Interview with Coach Sandro da Silva: Leadership Insights into Organizational Transformation
Leadership defies rigid definitions. Join us in a conversation with Coach Sandro as he delves into the nuances of leadership, highlighting transformative approaches and our five essentials. Explore the dynamic nature of leadership with unique insights from this engaging discussion.
By Nadia Tunez
January 9th, 2024
12 minutes

In the dynamic realm of leadership development, few professionals stand out like Coach Sandro da Silva. Rooted in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Coach Sandro works with organizational members and teams, from entry-level to executive positions. His mission goes beyond skill enhancement; Coach Sandro is dedicated to preparing individuals and teams for the challenges of tomorrow, fostering reflection and embracing change. 


With an international footprint that includes collaborations with prominent leadership development firms, universities, and business schools in the UK, Scandinavia, Brazil, and the US, Coach Sandro is an experienced guide in the world of transformative leadership. In this interview, we delve into his unique approach, gained from years of experience and a commitment to close partnership with clients.


What brought Sandro to the world of leadership coaching

bettercoach: Before we delve into the topic of leadership, we’d like to take a moment to understand your journey and what brought you to the world of leadership coaching. How did your career and professional journey look like leading up to your current role as a leadership coach? What pivotal experiences or moments influenced your path and decision to specialize in coaching leaders and organizations?


Coach Sandro: This is an interesting story. After I finished my studies in Robotics (Automation), we had a huge financial crisis in Brazil again. And because of that crisis, there was not much money for companies to invest in innovations like automation of their process and production lines. We’re talking 1991-1992 here. I had to find a new career, and I started working as a private English teacher to executives in large Brazilian organizations and multinationals. 


Most of my clients, however, were executives who already spoke English well and just wanted to practice their English on a weekly basis. So our classes were conversations about themselves and the work that they did, the plans they had for their lives and their organizations, and the challenges that they faced, for example. We talked about individual, team and organizational performance, strategy, organizational culture, leadership, technology, politics, complexities in their organization. And I just loved it, because every conversation was new, and offered a learning opportunity not only for them but for me as well. And after I had established myself in the Netherlands and learned the language, I started missing those conversations, and that led me to becoming a professional executive coach.

To me, leadership is anything that a person does to move forward. Leadership is something that all of us have, but it is up to us whether we put it into practice, whether we exercise it or not. 

Sandro da Silva
Leader & Executive Coach

What is leadership?

bettercoach: Now, defining leadership proves more elusive than ever. Attempting to encapsulate its meaning in a one definition is impossible, even a dictionary redirects you to the definitions of a “leader” rather than providing a concise answer. How would you personally define leadership? Has your understanding of leadership evolved over time based on your coaching experiences and observations? 


Sandro: To me, leadership is anything that a person does to move forward. Leadership is something that all of us have, but it is up to us whether we put it into practice, whether we exercise it or not. 


Humanistic Psychology believes that we human beings all have a tendency, a desire and a drive to thrive, and I share that belief. Another definition of leadership that speaks to me is the one that John Maxwell shares with us in his book 5 Levels of Leadership (2011). He says that leadership is influence, and I like that. I think it helps us understand that leadership is influencing either your own self so that you move forward and thrive in life, influencing others around you so that you can thrive together, or even influencing society so that we can all thrive. 


Another take on leadership says that leadership is anything that one does that contributes to organizational effectiveness (this sounds more theoretical). And this definition is also helpful to me. But most importantly, I do not believe in the split between leadership and management. That is a narrative that we created some decades ago and that has created a billion-dollar industry that sells leadership as something extraordinary and magical, and management as something boring and inadequate. To me there is no difference between leadership and management, leading and following. That’s all leadership.


bettercoach: Are there different types or styles of leadership that you commonly encounter in your coaching work? In your opinion, how crucial is self-awareness for effective leadership? 


