18. David Liebnau: Why we need heart and courage at times of uncertainty

Sue Stockdale talks to David Liebnau, Client Director and Senior Expert at SYNK Group based in Berlin, Germany about why we need heart and courage at times of uncertainty.   David graduated with a Masters Degree in Communications and has worked for the past twenty years as a senior learning & development consultant and executive coach. He has worked in 25 countries with more than 20,000 managers at all levels – including the board of large corporations.  The mission of his work is to inspire and enable individuals, teams and organizations to adapt and stay fit for the future by more consciously recognizing, appreciating and developing the full human potential in everyday work.


David Liebnau transcription

Sue: Today I have with me David Liebnau, who I’m going to be finding out about how we can be really effective as a leader, perhaps during challenging times and many other things. So welcome David.

David : Thanks for the opportunity.

Sue: Tell us about what you do and what makes you so interested in leadership.

David : Well, I’m working in the field of leadership development, since more than 20 years. And I’ve started this work in a way already in 1992 when I was reflecting, in the four days and nights, vision quest around my own purpose in life and what, what I should do. And what my contribution could be. And ever since I followed that path of becoming a great leader myself and helping other great leaders to be the best they can be.

Sue: what happened in those four days, because I’m imagining it wasn’t an easy quest for you, or was it?

David : It was a life changing experience. Certainly not easy. It was the first time in my life when I was all by myself, fasting in the wilderness. And, basically I was,  as good as I can be quiet and listen and explored what kind of inspirations and answers I would get to essential questions such as, who am I and what is my contribution? You know, what am I here for?

Sue: And when you were thinking about those questions in those four days, David, did you come up with clear answers at that time?

David :  yes and I’ve continued to understand what, what these answers mean. Or in other words, some questions I think are so powerful that we shouldn’t spoil them with just one answer. But I can, I can say that I certainly got guidance and orientation and, and the vision for myself and my life, which continues to unfold and I continue to follow.

Sue:  You’re reminded me as you’re speaking there, David, about a Ted speaker, Simon Sinek and his talk on start with why encourages leaders to inspire action in their teams. I’m getting a sense from you that that was perhaps what you were looking for as well. What your why was ?

David : Very much so, very much.

Sue: Why do you think it’s important for leaders to know their why.

David :  Hmm. Well, let me probably, you know, recite a study to answer your question around, retired executives they were asked, what do you regret the most now that you have retirement? But when looking back at your career, and there were three things which were named again and again. Which I think are worth to consider, especially for us, you know, when we can still make a difference about our career. So, number one was they said, gee, I wish I would have celebrated more of my successes That’s important for, you know, all the achievers who never take time to celebrate. But I think it’s almost like a quick fix the second, and the third answer was more revealing. I think. So second item was something like, I wish I would have left bigger footprints. when I’m reflecting about what that could mean, you know, leaving bigger footprints. I’m imagining myself, you know, when my grandchildren will ask me and ask me myself, grandpa, what have you done at work? Then I want to be able to tell great stories, and I think they need to be from my perspective, connected to values, things which matter for me and it’s not just about driving certain KPIs,  it needs to have, have a value for us, which goes beyond, you know, key performance indicators. And then finally, and that’s probably the most revealing piece, they said, I wish I would have been bolder, more courageous. And when you think about boldness or courage, I think it takes a connection with a heart. You know in English it says core- age in a way. I mean, of course you’re here, put in you in it, but in, in French, it’s like Kurtz is the core, you know, which gives us the courage, the boldness to do what, what we are here for. And if we don’t connect with our core, with our heart, but we can tap into courage and create the contribution we want. And then, look back with regret and not with gratitude and fulfillment. So I think it’s, it’s actually pointing us to a very much underutilized resource in leadership development. And that is the heart, the heart of intelligence, and the connection with a heart.

Sue:  I’m also wondering that at this time that the world’s facing, where there is a lot of uncertainty, a lot of people are thrust into situations that are very unfamiliar to them and they don’t know how long we’re going to last. Where, where does this courage manifest itself? Where does it play a role?

David : the courage and let’s also honor this, again, under-utilized resource of the heart.  because it points us to what you may call a trans-rational thinking, quality or capacity within us, which we need to develop, to, to manage that outer complexity we have faced with. I mean, now we, we are facing a time which was never better describe with these VUCA terms, which were well known in, in certain theoretical debates already for some time. But now it’s so tangible that the world is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguity. So, and, and in order to deal with the complexity, we need to develop our own inner complexity. And now speaking about the courage, we are faced with a situation where we got to embrace uncertainty. We’ve got to embrace not knowing. And that by definition brings up a lot of fear. And you know, courage is not the absenteeism of fear, but it’s feeling fear and moving forward because something else, like your vision is greater than your avoidance of fear.

Sue: So the, the bigger purpose, the vision, the sense of value that you were perhaps talking about earlier are some of the ways that people can keep moving forward in spite of that uncertainty, if they’ve got those things clear, is that what you’re saying?

