The concept of ‘secure base leadership’ is taken from Bowlby’s work on attachment theory, which describes the dynamics of long term interpersonal relationships.
I first came across it in the context of leadership when I was reading George Kohlreiser’s Care to Dare. Kohlreiser talks about how important it is for the leader to offer a secure base to those he/she would lead and to have secure bases for themselves. A secure base is a long term personal relationship that provides us with enough ‘care’ that we can choose to ‘dare’. The strength of the relationship allows us to take risks, knowing that whatever happens we will not be judged badly. Cultivating secure bases then becomes a critical feature of leadership.
Secure base leaders display 9 key attributes:
1. Stay Calm
Especially under pressure—when other leaders may respond impulsively and unreasonably.
2. Accept the Individual
Acceptance and acknowledgment of the basic worth of others as a human beings—beyond being employees or embodiments of job descriptions. Secure Base Leaders show caring for the human being before focusing on an issue or problem. They separate the person from the problem. As far as possible, they avoid criticising people.
3. See the Potential
Secure Base Leaders see potential talent rather than current functioning or “state.” This goes beyond acceptance of the person’s inherent value and may go beyond what the person expects from him/herself. This is not about short-term potential. Instead, it is about a deeper vision for the person’s deepest potential—not in one year, but in 10 or 20 years.
4. Use Listening and Inquiry
Secure Base Leaders listen and inquire rather than “telling” and advocating. They ask open-ended questions and engage in a dialogue to seek a greater truth.
5. Tell a Powerful Story
They affect people deeply with single sentences or gestures that carry tremendous power and often are remembered for many years. Short, inspirational stories give people direction at times when fear, uncertainty, and doubt permeate the environment.
6. Focus on the Positive
Secure Base Leaders are good at helping people to focus on the positive rather than the negative. They focus on benefits, create images of hope and possibility, and help people visualise goals. They set positive expectations that contribute to improved performance. They help others to see their potential and inspire learning, even in a crisis or time of difficulty. They can give critical feedback while retaining a positive perspective.
7. Encourage Risk Taking
Secure Base Leaders give people opportunities to reach their potential, often with some personal risk attached. Secure Base Leaders dare people to explore their potential by providing opportunities for risk taking. They support autonomy and provide a minimum of control.
8. Inspire Through Intrinsic Motivation
Understand the importance of “intrinsic motivation” to get the best out of people rather than relying on extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation refers to doing something because it is inherently interesting, enjoyable, or fulfilling. Extrinsic motivation gets something done because it leads to an outcome that are not inherent in the task. When intrinsically motivated, a person acts for the learning, enjoyment, or challenge involved rather than because of external pressures or rewards.
9. Signals Accessibility
They remain available and accessible, not appearing ‘too busy for a conversation’. They recognise that supporting others is both urgent and important.
So how do you measure up against these 9 characteristics?