Sandro: I also have my personal interpretations there. One of the most useful leadership frameworks I have seen is the work done by Daniel Goleman, later enriched by Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee. I’m talking about Emotional Intelligence and Goleman’s 6 styles of leadership*. I prefer to call them muscles, and not styles. I like the muscle metaphor because it makes people more receptive to learning and experimenting. If we talk about styles, some people have the tendency to say “ oh, but that’s not who I am, that’s not my style” . I believe that all of us can exercise our leadership in those 6 ways, and that we just need to make some of those muscles a bit stronger.


With regards to self-awareness, my experience has shown me that I seem to be better able to exercise my leadership when I know more about myself, what motivates me, what drives me, and also what goes on inside me that seems to hold me back. And I have seen that in the clients I work with as well. There is also research that underpins this hypothesis: that the more self-awareness one has, the better one is in exercising their leadership.

Leadership is a relationship. If we look at our experience, one of the things we notice is that we are always in relationships: with other people, with our environment, with life and even with ourselves.

Sandro da Silva
Leader & Executive Coach

Poor leadership – and why judging doesn’t help

bettercoach: On the flip side, more often than not, we encounter poor leadership. Could you revisit your experiences with bad leadership and describe why it was so detrimental? Have you ever assisted individuals or teams in navigating such challenges? What were the consequences of poor leadership? 


Sandro: Uhmmm… that is a tricky question. The reason why I say it is tricky, is because leadership is situational and contextual, and judgments such as good or bad will always be dependent on a certain perspective. I usually say that most of us get up in the morning with the intention to do something good – most of the time. There may be a few of us who get up in the morning with the intention of making someone else’s life a hell, but fortunately I have never encountered them. 


In addition to that, one of the things that we human beings tend to do – unfortunately – is to blame others when things do not go the way we want them to go, and in organizations or systems where there is some sort of hierarchy – like organizations or families – we will tend to want to put the blame for what is not working on the one who belongs to the other group. 


Leadership is a relationship. If we look at our experience, one of the things we notice is that we are always in relationships: with other people, with our environment, with life and even with ourselves. Because of that, working on and cultivating the relationships that you have – with a direct report, or with your manager, or with a customer even – is key. And each relationship is unique. So in my work with teams and individuals, I encourage people to explore how they can exercise their leadership in those relationships they find challenging and to transform them.


Still, I have seen several examples of leadership that does not seem to work. One of these examples is when someone is selfish, thinks only about themselves and their own benefit in a situation. This doesn’t help us build constructive, strong relationships. Another example is when people are bored out or burned out, but want to hold on to the position or job they have because of the financial comfort and security it gives them. But the most important one – and certainly the most dangerous – is when people cannot resist the temptations of power, and exercise their leadership in an unethical way.


In my classes about ethical leadership, I invite participants to look at the dark side of their personalities (a side we all have) and help them better understand that the power that is given to them through a title or position can lead to unethical behavior when it is not used with responsibility. What we may not forget is that when there is a power differential between individuals or groups, the one with more power – whether legitimate or perceived – can make someone else’s life a heaven or a hell. Think about people in organizations for example who believe they can do whatever they want to others because they are the boss. Or people who choose to promote someone in their team based on favoritism. Or people who are punished because they have raised their voice and challenged the status quo.


bettercoach: Why do we find it challenging to delve into so-called “negative” emotions? What prompts us to steer clear of them, and what hidden strength lies within these emotions?


What a good question! I believe that there are two important reasons for that. One is the fact that we have learned to label emotions as positive or negative. So we have the tendency to want to avoid emotions like anger, frustration, disappointment, embarrassment or shame because we believe that they are bad. But this is unfortunately a mistake that we make, because all emotions are good. Otherwise we would not experience them. 


But what happens is that these emotions we call “negative” are emotions that make us feel uncomfortable – and they do that for a reason. If you look at the word emotion, you see that the word “motion” is in it, and I usually tell people to remember that because emotions – either those that make us feel comfortable or those that make us feel uncomfortable – want us to move, to take action. However, the challenge with those emotions that make us feel uncomfortable is that our mind – our best friend but sometimes our worst enemy – has a tendency to make us want to avoid experiences that make us feel uncomfortable. 


