By Jaime Goff
In 1979, John Bowlby, the creator of attachment theory (one of the most influential psychological theories), said, “Human beings of all ages are happiest and able to deploy their talents to best advantage when they are confident that, standing behind them, there are one or more trusted persons who will come to their aid should difficulties arise.”
Leaders’ ability to take risks and lead courageously is developed not in the leadership context but rather in the context of the leader’s most intimate relationships. I have observed a common theme in my work as a therapist. We tend to think of having courage, taking risks, and facing fears as being required in the face of what most of us would consider to be “big” circumstances. However, the things that take the most courage have to do with facing what is vulnerable within us and taking the risk to share it with our closest intimates. These “small” risks are what enable us to have courage in the face of “big” events.
For most of us, our deepest fears relate to experiences of rejection, loneliness, and a desire to be loved and accepted. These fears are developed through lifelong experiences, going back to infancy and whether or not our caretakers were responsive to us. We are continually shaped by our interactions with others. We learn early in life whether or not it is safe to take the risk to express these fears in the form of needs and desires. If we risk and are rewarded with attunement and responsiveness, our fear subsides, and we have courage to risk in the future. If we risk and receive in return rejection or criticism, our fears are confirmed. As a result, we bury those fears deeper so as not to experience rejection again.
If they are characterized by vulnerability, risk-taking, attunement, and responsiveness, our intimate relationships serve as the “secure base” from which we launch into our work, our faith communities, and our leadership roles. From our earliest childhood experiences, we develop expectations about how people will react when we are vulnerable and express our needs. Even in the absence of affirmation of our needs in childhood, however, the neuroplasticity of our brains allows us to alter our expectations in adulthood. This is most effectively accomplished in intimate relationships in which we feel accepted, supported, and validated.
Research has shown over and over that leaders who have security in their most intimate relationships see themselves as more effective and are capable of dealing with novel situations. Secure intimate relationships enable leaders to focus on the needs of their followers and work to enhance others’ competency. Leaders in secure relationships are characterized by self-awareness, relational transparency, balanced internal processing, and an internalized moral perspective.
If, as a leader, you are fearful, timid, and lack courage, it may be best to begin addressing these issues by examining your closest relationships:
- How might the quality of your intimate relationships be affecting your ability to lead effectively?
- Are you aware of your deepest fears and the needs they express?
- Do you feel like you have a secure base in an intimate relationship?
- If not, what keeps you from taking the risks necessary to develop security in your relationship?