How to Be a Secure Base Leader

Excerpt from モCARE TO DARE: Unleashing Astonishing Potential Through Secure Base Leadershipヤ by George Kohlrieser, Susan Goldsworthy, and Duncan Coombe (Jossey-Bass, 2012).

“CARE TO DARE: Unleashing Astonishing Potential Through Secure Base Leadership” teaches leaders how to consider all the needs of their followers, providing the tools necessary to free people from the fear and pressure holding them back—and to become inspiring, energizing leaders.

By George Kohlrieser, Ph.D.; Susan Goldsworthy; and Duncan Coombe, Ph.D.

Secure Base Leaders engage in a high level of caring and also encourage a high level of daring. In this way, both the leader and their followers can reach the highest levels of performance and have the most positive impact on others. We call that place the “sweet spot” of leadership. This sweet spot is of particular relevance to organizations focused on learning, innovation, and change.

Unfortunately, we can’t give you a precise recipe for the sweet spot. Secure Base Leaders mix together nine characteristics in just the right way, at just the right time, to provide just the right amount of safety and encourage just the right amount of risk. Even though Secure Base Leadership is more of an art that responds to the sensitivities at hand than a science based on codified behavior, the behaviors of Secure Base Leaders are clear, practical, and learnable. In fact, you already may be exhibiting some of these nine characteristics:

1. Stays Calm

A Secure Base Leader remains composed and dependable, especially when under pressure—times at which other leaders may respond impulsively and unreasonably. In fact, this characteristic is so fundamental that a leader needs to master it before he is able to portray other characteristics.

2. Accepts the Individual

Our research shows that a key component of being a Secure Base Leader is an acceptance and acknowledgment of the basic worth of others as a human beings—beyond being employees or manifestations 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 judging and criticizing people. This approach makes other people feel legitimized and affirmed.

3. Sees the Potential

Secure Base Leaders see the employee’s potential talent versus his current functioning or “state.” This characteristic goes beyond acceptance of the person’s inherent value and possibly even goes beyond what the person expects from himself. Importantly, this characteristic is not about short-term potential. Instead, it is about a deeper vision or even a dream for the person’s deepest potential—not in one year, but in 10 or 20 years.

4. Uses Listening and Inquiry

Secure Base Leaders listen and inquire rather than “telling” and advocacy.

Secure Base Leaders do not follow the all-too common pattern of launching into monologues to convince others of their point of view. Instead, they master the arts of asking open-ended questions and engaging in a dialogue to seek a greater truth. Listening and inquiry open up the possibility for bonding, help a leader encourage appropriate risk taking, and are critical components of giving and receiving effective feedback.

5. Delivers a Powerful Message

Secure Base Leaders have the ability to affect people deeply with single sentences or gestures that carry tremendous power and often are remembered for many years. People don’t remember rambling paragraphs; they remember pithy phrases that respected people deliver as the right message at the right time—the parent who says, “You always have a choice”; the coach who says, “I believe in you”; or the boss who says, “One day you will sit in this chair.”

Memorable, powerful messages shine like a beacon in the fog of change. Short, inspirational messages give people direction at times when fear, uncertainty, and doubt permeate the environment.

6. Focuses on the Positive

Secure Base Leaders are good at directing the Mind’s Eye of other people to focus on the positive rather than the negative. They focus on benefits, create images of hope and possibility, and help people visualize the attainment of a goal. They set positive expectations that contribute to improved follower performance. In so doing, they help others to see their potential and inspire learning, even in a crisis or time of difficulty. Note that you can be tough and give critical feedback while retaining a positive perspective.

7. Encourages Risk Taking

In very concrete ways, Secure Base Leaders give their people opportunities to reach their potential, many times with some personal risk attached. This characteristic goes beyond acceptance and beyond seeing the potential: It takes those concepts into direct action.

Secure Base Leaders actively dare people to unleash their potential by providing tangible opportunities for risk taking. They support the autonomy of their followers, and their followers do not feel over-controlled.

8. Inspires Through Intrinsic Motivation

Secure Base Leaders 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. Compare that to extrinsic motivation in which a person does something because it leads to an outcome that is separable from the pure task. Common extrinsic rewards in business are bonuses and promotions. When intrinsically motivated, a person is moved to act for the learning, enjoyment, or challenge involved rather than because of external pressures or rewards.

9. Signals Accessibility

Secure Base Leaders are perceived to be accessible and available rather than detached and unavailable or “too busy.”

Don’t panic that you are about to lose your weekends and evenings to your colleagues! It turns out that physical proximity and frequency of interaction are less important than conveying the spirit and intention that you are available. In fact, many Secure Base Leaders are neither in regular contact nor physically present to the people they influence. Many of the most powerful conversations Secure Base Leaders have, in fact, are very brief and direct. One could almost think of this characteristic as the psychological presence of a secure base leader who plays a role even when not physically there.

You do not need to master each and every one of these characteristics to provide the right balance of caring and daring. Instead, pick one or two to focus on at a time. You—and the people who work for you—will be grateful you did.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher Jossey-Bass from
“CARE TO DARE: Unleashing Astonishing Potential Through Secure Base
Leadership” by George Kohlrieser, Susan Goldsworthy, and Duncan Coombe.
Copyright 2012. For more information, visit

Organizational and clinical psychologist George Kohlrieser Ph.D., is a professor of Leadership at IMD and the author of, “CARE TO DARE.” Susan Goldsworthy is a former Olympic finalist and leadership development executive. Duncan Coombe, Ph.D., is a global organizational consultant/academic.

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