The problem then is that every time someone experiences an emotion that makes them feel uncomfortable, they will want to avoid it. And then they cannot listen to what it wants to tell them. It’s like reading a book but skipping all the odd pages, and trying to make meaning of the whole story based on the information you get only from the even pages. That would be quite a challenge, right? And our understanding of the story would not be that accurate and helpful.


So here the wise words of Viktor Frankl are very helpful. He reminded us that “between stimulus and response there is a space, and that it is in that space that lies our power to choose our response”. These words are helpful because they illustrate that we can always choose how to respond to something, and that includes those emotions that make us feel uncomfortable. For example, when I experience frustration, I can take a deep breath and increase that space between the stimulus (the frustration that I experience) and what I do (my response), and use that space to explore how I can respond to that frustration in a way that is constructive and helpful in that particular situation. And after exploring a couple of options, I can choose what I want to do, say or how I want to behave. And this is the core of what we mean by being emotionally intelligent.

Ingredients for Outstanding Leadership

bettercoach: Shifting focus to the opposite end of the leadership spectrum, what could be a remarkable example of it? From your perspective, what factors should exceptional and inspiring leaders bear in mind?


Sandro: Once again I would like to say that we need to take this idea of outstanding leadership a bit lightly and with healthy skepticism. I am reinforcing that because leadership is not an algorithm. Although we might all love to have a magic formula for leadership, it does not work that way. 


Still, at this moment in our history there seem to be some choices that help us exercise our leadership more effectively, and through that add the value we want to add, create the positive shifts we want to create and help those around us, our organizations and our society thrive. One of them seems to be Emotional Intelligence. A higher level of Emotional Intelligence helps us develop and cultivate better, stronger and more constructive relationships with others (and with ourselves). And it also helps us embrace change and tap into the immense potential and opportunities that diversity offers us. 


Strongly related to that is our awareness of Interdependence. We cannot exist alone. We are part of systems, always in relationships with each other, and I cannot exist without you nor you cannot exist without me. The awareness and acceptance of this interdependence makes us more humble, and encourages us to be more responsible and take even better care of each other, of our society and of our planet. This brings me to purpose, as that helps us exercise our leadership with intent. The beauty of purpose is that it connects us to a powerful source of energy, and we need that energy to create shifts and make things happen. I always like to quote Agent Smith in the movie The Matrix Reloaded, when he says that “it is purpose that connects us, that pulls us, that guides us, that drives us; it is purpose that defines, that binds us.” 


Finally, taking good care of yourself so you can be more at your best most of the time is also important. Here, I am talking about resilience, because resilience helps us not only bounce back from adversity or setbacks but also bounce forward with persistence, optimism, conviction and creativity. And these five elements: emotional intelligence, embracing change, interdependence, purpose, and resilience, are what we now call The Leadership Essentials at bettercoach.

I prefer “habit zone” over “comfort zone”, because to me we are not creatures of comfort, but creatures of habit. Habits are very helpful and support us in using our time, energy and resources in an economical way. But habits can also prevent us from finding and creating more innovative solutions to challenges we face.

Sandro da Silva
Leader & Executive Coach

Effective Leadership Development

bettercoach: Speaking of embracing change, there’s no inspiring leadership without development. What are some effective strategies you’ve used or observed for developing leadership skills in individuals or teams? In your experience, how do you balance the development of individual leadership skills with fostering a collaborative and cohesive team environment? 


Sandro: Excellent question! When I look at my experience with leadership development, there are a number of strategies I see that seem to be effective. The first one is Experiential Learning. By that I mean learning from real experiences. So, for example, in a workshop or in the classroom, we will create regular cycles of action and reflection, and invite participants to engage in an activity with each other and then reflect on their experience in that activity. These repeated cycles of action and reflection is also at the core of coaching – whether individual or team coaching. Within our current context we are constantly at delivery modus – doing, doing and doing even more. But if we don’t stop and reflect on that doing, we miss a wealth of learning opportunities. This is one of the reasons I believe coaching is so beneficial.


