Creating a Culture of Courage: Hortense le Gentil On How to Create a Culture Where People Feel Safe to be Authentic & Why That Helps the Bottom Line

An Interview With Vanessa Ogle

Empathy: Create a culture of empathy by sharing your own story and encouraging others to do the same to build understanding. Vulnerability inspires vulnerability.

In today’s fast-paced world, authenticity in the workplace and in our personal lives has become more crucial than ever. Yet, fostering an environment where individuals feel secure enough to express their true selves remains a challenge. The importance of authenticity cannot be overstated — it is the foundation of trust, innovation, and strong relationships. However, creating such a culture requires intention, understanding, and actionable strategies. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Hortense le Gentil.

HORTENSE LE GENTIL is a world-renowned executive leadership coach, speaker, and author. She guides CEOs and senior executives on their journey from hero leaders to human leaders, guided by 30 years in business, working across industries — including media consulting and advertising — and as an entrepreneur. Hortense was a 2021 and 2023 nominee for the Thinkers 50 Coaching and Mentoring Awards, has been ranked #5 on the Global Gurus list by World Management Global Gurus, and is a certified Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered™ coach and a member of MG100 Coaches. Author of THE UNLOCKED LEADER: Dare to Free Your Own Voice, Lead with Empathy, and Shine Your Light in the World (Wiley, September 26, 2023), and ALIGNED: Connecting Your True Self with the Leader You’re Meant to Be (2019), Hortense is a contributor to Harvard Business Review and, and has been featured in Forbes, Fast Company, Inc., and Business Insider.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I’m an executive leadership coach who helps turn superhero leaders into human leaders — using empathy as the secret ingredient. My journey into this career was inspired by my profound belief in the transformative power of empathy.

From a young age, I was captivated by the ability to truly listen and understand others, a skill that perhaps surprisingly was honed through my experience as a competitive show jumper.

Effectively guiding others requires the ability to connect with what they’re feeling and thinking — in other words, empathy. During my coaching conversations, for example, I fully open my eyes, my ears, and my heart. A subtle change of voice, a minute facial expression, eyes changing directions or a small shift in breathing are all clues that are like breadcrumbs showing me the path to follow to help identify and shift a mindtrap. Our body language sends subtle and often unconscious cues that reflect our true emotions and state of mind.

How does this relate to my background with horses? If you’ve been around horses, you probably know that they have an uncanny ability to perceive these subtle cues and instinctively mirror any whiff of confusion, shaky confidence, or emotional turmoil they perceive in their handlers. They are the ultimate empaths!

This background taught me the importance of subtle cues and the art of genuine connection, elements that are central to my coaching philosophy. Leveraging empathy truly helps me bridge understanding and foster authentic relationships.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

One of the most interesting experiences in my coaching career involved a client who had been pushed out of a company where he had worked for decades. He couldn’t understand why this happened, and as a result, experienced immense frustration and confusion. At a pivotal point in his journey, he was justifiably angry, didn’t see a future for himself, and couldn’t comprehend why he was even meeting with me.

Over months of coaching conversations, he went from that darkness to rebuilding a whole new life and career. He became CEO of an NGO, started a consulting firm, and rebuilt his home to have space for his entire family. Despite initially feeling trapped in self-doubt, exacerbated with the fear of having no hope for the future, he was able to design the life he wanted.

Seeing that transformation from hopelessness to designing a fulfilling life was incredibly impactful. It showed me firsthand how coaching can help people move from thinking they have no options to actively rebuilding their lives.

You are a successful individual. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Three traits that I think have been instrumental to my success are curiosity, courage, and agility. I’m insatiably curious — a day without learning feels sad and incomplete to me. When I started a company in a new industry, I immersed myself in learning everything about it. Curiosity drives me daily.

People also say I’m courageous. When I decide on something, I’m not afraid to pursue it fully. I’ve fallen off horses countless times as a rider, but the fall doesn’t dampen my spirit; it instead becomes a vital reminder that you have to get back on. Courage is about the pursuit, regardless of the end result; about trying your best, having faith in the process, and betting on yourself. That mentality has helped shape my character.

