhD. In my first real job, I was keen on making this work. I thought it was completely fascinating. Also because I knew so little about it. Therefore, I was also in the mood of “teach me” with my colleagues. The teach me and listening mode is actually something that is a great leadership quality. Never thought about it in this way. That also encourages other people to share with you and to be generous.

That right there is an insight that is important for us to share. There's an element of being open and humble. When you're young and you’re getting things started, as long as you can show up and bring yourself into the room in a comfortable way and not be bulldozed over by other people, you can be open to listening and being taught. There's something about it that you can take it in and integrate into a bigger picture. Thank you so much for sharing that. Now let's move on to what happens next. Now, I know there's much more. You moved from this world into other bigger worlds. What happened next?

The next thing that I learned was when I left the commission after five years to be on an even more practical side of a development corporation. I've worked for a consultancy where my leadership projects, for public sector reform. I was leading the sector. Bit by bit, I got more interested in how does it work or why is it sometimes difficult for a government institution, a ministry of justice or the whole government to actually change? It's not because the people don't want to. I mean, the ill intent. It's not because they are too stupid for it or there are no books available to read about it. It's because the social interaction and the human factor are often working against it. When I observed that and realized it, I felt that I wanted to study that more. I went to study Organization Development. That brought me also to coaching. Part of my first organization development education included also a coaching element. For me, that set me on a road to study more the human factor in all human development. Not only the state, the government, the systems but the internal human factor and the communication relationships between people.

Do not ever do something out of ill-intent.

What I'm also seeing in your story is, at the core of everything is people. People are navigating through change. If you can understand what motivates people to change or to create change then you can see the bigger ecosystem that they live in and how to navigate the social construct of how that all happens. It sounds like this progression you've created is coming almost perfectly through all the different stages you've done. You've been on the front lines of being at the center point of trying to create change within a government organization. Eventually, now you're seeing, "I need to learn some different skills to really get at the core of how people change." Tell me more. What happens? Now that you've got into this world, what do you do with all this newfound knowledge?

To add from that angle of knowing it's actually about the people. I went into human resource management and leadership development and coaching. The most interesting experience for me, on the one hand, was supporting leadership teams. Being also part of the system myself. Seeing often, when people and leaders stop some innovation from happening, the discourse is normally about something that sounds very logical and very rational and very well-thought-through. That is understandable because of the level at which organizations have conversations. When you look under the surface, when you're working closely with people, you see that as often a very personal thing. “I don't work that way. My wife does something else.”

We had, for instance, a big debate with senior managers about having more diversity and supporting female careers. Some of the senior managers were visibly not comfortable with that. They brought all rational arguments, why we have to protect women, to take care of their children, etc. Underneath was often, interestingly, “My wife doesn't work and actually that is what I feel comfortable with. I don't want to have my personal lifestyle and word being questioned. If I started questioning that, I have to question myself." Just taking one example but there will be many other examples.

As a leader, you have to respond to the rational level. Be aware that there are other levels. Sometimes be very empathetic with that and caring and soft with that so you don't bulldoze over someone who is personally uncomfortable with something. See how they can relax about that on a personal level, while still having a rational dialogue. You would not say, “You have an issue with that because of your wife.” That would go down a completely blind alley if you wouldn't address that directly. You have to be empathetic with it because it's a human being. It's a fact that a person is uncomfortable. How do you help that person open up and relax about it?

This is making me think about how our environment shapes us. It’s because of that shaping and the past experiences and the things that we've been surrounded by. It's hard for people to come out of that and see something different. I think when you’re in an organization and you start to try to shape a different way of seeing things, you have to start getting people to realize that there's another world outside of what they've experienced. When you start to see that then they also have to realize they have to fundamentally change how they present themselves. Their internal landscape and their external landscape might have to come into congruence.

This congruence, sometimes incongruence, is what I realized then is often in the way of good leadership and unhealthy organizations. I created and led for a few years what we call Organizational Health, where I worked. It was both systemic works. We had created programs interventions to help the organization become healthier in its management systems and workplace behaviors. A little part of my job was also because of the coaching background that I was counseling staff members on specimens and managers on the work issues. A conflict, close to burnout, multiple conflicting objectives and people not knowing anymore where to put themselves. I realized it's very often when we become stressed and uncomfortable and misaligned with different values and needs that our system breaks down.


