Safety & Confidence: Leaders Need Both

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Two quite different feelings. One goes to a basic need to feel safe, secure, free from imminent threats to our well-being. The opposite of safety is fear, an equally basic and visceral feeling (for more on that see Fear, Self, and Thriving). Both safety and fear are rather primal, private, and powerful emotions. One opens us to life and sparks a calming (parasympathetic) response, while the other has constrictive effects and excites the sympathetic response system (fight-flight-freeze).

Confidence is a social emotion. As such, it exists in relation to social demands and registers internally as a felt sense of potency and readiness to act with efficacy. But even when it is not truly felt inside, we may still express it overtly in our attitude, actions, and demeanor. Moreover, its mere expression may be sufficient to have the desired effect on others. What effects? They concern encouragement - asserting the belief that “yes, we can do it,” giving others reason to believe the same.

A chronic lack of confidence or a situation-specific case of shaken confidence is accompanied by safety concerns. The safety issues may be mild as in tentativeness or a hesitation to act. Or they may register with greater force, such as acute feelings of fear or anxiety. The strength of safety issues is usually proportional to the anticipated risks and feared consequences. But our self-appraisal of risk itself is hardly an objective matter, especially if we happen to be highly stressed or fatigued by chronic strain.

In any case, examining safety issues is usually a good place to start when seeking a more rational, objective appraisal of risks. In the case of mild safety issues, a rather quick gut-check may be sufficient to ground our judgement and convey confidence with credibility. As safety issues grow stronger, and when they become more chronic and pervasive, a more elaborate reflective pause is required.

By elaborate, I do not necessarily mean long in duration, although it may take more time. I mean that we must “work out in detail” (Latin elaborus) what we are feeling unsafe about. That means noticing the way our safety issues register in: 1) our body (tensions, other sensations); 2) our thoughts (facts, assumptions, beliefs); 3) our feelings (worries, doubts, fears); and, 4) our readiness to act (practical knowledge & skills). And this is something we should do with a skilled other.

This dialogue is a reflective pause that creates space for interaction. It includes three elements: Noticing (N), Knowing (K), and Understanding (U). N involves surfacing the themes that register as we scan the four dimensions of awareness. K involves naming these themes and exploring their meaning and implications. U involves getting to the bottom of our felt safety issues to identify a “leading thread,” the best place to start.

At this point, we’ve already achieved a fresh perspective, greater objectivity, and a calmer, clearer mind, all of which are indications of greater safety. As safety grows, so does confidence. There may still be a gap between our true feelings of worry (mild safety issues) and our outer expression of confidence. But things have changed.

Our confidence is now grounded in a rational belief that we can manage the remaining worries. Indeed, by now we’ve discovered that we have a useful “worry detector” to help notice felt (precognitive) needs to reappraise risks along the way. Our worries are examined and seen in proper proportion. Risks are objectively appraised. And we manage them rather than letting them manage us.