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Leadership: empathy, legacy & audacity

Ask yourself:

When you are an empathic person and you want to leave a legacy

would you rather rely on a careful attitude

or would you embrace your youthful audacity and go for it?

What is this article about?

The three elements that construct your leadership behaviour are: your personality, your value system and your attitude. Ask yourself: when you are an empathic person and you want to leave a legacy, would you rather rely on a careful attitude or would you embrace your youthful audacity and go for it?

-reading time: 4 minutes- / -audience: Seasoned Leaders-


Last week, I was invited by the Dean of a Business School at the lake of Geneva to have lunch together. We met 13 years back when I was 31 and attending a corporate leadership program, directed by him.

Not only I enjoyed catching up, exchanging leadership thoughts, and the top-end food of the mensa (hardly comparable to the broodjes kroket that I used to stuff my stomach with in-between uni classes when I was 19), but also the sunny drive from Zurich to the west of Switzerland.

When you drive west, you have to endure the A1 between Zurich and Bern, probably the most boring highway on the planet, before you hit the beautiful Alpine scenery of the Berner Oberland. The A1 took me through the Kanton of Aargau, which I know very well, as I spent quite a chunk of my career working for Holcim, the global building materials player founded close to 110 years ago in a little place called Holderbank.

Memories started popping up, randomly. The fun we had, the places we travelled, the people we met, the career steps I made, the bosses, the corporate politics, the successes, the changes…

And the closer I came to my destination, my thoughts seemed to circle a theme that I could not identify.


After lunch, the Dean and I sat down in his office and he shared some memories he had of me when I was in the program. I told him that I had so many memories as well, and in particular regarding an incident that happened with one of the program’s coaches. In short, the coach was the opposite of how I think about coaching as he was mechanical in his approach, did not show any empathy, instructing us what to do, while being scornful and rude. I stood up for my coaching group and was ‘welcomed’ by the coach’s words: oh yes, we found our rebel! Then I complained about him to the program director and refused to work with him. There was no trust.

The Dean remembered this very well and smiled with admiration. We continued to talk about the past, the present and the future and in particular mine. I shared some other memories, my current activities and also my plans for the future. But my mind could not let go trying to identify the theme of my thoughts when I drove down the highway.

After 2 hours it was time to leave and return to Zurich. I thanked him for his time and drove back. My brain was working in overdrive to find the missing piece: what was it?

the 3 elements of leadership behaviour

Over the last 4 years, I have been researching and philosophying about the origins of leadership behaviour of people I have met, coached or encountered in the public domain. Behaviour itself, I do not find very interesting, as it is the result of your attitude and the underlying value system as well as your personality. Therefore, in my coaching sessions, I prefer to focus on why my clients behave in a certain way or why they think others behave in a certain way, leading to certain positive or negative outcomes: personality, value system and attitude are the elements that make leadership behaviour so interesting.

And in these elements, you find the key that makes people tick.

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Perhaps you know that for a while now, I am an advocate for psychological safety. I even developed my own leadership program and assessment around it. Psychological safety is for me the glue in high-performing teams, and empathy is essential for establishing psychological safety in the team. Empathy is a personality trait – the first element – you must have as a leader when you want to achieve psychological safety excellence.


In the last months, I shifted my research and philosophying towards leadership value systems, the second element. And although I am not finished crystalising yet, what would be the overarching value, I believe that people excel in demonstrating leadership when they want to leave their legacy: how do you want to be remembered when you move on? What do you want to leave behind for the future of others? It has become a central theme in my coaching sessions and it is not an easy question to answer. However, not having any clue about your legacy at all, makes your leadership value system incomplete – in my humble opinion. Why do you go to work? Power? Money? Free coffee?


Last night, I talked with my Dutch friend in Norway. Although we have completely different careers, we share the same interest in the underlying elements of behaviour. I told him about my trip to the Lake of Geneva and the conversation with the Dean, and also that since then I could not stop thinking about what my mind tried to identify.

We both like Ricky Gervais (= yes a link to youtube) and we laughed about how he does his own thing at the Golden Globes, which is essentially about showing a mirror to the stars, treating them as human beings instead of gods and not sucking up in any way – probably rather the opposite, however challenging the ‘most important people in the world’ whether they know right from wrong.

And then it clicked. I realised that my thoughts and memories were circling about my attitude, the third element of leadership behaviour, the attitude that I may have neglected a bit by the experiences that I had, the people that I have met:



Standing up for something. In a brave sense, not in a rude sense. Being fearless and courageous. Showing balls and a backbone, valour.

When you grow older, encounter more experiences, positive and negative, face changes in the rules of the game, your attitude may change. Carefulness is an antonym of audacity. Nothing wrong with that. In many corporate environments, caution and carefulness can get you very far.

But how close are you to yourself when you obey without challenging the status quo, when you do not question decisions, when you only follow the direction of changing winds? How can you leave a legacy behind?


Ask yourself: when you are an empathic person and you want to leave a legacy, would you rather rely on a careful attitude or would you embrace your youthful audacity and go for it?

You have nothing to fear for.