Relatedly, I can also be defined as agile. When I’ve hit walls in my career, whether as an entrepreneur or in the early stages of my corporate experience, I’ve been able to redirect my mindset, change tactics, and find new paths to advance. I’m not afraid to fail. In fact, an important lesson for me was that failure is a key part of the pathway to success!

Can you share a pivotal moment in your career or personal life when being authentic made a significant impact on your success or well-being?

A pivotal moment for me in finding authenticity was during a difficult period in my late 30s. I was unhappy, couldn’t fully express myself, and felt locked in who I was — and that person wasn’t someone I liked. There was a constant battle between who I was becoming, and who I truly wanted to be, and it seemed like they were worlds apart. I ended up getting quite sick.

Then, my grandmother came to me in a dream and told me that I needed to find my own “Path of Roses.” I asked her what it was, and she just smiled and told me that I knew where to find it. As you can imagine, I was so frustrated!

At that time, I didn’t realize the answer to my grandmother’s words was rooted in my journey. But over time, I realized that what she meant was that I needed to listen to my inner voice and fully become my authentic self. As soon as I started focusing on becoming my true self, everything changed. It set me on the journey of unlocking my voice and embracing authenticity.

Letting go of what I thought I should be and connecting back to my core opened many doors. It gave me the confidence to become an entrepreneur and take career risks aligned with my values. That experience taught me firsthand the power of living authentically, even when it’s difficult.

What strategies have you found most effective in fostering an environment where employees or team members feel safe to express their true selves, including their ideas, concerns, and aspirations?

Creating a culture of authenticity needs to be cultivated very intentionally by leaders. Some of the most effective strategies are:

· Set regular non-meeting meetings where there’s no agenda, just sharing stories and connecting personally. These informal spaces let people bring their full selves and to share freely.

· Focus on your own role as a leader in modeling the authentic behaviors you want to see. Culture starts from the top, as does setting a tone of openness and vulnerability.

· Cultivate empathy through active, deep listening — this is essential to understand your teams and make others comfortable opening up. Reacting with empathy often matters more than what you say.

How do you navigate the challenges that come with encouraging authenticity in a diverse workplace, where different backgrounds and perspectives may sometimes lead to conflict?

Navigating authenticity in a diverse workplace starts with respect. Creating space for all voices, framing diversity as an asset, and using empathy to understand different perspectives are key.

Mentorship can be the bridge that connects people of different backgrounds. Ultimately, it’s about bringing everyone together into a shared culture, not pitting groups against each other. But that environment must start with leaders who model or exemplify those behaviors!

These approaches enrich the workplace and can help strengthen team cohesion and innovation. By encouraging authentic leaders through the challenges, we build a generation of new leaders that can create an ever-lasting positive impact.

Based on your experience and research, can you please share “5 Ways to Create a Culture Where People Feel Safe to be Authentic?”

1) Self-awareness: Leaders must be clear about their own values and vision, setting the stage for cultural transformation. Do the work on yourself first to clarify your values and purpose for wanting authenticity. Lead from that place of conviction.

For former Medtronic CEO Bill George, crucibles — the challenges that shape us — are key to defining and understanding what drives us, what he refers to as our True North.

Like anything else, this kind of behavior starts with intention and mindset: adopting a learn-it-all mindset rather than a know-it-all attitude, to borrow Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s words, goes a long way in helping shift our behavior.

2) Active listening: Role model authentic behaviors, deep listening, and empathy. Culture starts from the top. Encourage open dialogue and deep listening to understand diverse perspectives.

Take the example of one of my clients — one of the youngest of his peers heading the subsidiary of a large industrial group. Let’s call him Andrew.

When the COVID pandemic broke out, he quickly realized that coming up with solutions from the top was no longer possible because he had no idea what to do. There was no playbook to fix that kind of crisis.

He spent a lot more time at the company’s production sites, which risked having to shut down, to be there for local employees and work with them to find the best way forward. He learned to say “I don’t know” when he didn’t have the answers. He learned to ask more questions and listen better. When looking for solutions to problems, he learned to talk last — and less. And he learned to communicate more with his heart.

