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Ambassadors without Diplomatic Passports from the Backstage

Living a life on tip-toes

For more than three years, my interview series with prominent leaders have been appearing in the Leaders Magazine. I was approached by the editor in chief, to tell more about myself and the reasons behind writing and sharing the stories. I have asked my friend Lenka Čábelová, Communication and Citizenship Lead for Microsoft, to write an interview with me. I hope that now as the concept is presented, more readers will nominate Czech and Slovak people who have contributed to the positive image of both countries. Share with us your suggestions on leaders and join us in the effort to improve leadership by presenting positive examples and visions.

When I first met Linda, she was in a kind of a "double agent" role - a trainer as well as a participant of an authentic leadership development workshop. It took me some time to find balance with this duality but after working with Linda for one year, I fully understand  it makes a perfect sense for what she wants to achieve. Another thing that struck me was her mix of gentle blaze energy and grounded agility. I did not even have a chance to realise it but soon she led me to do things that help me make my dreams come true? and that I had never before believed I was capable of doing. Linda has an incredible instinct for opportunities, drive to make them happen and a charm to naturally connect people who need to connect for such purpose. I am very pleased to say that soon we started to play a "triple agent game" and nowadays I consider Linda to be my teacher, my classmate as well as a friend.

Linda, you were a head of Diplomatic Academy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, HR manager and a Head of learning and? development in several private companies, and now you act as a coach and a mentor as well as a regular interviewer of successful and inspiring people. What is the thread of all this that makes the essence of yourself?

I believe I am best characterised by the desire to change things through working with people. I recall when I was 13, the Velvet Revolution started. My sister who is 10 years older was a member of the strike committee at Charles University. I decided to set up a strike committee at our elementary school and so became a part of the revolution. As a university student I was engaged in early years of Forum 2000 conferences. This drive to engage and make an impact on the world naturally made me go study abroad. As a young lady, I was very keen to change institutions; I even proposed to cancel the United Nations as I found it inefficient in what it wanted to achieve. Gradually, I realised that destroying something is not the right way, that it is better to build something new, and, most importantly, to change people because when individuals transform, institutions will gradually follow the change.

If you ask about my personality, then I am a perfect match to what the talent dynamics profiling model says. I have energy of a blaze and, just like fire, I often have no limits. I love to interact with people, inspire them with my energy and lead them to new ideas and opportunities. For some people, it may be too much heat. My first job was in public sector and I recall that my colleagues used to say "She is the one with a lot of energy but she will calm down".

Did you calm down?

Not at all. I left eventually. I never meant to lose my vigour and I have kept it through everything I did - and I left when it was clear that it is not possible or desirable to achieve harmony between who I am and what the organisation needs. This is a very important finding. The older I am, the more I like to work with people who can benefit from my energy and let others choose other coaches who better fit their personalities. Because this is the only way to build a healthy relationship that brings benefits to both parties. I believe in a win-win approach and natural reciprocity as the only sustainable way to create long term and happy relationships. There is an element of release and relief if you accept that “You cannot be everybody's darling”.  

Being able to arrive at such learning assumes high level of self-awareness. I am intrigued by how you interweave your personal and professional identity. This reflects also my own experience from Atairu workshops where you work on personal and professional transformation in a parallel. What can such approach bring to individuals working with other people, i.e. leaders, managers, coaches?

I understand authenticity as accepting who I am at my best without playing any games and roles. If we know who we are and decide to live on our tip-toes, not on our knees, we are able to see and choose the right opportunities, connect with the right people and be exceptional. Many people keep trying to play various roles at home and at work and they burn too much energy on it. They stop being authentic and they are not transparent to others. There is an element of legacy of the Communist past when most population tried not to stand out of the crowd and strived to be in a grey invisible zone.

Authenticity requires quite a high level of personal courage, doesn't it?

It is a change of the transformation of attitude. It is not easy but once you succeed, it goes fast and naturally. Just to give an example, it helped me reframe how I see myself as a mother. I was never a structured mother who is good at regularly picking up kids from school, doing diligently homework with them, etc. I tried but it took too much energy and I was then nervous and did not have capacity for things I really wanted to do with my kids. It was great for me to realise that I can do it differently without feeling guilty for not playing a typical mother’s role. I found a lady who is a former teacher to work with my kids on school stuff; she is perfect in it and really happy to do it. She loves it. And I have space to do things that no one else can do with them - we make trips, visit friends, discuss what we see and experience. I have the opportunity to give them the best of me. And on top of it, it is very convenient for me because I can be myself. The key trigger was to understand that I do not care how others judge me - this is my life. You know, sometimes we women are harder to each other than men are among themselves. We need to show more solidarity and support and less judgment.

