Leaping Into Safety
As I explored in yesterday’s post, I believe that one of the greatest gifts a leader can bring is to make is safe for the people they lead to soar. As I marinated on the subject, and started to trace my best and worst versions of myself through time, I came to realize that I too am at my best when I feel “safe”. Safe to explore and push the boundaries. Safe to go all in. Safe to reveal my true self. Safe.
I know that without a doubt, I am a better leader when I feel safe.
For when I don’t feel safe, it brings out a side in me that….isn’t pretty. It can be reactionary. It can be restrained and tight. It brings out my worst-case-scenario-thinking, my inner critic, naysayer, and petulant-child. I can be forceful, blaming, and resentful. I might feel numb, outraged, or frightened – or, quite mysteriously, all three simultaneously. I don’t feel good about myself. I don’t feel good about others. I compare. I hide. I attack. I whine. I shutdown. I eat. A lot.
(Fess up. You do some of these things too, when you don’t feel safe. You’ve likely got your own customized-list! Welcome to being human!)
Conventional thinking may lead us to believe that needing to feel safe is weak. As surely people who are truly powerful don’t need safety. And yet I think that perhaps this thinking is at the root of the problem. Perhaps true power is only accessible when we feel safe.
When I looked up “safety” on Wikipedia, here is what I found:
Safety is the state of being “safe” (from French sauf), the condition of being protected against physical, social, spiritual, financial, political, emotional, occupational, psychological, educational or other types or consequences of failure, damage, error, accidents, harm or any other event which could be considered non-desirable.
That’s pretty all-encompassing, don’t you think? So an SVP who is worried that her boss might humiliate her in a meeting likely doesn’t feel any safer than a front-line manager who is waiting to find out if he’s on the riff-list for this month’s layoffs, or a technical SME who is terrified of speaking in public and needs to present his findings at an upcoming conference. The internal experience is the same. Safety isn’t just about protection from physical harm, or being worried about food and shelter. Sometimes it’s our self-definition that’s under attack. Our beliefs that are challenged. Our status. Bonds of trust that are broken.
And if it’s critical for us, as leaders, to find a way to make it safe for others to bring out their best, or as actor Charles Esten said in the interview I transcribed yesterday, provide “a stable ground (for them) from which to fly”, then perhaps (in light of all the lovely behaviors that show up in the face of our safety being in jeopardy) our first commitment should be to ourselves. To make it safe for ourselves to soar.
I find it so interesting, that often when we think of safety, we think: protection. We think of blocking and guarding and fending off something that is somehow against us. It’s defensive. But perhaps the anecdote to not feeling safe is the opposite? Maybe it’s taking the offensive – not in terms of attack, but in terms of action.
In the theatre, actors are trained to observe themselves. To pay attention to how they feel, and how tension manifests in their bodies and behaviors. When they don’t feel safe, they can identify it. They can name it. But here’s the key: they don’t judge it.
For when you can name it – without judgement – you can do something about it.
Now, does that mean the “doing something” is going to be easy? Nope. In fact it’s probably going to be pretty scary.
To understand and ask for what we need.
To respect ourselves enough to make powerful and often difficult choices.
To set aside our egos and take responsibility for the work that needs to be done.
In the theatre we say that playing it safe is the most dangerous thing you can do. Ironic, isn’t it? That true safety is so counter-intuitive?
Perhaps if we wish to be the kind of leaders that make it possible for others to soar, we must be willing to be the first to leap into safety.