3) Empathy: Create a culture of empathy by sharing your own story and encouraging others to do the same to build understanding. Vulnerability inspires vulnerability.

Take Microsoft’s model-coach-care approach to management as an example — model the behavior you’d like your reports to embrace, coach them, and care about them and what matters to them as individuals. And the most effective teams are those made up of people of different backgrounds, experience, and perspectives who are able to understand, respect, and trust each other. Empathy is therefore critical at all echelons, starting at the top.

4) Regular check-ins: Create informal spaces like non-meetings for personal check-ins and sharing who you are.

Back to the story of Andrew, during lockdowns, when many office staff members were battling isolation and anxiety, he helped maintain a sense of connection by sending to everyone in the company regular video messages in which he shared news but also offered support. He organized regular video calls with no work agenda just to catch up with his direct team, and at the start of every meeting or conversation, he took a few minutes to check in.

He wasn’t shy to share some of his own challenges, which created space for others to do the same. He launched support services for staff members who were struggling with mental health. While doing all this, he kept feeding a sense of confidence that, if everyone worked together, they would find solutions to the problems they were facing.

5) Mentorship: Implement mentorship programs to foster deeper connections across differences. There are many ways to do this!

Howard Rankin, who drove Best Buy’s diversity and inclusion efforts, implemented a “reverse” mentorship program that paired executives with employees who would mentor them to help broaden their understanding of differences.

Understanding each other is crucial to building a culture of authenticity.

In your opinion, how does authenticity within an organization influence its relationship with customers, clients, or the broader community?

Authenticity influences an organization’s relationship with customers because it fosters understanding — if you are connected to your inner self and inner voice, it is easier for you to connect with others. Creating this environment will give you the ability to understand your customers and listen to them.

When employees can be themselves, they can better empathize with client needs. This kind of authenticity and understanding will help you anticipate unmet needs and create solutions aligned with what customers truly want. Essentially, it helps you build trust and create lasting value.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The movement I would start is about empowering people to free themselves and find their inner voice. The world needs you to be fully yourself! Imagine the creativity and fulfillment unleashed if we each unlocked our potential by being who we’re meant to be, not who others expect us to be.

It is my dream to help people write their own powerful stories by connecting to their innate talents and purpose. The world needs you!

How can our readers further follow you online?

I’m very active on LinkedIn ( and Instagram ( so please follow me there — I regularly share resources and reflections on leadership, authenticity, and personal growth. I also have a website where you can find many resources in one place:

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About The Interviewer: Vanessa Ogle is an entrepreneur, inventor, writer, and singer/songwriter. She is best known as the founder of Enseo which she and her team grew into one of the largest out-of-home media and connected networks in the world, serving more than 100,000,000 people annually. Vanessa’s talent in building world-class leadership teams focused on diversity, a culture of service, and innovation through inclusion resulted in amazing partnerships and customer relationships. She collaborated with the world’s leading technology and content companies such as Netflix, Amazon, HBO, and Dish Networks to bring innovative solutions to the hospitality industry. Enseo has also held an exclusive contract to provide movies to the entire U.S. armed forces for almost 15 years. Vanessa and her team’s relentless innovation resulted in120+ U.S. Patents. Her favorite product is the MadeSafe solution for hotel workers as well as students and children in their K-12 classrooms. Accolades include: #15 on FAST 100, 50 Fastest Growing Women-Owned 2018–2020, Entrepreneur 360 Best Companies 2018–2020, not to mention the Inc. 500 and then another six times on the Inc. 5000. Vanessa was personally honored with Inc. 100 Female Founder’s Award, Ernst and Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award, and Enterprising Women of the Year. Vanessa now spends her time enjoying her children, sharing stories to inspire and give hope through articles and speaking engagements. entrepreneurs-to-be with her articles including her LinkedIN newsletter Unplugged. In her spare time she writes music with her husband Paul as the band HigherHill, teaches surfing clinics, and trains dogs.

Please connect with Vanessa here on linkedin and subscribe to her newsletter Unplugged as well as follow her on Substack.

Creating a Culture of Courage: Hortense le Gentil On How to Create a Culture Where People Feel Safe… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.