David : And, and we need the heart and the courage of course to be able, to navigate through that time of uncertainty to find in a space in which we can hold our own fear, our own uncertainty, all the complexity of the world, and access qualities such as intuition, a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning, a sense of truth. Also, when you know, all the, the rational information is so ambivalent at times and confusing or simply outdated.

Sue:  So there’s a little bit about trusting in ourselves that perhaps I’m getting from what you’re saying.

David : Yeah. Yeah. Trusting and, and developing trusting connections with others because I think what we are facing is a time where we clearly will experience intelligence is what happens between us is what happens through co-creative dialogue where we connect deeply with each other and how Otto Sharma, for example, defines it by saying, you know, we need an opener, open mind, open heart and open will to create generative, innovative dialogue, which then helps us to cocreate new solutions and allow new ways of doing business

Sue:   it’s almost the reverse of what one might imagine in a time of uncertainty and stress rather than closing down and closing up.

David : Exactly. Yeah. Thanks for, for nailing it this way. I mean, I think it’s all about how we can keep our, our system, mind, heart, vision, capacity, inspiration, open and not closing down. Because when we’re driven by fear, we are driven by past knowledge. We are driven by our reptile brain, which is very limited in the ability to utilize or create or leverage the opportunity, which is always there may be in disguise, but still being there in any crisis.

Sue: it’s interesting you bring up the past, David, because I’m almost wondering about your past. You’ve talked about your 1992 experience that helps you to understand the importance of purpose on your why. How have you utilized that insight since then?

David : Hmm. Well, I think I perceive a pursuit fairly straightforward what, what I wanted to do. And that is in a way, healing relationships, in a vertical and horizontal level. So, the, the relationship to our own potential and the relationships in the workplace. So that people can really fulfill their potential.

Sue: can you give us an example of how, how that works in practice?

David :  Yeah. let me first answer your first question and then coming back to the second. So for example, when I came down from that mountain, I thought, well, that’s okay. That’s the thing you know, everyone should do a native American vision quest. And that’s the answer to all that disorientation and lack of power and meaning I see in our society. But then I realized, well, it’s probably not so applicable for everyone, not all people are willing to do such ride. And then I learned about a Gallup, online assessment called StrengthsFinder. 180 questions, 45 minutes online assessment, reflecting about the talents of people or helping you to better understand, what are your greatest qualities? So that seemed to be more cultural applicable for people. So I started to dive deeper into that tool, for example, and work for nine years for Gallup as a senior learning and development consultant in 25 countries ever since I’ve worked with 20,000 leaders worldwide and I’m using, for example, this tool, StrengthsFinder, but many other tools and approaches as well to help people in, so individuals and teams to better understand, the individual strength and potential of a person and how to collaborate, how to utilize that in the workplace.

Sue:  So once a team recognizes and values what other people bring to a team, certainly it’s been my experience that rather than people holding on to wanting to do everything themselves. They learn to trust and see, well, David’s great at detail, so I’ll empower David to do the detail and I’ll focus on the things that I’m good at. I don’t know if you’ve had the similar experience from those leaders you’ve worked with?

David : Yeah, definitely. And trust, I think comes with interface of credibility and reliability and coherence. So, do I perceive you as, as coherent in what you say and what you deliver and what I feel about you, for example. And in order to perceive your competence, what is also important, I think is, is a distinction of my language we shouldn’t underestimate the, the relevance and the power of language and words. We’ve all heard that term in the beginning was the word, right without a word, I cannot recognize a resource, nor can I utilize it, understand it, or trust in it.  And, that brings us to the question, for example, how many words does a leader have to describe, recognize, develop, utilize, leverage, et cetera, the positive qualities within himself or herself or her peers and employees?

Sue:  So there’s something about the language and words being used in a positive, affirming sense.

David :  Yeah. if people describe the relationship, qualities of another person. You can say, well, he’s good with people, but that’s rough. You may also say, well, he’s a great individualizer, or she’s very empathetic, or he’s a great includer, or, or she knows how to build harmonious atmospheres, et cetera, et cetera. Yeah, and the more elaborate your language code is the more sophisticated as your ability to really play to the strengths of, of yourself as well as those around you.

Sue: From what you’re saying, David, it seems that the strengths finder tool, as one example, has been really helpful in your work since your vision quest. What else have you been doing since then to develop and help leaders to be more effective?

David :  I mean, nowadays what becomes really an important asset not only in myself, but also in the people with whom I’m working is the ability to relax  to remain open even under pressure, even in times of adversary of crisis. And as, as we said before, how to maintain an open system. And for that I think my, my personal meditation practice is, very essential. I’m meditating since well more than 25 years by now. And initially, I kept it for myself and I wouldn’t tell about it in the business place because that would be considered as esoteric and you don’t want to talk about this in the business world, but nowadays with an exponential growth of impact studies showing the relevance of mindfulness and meditation in a number of important future skills. We are asked to meditate with our participants, with the leaders. And my executive coaches are very grateful whenever we take a time to, center to, to connect with themselves with our potential, their inner complexity. The heart so I think in addition to, online self-assessment tools such as the strengths finder, the ability to center, to, be present, to hold space for emotions of, for all the movements and without also uncertainty, and remain responsive, adaptive through meditation and comparable practices I think is vital.