In your series of interviews with "Ambassadors without Diplomatic Passports" you often ask about national identity – how Czechs are perceived abroad. Do you see any relationship between individual and collective identity? Can lack of authenticity on an individual level impact our national identity

When it comes to national identity, I am concerned about our attitude to elites. Many Czech people see success as something that should not be appreciated because there is something wrong with it. It goes far beyond the Communist times, as the case of prominent opera singer from early 20th century Ema Destinnová, famous in Berlin, Paris and New York and rejected in National Theatre in Prague, shows. There are so many great leaders who have a positive impact in their respective areas of work and who achieved success in an honest and virtuous way. I see them as a source of inspiration and by interviewing them, I hope this will bring a change to how we appreciate talent and success of others.   Authentic leaders speak not only about successes, but also failures.  We only learn when we are outside the comfort zone and no one has learned walking, riding a bike or skiing without falling.  

We are back to the point that the most important change happens on an individual level and subsequently we can experience transformation on the organisational or even national level. This is what you do in Atairu - you try to give people courage to be authentic leaders. What does it mean

We have a vision of achieving positive impact on transformation of society through a new approach to leadership. I have been with Atairu for two years and I’ve had the opportunity to work with over 150 managers in leading positions who made a big difference in their companies by implementing in their teams what they have discovered. So far, we have worked more with 350 leaders across the region of Central and Eastern Europe. Just recently I discussed my work with a former university colleague and she was intrigued by my positive perception of the today's situation. It is because I can sense more than the negative news we get through the media daily. I see many competent people in top positions with very strong values and desire for change. These people work hard on themselves and want to leave a positive footprint in whatever they do. 

At what point do people in top positions arrive at the need to undergo such personal transformation? It takes quite a lot of time and readiness to admit and appreciate weaknesses and imperfections, and these people are usually very busy and very successful. What drives them to it?

I see two key factors. The first one being sustainability. Yes, they are successful but they often have worked all their life very long hours and with extreme intensity. They understand that they cannot live like this for another 15 or 20 years. The second reason is the need for a different kind of fulfilment. It is like climbing a high mountain. You are on the top and what next? Maybe there is another mountain nearby but is this the challenge you need? Would it bring a new value to you if you tried to get there? Maybe there is more value and satisfaction in enjoying the view from the top for a while, in accepting the journey as a goal, in helping others learn to climb or even in asking why I have gotten here and whether mountains are indeed the right place for me to be in…

Diversity is still a challenging concept in Czech society. How do you perceive it?

It is very fragmented and polarizing. Not many people understand that diversity is not only a question of a gender, but of all natural differences in society. Nowadays, we have four generations at workplace, this is a new situation. Just one example from the biggest private company in the Czech Republic - ŠKODA AUTO, illustrating what today´s reality looks like: people are employed there from 16 years (apprentices) to 65, there are more than 40 nationalities and also people with different physical abilities.  Such diversity has been unprecedented at a work place. Organisations in the Czech Republic tend to work on each element separately and in waves. There was a wave of doing gender diversity, then age management, etc. But we need to think of it as a whole. When we exercise, we train all parts of the body together, right? Would you spend a year working on just your belly and the next year focusing on legs and then on your back, etc.? This would cost a lot of effort but definitely not lead to a healthy body and good feeling. You cannot split a human being into categories and work on one part only. You are not a different person at work and at home. We always need to see the full picture, as individuals as well as in organisations, to get the best results.  Diversity is enriching, leads to prosperity and innovative outcomes. In order to appreciate it, we should not be afraid to embrace unknown and differences. And to do so, we must be sure of ourselves, strengths and values. Then we know what to stand for and the outside (unknown) element might not seem threatening anymore. That is why for me diversity is only one of the key elements of authentic leadership and the approach of leadership from within can hope us to deal with current crises.

I have a big hope in the new generation that is just entering the market. They are interested in what impact their actions have on society and they have experience from abroad. I keep my fingers crossed for them to succeed in making our future more connected to what is happening in the world and consequently the Czech Republic being less provincial. Sometimes I am sad that my friends from other countries often tell me that in terms of spirit, Prague feels like a large village. That is why I try to pay attention to subjects that are global in nature, surround myself with personalities that have a global outlook.  And this brings me back to Talent Dynamics and the talent of each individual. The more certain we are about ourselves and our purpose, the more opportunities for collaboration arise. We do not see others as a threat but as the complementary ones providing skills we do not have.

By Lenka Čábelová

More "Ambassadors without diplomatic passport" articles:
Ambassadors without diplomatic passport - Hana Machková
Ambassadors without diplomatic passport - MUDr. Milena Černá
Ambassadors without diplomatic passport - Alexandra Brabcová
Ambassadors without diplomatic passport - Nikos Balamotis
Ambassadors without diplomatic passport - Vladimíra Glatzová
Ambassadors without diplomatic passport - Jana Adamcová
Ambassadors without diplomatic passport - Radka Dohnalová
Ambassadors without diplomatic passport - Tomáš Jelínek
Ambassadors without diplomatic passport - Pavel Telička
in cooperation with Czech & Slovak Leaders Magazine - Prague, 08.06.2016


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