That can be a breakdown in the form of burnout. It can be behaviors that are no longer very skillful. It can be the manager that pushes through a certain agenda because they get stressed. It can be the manager who finds it difficult to have a sensitive approach with the difficult staff member because the manager himself or herself gets stressed. How do you help these people? It's really to relax and de-stress. That is where my focus came on building resilience, building the capacity for empathy with ourselves than for others and also the work with the body. All these stress factors in the end are manifest and build up in our bodies so that we can also access them again in our bodies.

I'm glad you got here. I was waiting for this moment to happen. We connect the dots to emotional and body intelligence. What I think about this is so interesting now you've finally come full circle. We were able to connect the life that your dance and art elements come in alignment with the thought that you can use it in your work as a coach. Tell me more. At this point, you're still working inside the organization. You're still working, not as a consultant but working inside of a company.

That was when we last spoke about the end of 2020. I have completed my work for the EIB. I'm fully concentrating on my coaching work, which is bliss.

This is the launch-off point where you've come to this place where you said, “Now this is a realization. The a-ha moment is this stuff is real and it's something I can use and bring to other people.” Tell me now about what is real for you in terms of bringing this stuff out to other people? What are you doing with that?

It's about merging my experience and capacity of skills in working on the analytical part. That's what most of my coaches have always told me. I helped them to see simplicity in complexity, to break it down to the most simple factors, to deconstruct, to simplify. That is my PhD part. There is the artist that brings in the resilience and embodiment part. I think it's the artist in the sense, even the painter because often, creativity doesn't come from the left brain. It always comes from the right brain. You can work a lot with the left brain. Where you step beyond what you already know comes from the right brain. That's what artists do. When I paint a picture, I don't know at the start or where I'm going and it emerges because I step fully into the creative process.

As a dancer, I know my body. I know the different expressions and the different impacts of different bodily movements and positions. Whereas, I don't dance with the people I work with. Sometimes, I do but mostly not because people walk and dance in the discotheque or they dance at a ball. They would not go and make a very expressive dancing especially when you ask them to dance. When they do it in their own home, they will feel completely comfortable with it. Dancing doesn't have to mean that you do a performance dance. It can mean that you use your body to be a smarter person, to be a calmer person. By using your body to find out what's going on inside you, you access more insights about yourself and your state and how you can manage that state. That will be a smarter and more effective and resilient person. You can also, by using your body, have a thinking process that leads you beyond what you can do with your left brain.

Build the capacity for empathy with ourselves and for others.

I've had the honor and the pleasure of experiencing this. You had done one of the demos of this during a session that I'd been part of. I was completely moved by how this works. I got to admit, it has to be experienced. I think it's your true gift that you're bringing it out to the world. I love that you're at this place where you're now bringing this to people. It’s based on years and years of experience integrating all the things you've learned and all the different practices you've been a part of. Thinking of integration, I want to ask a question where you look back on your journey. What are the lessons that you've really learned about yourself that you want to share with people? It might be repetitive to some of the things we've said but what do you think about your past that you want to reflect on, some lessons?

Let me start with the most difficult lesson that I got. It actually started in dance. It's a lesson about being truthful and being able to really follow the truth. The lesson that I learned at a time when I was married to my first husband. We were a super nice couple. Everyone envied and admired us. He's a lovely person. I knew somewhere deep down maybe this is a very nice and loving friendship but maybe we're not meant to be husband and wife together. Of course, when your husband is your best friend and he's a lovely person, you don't want to see that. You want me to stay with him, you have all your friends. All these reasons, we have to stay in a job or to stay in a marriage or to stay in a country when something in yourself knows that it's not the place for you but you don't move.

What happened was in one of my dance improvisation lessons at the time, we did close contact improvisation and partner dance. At a certain stage, our teacher said, “It's a yes or it's a no. There's nothing in between. It's true or it's false. It's like love.” At that moment, it really went like there's truth and there's falsity. There's truth and there's lie. In life, in the arts, that I can feel. It's vitally important because with your partner at the dance, if you're not truthful, you're going to fall on your partner. You could both break a leg. It's dangerous to be untruthful. I immediately felt that this was telling me something about my marriage. From that insight, I didn't divorce immediately but it went very deep. There's something I have to find out. I went deeper down. I knew that, although I deeply cared for this man and I loved him as my best friend, I didn't love him as my husband. It was unfair to him. I was also unfair to myself. Therefore, in the end, we separated. It's very painful. In the end, it was one of the best things I've done in my life because it was a very truthful thing. It led me to a path where I was much more sensitive to what is my truth and what we have to do even if it's not comfortable.