Sue:  Working on yourself on the inside, therefore will have a positive benefit on the outside in terms of how one shows up.

David : Absolutely. if we don’t develop our inner quality or you know, complexity, we can’t succeed in an outer complexity anymore. I think

Sue: the other thing I take from what you’re saying, David, is about the acceptability of those two things intertwining these days in the business world.

David : Absolutely.

Sue:  What are the other things that you’ve mentioned to me already when we’ve spoken before, our conversation today was about a way of asking questions of a leader that digs down into helping them understand about what makes their leadership valuable. I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about what that is and how you do it.

David : I think what I’m doing is making people, ware of the power of choice they have by asking better questions. Because questions determine the answer. And yeah, so, so I help leaders to ask other questions.

Sue: So if I was thinking about some of the takeaways that I’ve gleaned so far in our conversation today, one is about a better understanding of strengths of oneself, about how one’s awareness and management of their emotions and their mental state is very important for them. I know from a leadership perspective, rather than necessarily giving the right answers, it’s about asking the right questions.

David : Yes, Just to add on that, not, not only asking more questions and instead of being more directive and giving answers, I think it’s, it’s worth to say, it is also crucial to, to ask the right kind of questions, because now a days, I think that there’s not necessarily a lack of, of know-how, but more certain, more often the lack of know why. And if people, start reflecting about why we are doing what we do, they themselves will put out quite another level of engagement and ability. And also, willingness to create their own know how, then if that, no, why is lacking?

Sue: Does the know why have to be the same for everybody in an organization?

David : Hmm. I think the organization thrives if they have a powerful collective, meaning making, know why, which connects with the individual. So, if the collective know why connects with the individual, no why of each of the members.

Sue: I’m always reminded of the story. I think it was one of the American presidents when they were set even to put them out on the moon. If you’ve heard of that story where the person was sweeping the floor apparently, and the president walked past and the individual was asked, what are you doing? And the patient’s sweeping the floors that I’m helping to put a man on the moon. That’s how I’m interpreting your story.

David : Absolutely. Yeah.

Sue:  As long as the individual and a team can connect with the bigger purpose of the organization that knew why, then they can choose to follow it. They can choose to be part of it, and they may have their own individual purpose as well. That’s driving them as an individual, as an employee.

David : And I think, the whole notion on purpose is not nowadays anymore. So new but what I like to emphasis is, is the importance to give yourself some time out of the hamster wheel. You know, and, and not just pursuing the next bigger number. And, you know, selling that as a purpose. Because, you know, that doesn’t connect to the heart of the people. And if you want to put out a powerful purpose of vision statement for, for an organization or your team, you need to connect with your own heart. You need to connect. You need to listen, be still, and yeah, give yourself some time, some off time where on time, so to speak, but not being chased by the urgent. allow yourself to be guided by the important and, and listen to, you know, the whisper of the future. If you’re quiet. You will hear it.

Sue: So as I’m speaking to you today, David, I’m wondering what’s whispering for your future.

David :  Hmm. Yeah, great question. you know, asking me in a, in a time where 90% of my year plan is canceled and. Right now, I’m in, in the state of not knowing and listening to be very honest, you know, right now, I’m connecting with my own fear of not knowing and my sadness of all the great projects, which I developed in the last six to nine months and are now not meant to happen in the way as I initiated it or intended it. What I’m seeing, hearing of course is, is a transformation into more digital work. I mean, that’s for sure. I don’t have to be a prophet to say that, and luckily, we are moving well towards that direction and developed already some digital products and services. I think that will grow what I’m also sensing as like a whisper of the future is the ability to reach out to people, through non-physical contact. So, developing a felt sense for each other, through a podcast or, or a webcast and, or just a phone call. but developing our capacity to really create intimacy, without the need of physical contact. And from that then, you know, trust and collaboration and all of that.

Sue: So whilst I get that acceptance of sadness and loss that you are know facing as many of us are in the situation over year, not being as we originally intended. I’m also hearing about having that openness to look and just be guided by what may be opportunities or a felt sense or something different coming along.

David : Yeah, definitely. Definitely. And I think it is, it is vital also to allow us to, to build, to be touched by humanity if I’m not accessing my own core in terms of my deepest humanity, may my fear, my sadness, et cetera, I can’t access at the same time, my greatest potential, you know, again, I need to. connect with my heart also to, to be inspired eventually.

Sue: It’s been very good to speak to you today, David, and to hear your insights. If people want to find out more about you and your organization on the internet or social media, how can they do that?

David : All very simple. Just go SYNK-group.com and  group.com and my name is David LIebnau, obviously.

Sue: Fantastic. David, it’s been really great to talk to you. Thanks for your time today. Likewise.

David :  Thank you, Sue.