The greatest calling of leadership is to awaken greatness in others

John Bull
May 10, 2021

Secure Base Leadership, and the lessons from it for us as managers

Every now and then one comes across an idea so powerful and so instinctively true, it opens up a completely new way of looking at the world. This is the level of impact the ideas behind 'Secure Base Leadership', set out below, have had on our thinking around high performance leadership.

Here's to the giants on whose shoulders we stand as leaders!'

'Without the support of his mentor, no Mahatma Gandhi; without the inspiration and ideas of Gandhi, no Martin Luther King; without the impact of King no Barak Obama...'

In May of 1893, one week after arriving in South Africa, a young 24 year old Gandhi stood up in front of a local meeting of fellow countrymen from India, to give his first public speech. He was appealing for the need to do something about the prejudices they were suffering, but there was little in his speech that day to suggest that this was a man capable of changing the world. He was nervous, unsure of his words and softly spoken; and within minutes he was being ignored by all but a few people in the audience. He was forced to sit down before finishing his speech. Sapped of all resolve, he was contemplating returning to India (where he had already failed as a lawyer), when a wealthy and highly respected merchant approached him and asked him to dinner to explore his ideas further. The merchant was inspired by his idealism, and persuaded him to stay for another year with an offer to mentor him in his public speaking and influencing skills. By the time Gandhi left South Africa a decade later, he had won the Indian people equal rights on many fronts, and was well on the way to inspiring a world wide civil rights movement which is still continuing today.

The point of this story is not to highlight Gandhi's eventual greatness as a leader, but the importance of the merchant who acted as a 'secure base' to his development in those early stages; giving him cause to believe in his own potential, some much needed guidance, and constant encouragement as his influence began to grow. In his autobiography, Gandhi makes reference to how the faith shown by this merchant continued to give him strength and confidence throughout challenging times in his life.

Defining what we mean by a 'secure base' and 'secure base leadership'

'Secure Bases' are the people (or goals, experiences, belief systems, environments etc.) which give us confidence to believe in ourselves and reach for our potential. They serve as a solid foundation on which we stand and push forward from. The term originates from the work of John Bowlby and 'attachment theory', where he described how children were much more confident and took more risks when they had the 'secure base' of a parent or carer in the room. The relevance of the concept to the study of high performance in adults, is that secure bases create an enduring sense of security and self confidence which allows us to switch off the defensive and 'fight or flight' mechanisms in our brain, and seek out positive opportunities and challenges.

'Secure Base Leadership' is a phrase popularised by George Kohlrieser in his book 'Care to Dare'; and is a collective term for the qualities and skills of leaders who excel at drawing out and developing the potential in others by providing an optimal balance of support and challenge.

Many readers will already be familiar with the 'challenge and support' model often used to help managers reflect on the quality of the performance environment they are creating. Up until now, much of the writing on high performance has focused more on the 'challenge' side of this model. By introducing the concept of 'secure bases' into our thinking on leadership, George has redressed this balance, while also deepening our understanding of interdependence between the two factors. Just to be clear, challenge is still as important as ever - if you feel safe and secure, but have no meaningful focus to challenge and push you, you will obviously achieve little. But the new insight here is that as humans we are not able to operate at our best if we do not feel secure and confident.  This may seem obvious and deceptively simple, but in our experience, a failure to create this 'secure base' is at the heart of why many well intended efforts to improve performance struggle.

Combining our own research with George’s work, we set out below ten key qualities of a Secure Base Leader. As you read through these qualities, reflect on examples of Secure Base Leaders who have had a powerful impact on your own development, and the qualities from this framework you recognise in their approach.

...'Here's to the unseen giants on whose shoulder's we stand!'

The 10 defining qualities of Secure Base Leadership

1. Engagement – able to inspire people behind a great goal

The first question Helen Scott, a physio working with amputees, asks new patients is 'what do you most want to learn to do for yourself?' When Scottish climber Jamie Andrew, who had just lost both legs and arms, said he wanted to learn to climb again, she responded without missing a beat, 'okay, let's do it.'

One of Steve Job's signature strengths as a leader was his ability to instil in his engineers a belief they could do the seemingly impossible. Take the development of 'Mac Air'; several years before the product was launched, he laid down the gauntlet by placing a mock up of a 10 mm thin lap top on the desk and declaring 'this is what we should be trying to build'!

Challenging goals, provided we buy in to them, give our work meaning and purpose, and they are a great source of energy.

2. Accepts people for who they are - unconditional positive regard without judgment

At its core, this is about valuing people for who they are as an individual, making them feel welcome and important. It's also about encouraging people to be themselves without fear of judgement (not try and be someone they're not), and showing an interest in the person beyond their role - including their interests and passions, or challenges they might be facing.

