Making it Safe to Soar
“(He’s given us) a stable ground to fly from. To just jump off. To feel…because you need feel that that kind of freedom. Because we’re all very nervous – to put our selves out there. But there’s a safety required to soar as much as you might. And without that safety you’re hesitant. You don’t go all the way. You don’t trust yourself. But as soon as you’re feeling that utter safety… That you know – nothing is going to get through this net that isn’t going to be as excellent as it can be – then you’re like…’Alright, I can try that. Alright, I can try that. Alright, let’s go there.’ And we all feel safe enough to just go for it.”
– Actor Charles Esten who plays Deacon Claybourne on the series Nashville (talking about Musician, Songwriter, Producer, T Bone Burnett)
When people talk about the role of leadership, they often mention “to inspire” or “to influence” or “to set direction” but something that often gets overlooked, and in my book is critical, is that a leader’s role is “to make is safe” for people to play full out.
As 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.
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 the CEO 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 quote up above, provide “a stable ground (for them) from which to fly”, then perhaps 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 internally, 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 decisions.
To set aside our egos and take responsibility for the work that needs to be done.
Bringing mindfulness to our own internal experiences so that we can take the actions we need to take, to make ourselves feel safe. To ensure that our reactions don’t jeopardize the safety of those around us.
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.
©OnStage Leadership, 2014
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