Secure Base Leadership: What It Means and Why It Really Matters

By George Kohlrieser, Susan Goldsworthy, and Duncan Coombe

Great leaders all over the world aim to unleash astonishing potential within themselves, their people and their organizations. Secure Base Leadership is the key to doing this more effectively.

A Secure Base Leader builds trust, delivers change and inspires the focus that people need to actively engage in their work and create conditions for innovation. Secure Base Leaders generate high performance by acting as a “secure base” for the people they lead.

What is a Secure Base?

The term “secure base” comes from the post-war attachment theory research of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. According to this theory, all humans have an innate desire to seek closeness to and comfort from a person who gives them a sense of protection.

Without that sense of protection, when an actual or perceived threat to survival emerges, the human brain prompts the person to resist change or avoid risk. However, when a secure base provides the person with that sense of protection, the person can turn the focus away from pain, danger, fear or loss toward a focus on reward, opportunity or benefit.

For the purposes of our work in modern organizations, we define a “secure base” as:

a person, place, goal or object that provides a sense of protection, safety and caring and offers a source of inspiration and energy for daring, exploration, risk taking and seeking challenge.

Therefore, a secure base is someone or something that inspires or brings forth energy within an individual. With inspiration and energy from a secure base, individuals step out of their comfort zones and strive to fulfill their untapped potential.

Your relationships with your secure bases are fundamental to understanding yourself as an adult and as a leader.

The strongest secure bases are often people. Your first secure base was likely your mother, your father, a grandparent or another significant caregiver.

A secure base can also be anything that shuts down your brain’s resistance to change or risk and provides you with the energy and inspiration to seek challenge. Therefore, places, goals and objects can be secure bases, as can a country, a religion or God, an event, a group, or even a pet.

Basically, a relationship with any entity that enhances your inner sense of safety and inspires exploration can be a secure base. The stronger the secure base, the more resilient you becomes in the face of adverse or stressful circumstances.

Everyone needs both people and goals as secure bases. Goals provide both a sense of security that comes from knowing the destination and also the aspect of stretch that inspires great achievement.

What is Secure Base Leadership?

Leadership is all about inspiring and harnessing energy. As a Secure Base Leader, you harness your energy to mobilize individuals, teams and organizations to use their energy to accomplish a goal or mission you articulate. In the process, you and your people achieve more than you ever thought possible. Therefore, our definition of Secure Base Leadership is:

the way a leader builds trust and influences others by providing a sense of protection, safety and caring and by providing a source of inspiration that together produce energy for daring, exploration, risk taking and seeking challenge.

By choosing to be a Secure Base Leader, you step into the deeply influential position to change the firmly ingrained self-beliefs of your people. According to leadership guru Warren Bennis, “The basis of leadership is the capacity of the leader to change the mindset, the framework of another person.” You choose whether you will influence that mindset in a positive or negative way. When you act as a secure base, your influence is positive.

Why? Secure Base Leadership emphasizes both the relational nature of leadership (people) and the operational aspect of getting work done (process). It certainly involves how you deal with decision-making, issues, situations and problems.

However, it is more than just driving numbers. It’s about how you inspire people. By articulating inspiring goals that can themselves become secure bases for your people, your organization will realize success in terms of results. By focusing on people, you can also inspire and engage others to realize their own astonishing potential.

Becoming a Secure Base Leader

Secure Base Leadership is extremely deep and powerful, but it does not take years to learn. In fact, you already have the keys within you: your life story, your experiences and the way you have internalized successes and failures.

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If you are like many executives we meet, you may have been “taken hostage” by a boss, a team, an employee, a customer, a situation or by the pressure to achieve results. In other words, you may feel powerless and unable to escape these constraints.

In the pursuit of financial success, you may even have lost sight of the importance of relationships and how they impact real and sustainable success. Secure Base Leadership, based on trust, confidence and challenge, is the best way to liberate yourself, your team and your organization from being held hostage.

Secure Base Leaders achieve sustainable high performance simply by tapping into their own secure bases and becoming a secure base for other people. They challenge themselves and others to see and achieve what is beyond normal expectation. By definition, these leaders push people beyond their comfort zones and inspire them to do what seemed impossible. They stretch others to the very edge of risk and possibility.

You can become a Secure Base Leader in your work and in your life. As a Secure Base Leader, you stand on the shoulders of those people who have influenced you. Then, you use your influence to unleash the positive potential of your people. You let others stand on your shoulders.

No matter where you work or who you work with, how little support you feel, how small your budget, or how busy you are, you can learn Secure Base Leadership skills and develop a way of being and doing that delivers sustainable results through inspired relationships. You can learn to care to dare.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons, Inc. from Care to Dare: Unleashing Astonishing Potential Through Secure Base Leadership, by George Kohlrieser, Susan Goldsworthy, and Duncan Coombe. Copyright (c) 2012.

George Kohlrieser
George Kohlrieser is an organizational and clinical psychologist, a professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior, and, creator and director of the flagship High Performance Leadership Program at one of the world’s leading business schools, IMD (International Institute for Management Development), located in Switzerland. Contact him at george.kohlrieser@imd.ch. Susan Goldsworthy is founder and CEO of Goldswolf & Associates, a company specializing in leadership development, and is also on the faculty at Webster University in Geneva. Contact her at goldswolf@mac.com . Duncan Coombe is a teacher, researcher, and advisor. He is on the faculty of Ashridge Business School and is a consultant to the Fowler Center for Sustainable Value. Contact him at duncan@duncancoombe.com.