In challenging times, leaders can support their people through the turbulence by being secure bases. To do this effectively, they must first be secure bases for themselves.
The global measures caused by the Covid-19 pandemic changed our lives as we knew them. The dramatic changes evoke a sense of loss of our assumptive world—that is the assumptions or beliefs about the world which we have come to rely on and that provide our sense of reality, meaning, or purpose to life.1 In such times of great uncertainty it is easy and normal for people to feel a sense of anxiety, restlessness, and despair.
For organisations to support the wellbeing of their employees, it is important to create a sense of safety that switches off the flashlight of fear. A vital aspect of creating psychological safety is for a leader to be a secure base, 2 someone who provides a sense of acceptance and support, as well as stretching and challenging the other person to fulfil her or his potential. This concept links to the activating tendency 3, the in-built motivation of all living things to fulfil their potential. What makes the difference to how well they flourish is the conditions that surround them.
Just as a sunflower will grow bigger and stronger if it is in the right type of soil with enough sunlight, so too will people develop in a more sustainable way if people who support and encourage their growth surround them. Human beings are a social species and so a key need for healthy functioning is that of acceptance as well as a need to feel a sense of belonging and inclusion. Once they feel safe enough, then they want to achieve, to make a difference, to do something meaningful. It is this combination of what can be termed as ‘caring’ and ‘daring’ that creates secure base leadership.
Amidst the many unknowns of today’s world, secure base leaders practise staying calm in a crisis, supporting others by holding a space for them to vent, to share, and to just be themselves without judgment. Acknowledging any pain or loss, the secure base leader then helps to frame the situation in such a way that people can co-create possibilities together.
In a business environment where rational logic is favoured, as executives the world over emerge from periods of lockdown, working from home, and spending their days on an endless stream of virtual video and phone calls, it will be important to be aware of and allow for the expression of the mixed emotions that may arise. In order to be able to effectively lead others, secure base leaders must first learn to self-regulate and manage their own emotions to remain in an engaged and healthy state.
Therefore, self-care is a vital leadership skill. Given the time pressures all leaders face, it is essential to build in realistic and practical routines to everyday life. Five simple areas that support human wellbeing are as follows:
- Practise mini-mindfulness moments: take 30 seconds or a minute, two or three times per day to stop what you are doing, take four deep breaths, and simply ‘be’;
- Build in celebratory moments: use simple rituals to treat yourself. For example, pick a favourite cup for your tea or coffee;
- Keep connected to living things: as well as people, make time to connect with the ‘more-than-human world’; take a walk outside, spend moments with pets, or take a photo of nature per day on your phone;
- Journal regularly: write down your thoughts and feelings, including frustrations, on a regular basis, reflecting on, and processing the day and capturing learnings; and
- Focus on gratitude: at the end of each day, think about what you have been grateful for or consider what or whom you have appreciated in the past 24 hours.
By following these simple techniques, leaders can take steps to better manage their own mental state so that they can help others to manage theirs. Remember that secure base leaders need secure bases themselves too. In the adapted words of poet John Donne, “No person is an island entire of itself, every person is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
When a leader extends the secure base concept to the whole team; organisation; or even to the community, then the positive impacts multiply. People are more empowered, more engaged, and have a greater sense of wellbeing. Secure base environments also stimulate creativity and innovation because once their acceptance needs are met, people feel safe enough to be curious and playful.
Given the social, physical, and economic hardships that are emerging because of the global pandemic and the impact of the lockdowns around the world, there is an even greater need for compassionate leadership. By looking after themselves, leaders can be better secure bases for each other for the benefit of all.
1 Loss of the assumptive world: A theory of traumatic loss edited by Jeffrey Kaufman. Routledge Publications
2 Care to Dare: Unleashing potential through secure base leadership by Kohlreiser, Goldsworthy & Coombe, Jossey Bass
3 On becoming a person: a therapist’s view of psychotherapy by Carl Rogers, Constable
Affiliate Professor of Leadership & Organizational Change at IMD, and a former Olympic finalist, Susan is passionate about working with people to turn knowledge into behaviour and to increase consciousness about our interconnectivity in this magical, more-than-human world.
She is co-author of three award-winning leadership books, Care to Dare, Choosing Change, and the recently released Where the Wild Things Were, for people of all ages, to raise awareness of biodiversity loss.
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