It's such a powerful lesson about being in that place where sometimes we get people-pleasing. We don't want to leave people feeling like we don't love them or we don't want to help them or have you. The courage and being able to be true to them and to ourselves make all the difference in living a life that is powerful and meaningful. Ultimately, what you described is something that people need to hear. It's going to cut right through the noise and allow people to realize. Maybe I'm not making a clear decision of what's true and what's false in my relationship.

Often, we brush over it. I can maybe add a piece of advice that someone gave me at a time when I couldn't decide. I love this man. Everyone told me, "You have to stay with him because he's such a nice person. Who knows whether you ever will find another one? What will people think?” All of these were very rational but in the end, very stupid things that we think sometimes when you have to make a decision. This friend told me, “Sylvia, you're messing up your decision-making with always thinking while you're feeling. You have to separate the two. You actually have to start with a feeling. Do the following thing. Go and feel deeply into how will you feel if you are with him. How will you feel when you leave him?" It could be how do you feel when you stay in this job today or a year from now? Go into it physically, feel it with all your body. How will you feel? How will you feel when you leave the situation? You will know then for sure. Where is it that you feel happiness and openness and light rather than something that is murky and weighing down on you?

I did that at the time. I've done it in other processes. Why not have that emotional clarity? It is very important that we feel in the body. We don't feel it somewhere in the obstacle. We feel it physically. That's why physical work is precious. When anyone knows that, it's quite easy to make a rational decision. The brain then simply works as your executive body. It's like, you're a very good administrative team that executes the decision already made. It's much better at that than your emotions would be. That is really the left brain that’s in charge. How do you do all these things? If you mix the two, you get into a very messy land.

It's really amazing how you bring that into the interview. It's a mixed signal. It's actually what it sounds to me. This has been amazing. I have one more question for you. What are 1 or 2 books that have had an impact on you and why?

I think one of the most important books I've read years is Epstein's Range. It was, for me, a confirmation of my life story in the sense of the people he quotes have much more amazing careers than I've had. Range telling the story about people and situations where the generalist really triumphs over the specialist and why in our complex world, it is so important. I am drawn to various sciences and arts in our lives. Even if we are more in one discipline, it's so precious to branch out somewhat to understand different disciplines or different ways of thinking. It's important to be able to resolve some of the puzzles that we're facing when we go outside of our own domain. That's a super important book that has helped me. I think it's a precious book for everyone to read.

It's dangerous to be untruthful.

I love the way you described it too. It's exactly how I remember the book itself. The thoughts that emanate with me is this feeling of we need to have that mentality of connecting the dots between different ideas. Thank you for sharing that. What is the other book?

There is a book I read a long time ago, which is not a scientific book on the country. It's a book that is about a teenager. It is about a voyage to oneself. It's called The Zigzag Kid. It's about a teenager who gets kidnapped by a Mephistopheles kind of person who actually makes him meet himself. By being kidnapped and by letting himself be kidnapped, he manages to meet himself. Why do I find that interesting? Why did I love that book so much? It's because I think it's a lovely story for holidays. Underneath this fascinating adventure story, it is essentially about when we let go of being in control, follow invitations to go on some journeys that might seem crazy at the start. They actually bring us to who we are and to our mission in the world.

All things considered, I want to check this book out. Sylvia, this has been a beautiful conversation. I love the insights. Your story is amazing. Thank you so much for bringing yourself into the space.

It's a great pleasure for me.

Thank you. I want to make sure that people know how they can find out more about you. How can they reach you? Where can they find you?

They can best find me on LinkedIn with my name. Also, my business is Connect4impact. It's Connect4Impact.eu.

I can't thank you again enough. I want to thank the listeners who are coming on the journey with us. I know you're leaving with many great insights and feelings and all of this. Thank you.

Thank you, Tony.

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About Sylvia Rohde-Liebenau

Sylvia Rohde-LiebenauLeadership development expert and EMCC accredited coach with more than 25 years experience in international and financial institutions. Main areas: Leadership, Organisational Development, Coaching, Communication, Conflict Management. PhD in International Relations from Freie Universität Berlin.


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