This approach makes people feel legitimised and affirmed; and it has a huge impact on their loyalty for a leader or organisation that shows them this level of respect. Once people trust that they will not be judged, they will let their guard down and become much more honest.

This does not mean that Secure Base leaders don't have challenging conversations around performance; quite the opposite actually. The deep trust their respect for the individual creates, enables them to have very honest discussions about performance and what is required. If there are issues, they will separate the person (and their intrinsic value as a human) from the issue.

3. Sees the potential in people

This is one of the most common attributes people remember about the leadership of people who have had a great impact on their growth and development. Secure base leaders see beyond people's current performance to what they believe they are capable of. They often see potential in people they don't even recognise in themselves, and they communicate this to the person.

It is this belief in people's untapped potential which allows these leaders to challenge their teams to aspire to and achieve great things. One of our favourite examples of this is the true story of a new teacher who misinterpreted a list she was given of her class’ locker numbers for a list of their IQ scores (all over 130); and on the basis of her belief in their potential, challenged them to extraordinary levels of performance.

4. Gives a lot of responsibility and encourages risk taking

In leadership, this is about giving people opportunities to reach for and develop their potential through the delegation of significant areas of responsibility and autonomy; often accepting some personal risk as a leader to do so. This goes beyond seeing potential in people, by translating that faith in them into tangible action.

The willingness on the part of the leader to take a risk on someone is critical. Without risk, there is no way to know how far someone can go. Only by giving people chances can you learn what they are capable of. This demonstration of trust in people's potential is hugely motivating and very powerful as a development tool. When you give people a chance to stretch themselves, particularly if combined with the opportunity for feedback, you set up 'experiential learning'.

5. Builds confidence with positive feedback

While it can seem a relatively simple and even insignificant action to us as a leader; taking the time to give someone positive feedback (particularly when specific) has a hugely positive impact on both motivation and confidence.

In the course of our high performance research with Innocent Drinks, we had the opportunity one day to speak with a temp receptionist who had only arrived that morning. Although she had been in the business for less than three hours, she was already buzzing because one of the Founders had noticed she was new, and had gone out of his way to thank her for her initiative in bringing a potential client up stairs in person.

6. Signals accessibility

People believe that their Secure Base Leaders are always accessible and available; as apposed to detached and unavailable or 'too busy'. Thankfully, this does not mean you need to give up massive amounts of your personal time. This is not about physical proximity (always been there) or frequency of interaction. The reality is that the leaders we studied didn't spend any more time with their teams than those who were seen as less accessible, in fact in many cases they spent less time. What matters is the knowledge that they are available if needed. And when they are with people, they give them 100% of their attention. This makes these interactions very powerful.

7. Remains calm

Secure Base Leaders act as safe harbour in a storm, helping others to stay calm, composed and able to continue performing at their best; even when under enormous pressure.

This was a key characteristic of the leadership of Jean Krantz, flight controller during the Apollo 13 disaster. By keeping his head, he allowed the people around him to keep theirs, and to operate at their peak in coming up with innovative solutions to each new problem as it arose. Note he was calm, not laid back. There was urgency in his leadership, as there needed to be, but there was no panic.

8.  Uses listening and enquiry

They show a style preference towards listening and enquiry rather than 'telling' and advocacy. They are very skilled at dialogue, including enquiry, listening to understand and asking powerful coaching questions to provoke new lines of thinking and draw out the best in the person. They are also very curious and open to other people’s ideas.

This is not to say they don't give direction, they absolutely do, but the balance towards coaching reflects their belief in the potential of people and a genuine interest in their ideas.

9. Focused on learning rather than blame

One of the most interesting characteristics of the high performing environments and leaders we have worked with, is their focus on driving speed of learning. The best predictor of success in a highly competitive or fast changing environment, is how fast you are learning - not where you are now. When things go wrong, Secure Base Leaders send a very powerful message about what matters long term by focusing on the learning rather than blame.

10. Skill in ‘reframing’ – the ability to deliver a powerful message (nugget of wisdom) which gives people a useful focus in difficult times

Secure Base Leaders have the ability to impact people deeply, and cut through negative mindsets, with single sentences/statements which reframe their minds towards a focus which they can draw strength from.

Minutes before King George the VI gave his famous speech on the day WWII was declared, made famous for his struggle with stuttering by the film 'the King's Speech', Winston Churchill told the King he had himself struggled with a speech impediment from the time he was a boy. This gave the King enormous strength. Note the skill of Churchill to know exactly what to say, while everyone else just watched with growing anxiety. Incidentally, Churchill was telling the truth - he speaks in his journals of the hours he practiced making speeches to overcome his difficulties with spoken speech.

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