Another strategy that seems to help is creating opportunities – and taking them – to get out of our habit zone. I prefer that to saying “comfort zone”, because to me we are not creatures of comfort, but creatures of habit. Habits are very helpful and support us in using our time, energy and resources in an economical way. But habits can also prevent us from finding and creating more innovative solutions to challenges we face.


What also seems to help is starting with the self, and giving people the opportunity to learn to exercise their self-leadership and to apply their learnings to situations and contexts where they need others (their teams, their peers, etc). Investing in self-leadership is both empowering and humbling. Empowering because we realize we can indeed achieve more than we sometimes think when we manage to tap into our inner potential, mobilize our inner energy and give space to our creativity. And humbling because we realize how complex and complicated we seem to be internally, and how difficult it can sometimes be to align all our different needs and aspirations in one particular direction. It can be tough sometimes to persist and continue moving forward, we sometimes seem to need more time to make meaning of what is happening around us, and that we are not at all perfect but a work in progress. This connects us to humility and makes us more understanding and empathic, which has a positive impact on our relationships with others.


bettercoach: Are there any challenges or tensions that arise in this process of developing leadership skills?


Sandro: Very good that you ask me about tensions that arise in the process. Because leadership is a relationship, tensions will certainly emerge. Tensions inside ourselves, between ourselves and others, ourselves and our organizations, ourselves and our society and so on. Learning to accept that tension and to navigate that tension is essential, because it is in that space where I and You meet that we come to existence, and where our magic will happen. We have the tendency to want to eliminate that tension, but to do that we need to eliminate one of the parts. And this is when we give room to win-lose games, and to oppression. There is energy in tension, and the potentiality for something new. But we can experience that only when we can hold that space and engage with it.

I personally believe that we would benefit from more women in powerful positions in organizations.

Sandro da Silva
Leader & Executive Coach

The impact of leadership and what seems to be missing

bettercoach: One last topic before we close the interview, we’d like to reflect on the broader impact of leadership. What, in your opinion, seems to be missing in leadership today? Why do you think leadership hasn’t yet made our world a significantly better place? 


Sandro: There are a couple of things I believe might be missing. First and foremost is awareness of what leadership is and is not. And the solution for that is simple: education. If we educate our people in our organizations, if we educate our young people in our schools, demystify leadership and help people connect and exercise their leadership more and more every day, in all the different citations or contexts they’re part of, I think we will create a positive shift.


In addition to that, I personally believe that we would benefit from more women in powerful positions in organizations (what we call leadership positions) who exercise their leadership with authenticity. And I need to be very careful now with what I mean to say, because I don’t want to be politically incorrect or disrespectful. But I believe that the thinking that we currently have in our organizations and systems are strongly influenced by masculinity. Take a look at Hollywood, for example: would you say that Wonder Woman is a real Wonder Woman or is she a woman playing the role of Super Man? I wonder what a Wonder Woman film would be like if Wonder Woman were a true manifestation of femininity and its super powers. 


A long time ago I had the opportunity to work closely with an organization where about 80% of the C-suite were female, and where the CEO and the CFO – who were both males – were the minority. It was so inspiring to see how well they took care of their people, how true their commitment to the community and to society was, how open they were to creating partnerships – even with their competitors – and how valued and respected their employees felt. I hope we can see more of that in our near future.


bettercoach: Thank you, Sandro, for sharing your expertise and contributing to the ongoing dialogue on leadership and organizational growth with us at bettercoach. We sincerely look forward to exploring the transformative landscape of leadership with you in future collaborative projects. 

*Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee identified six leadership styles in their book Primal Leadership (2002): Visionary, Coaching, Affiliative, Democratic, Commanding and Pacesetting. “Four of these styles – visionary, coaching, affiliative, and democratic – create the kind of resonance that boosts performance, while two others – pacesetting and commanding – although useful in some very specific situations, should be applied with caution”, write the authors.