Leadership Lessons from Bear Grylls: 3 Ways to be a Secure Base

Todd Hall
December 16, 2015

One the foundational jobs of a leader is to create a secure base for employees and the team. A great example of this is Bear Grylls in his show called “Running Wild with Bear Grylls.” If you haven’t seen the show, in each episode he takes a different celebrity on a two-day adventure. The celebrities quickly form a bond with Bear because of the challenging situations they face—repelling down steep cliffs, jumping in crocodile infested waters, etc. When faced with a scary obstacle, the celebrities realize in short order that they must rely on Bear to help them get through. They must rely on him as a secure base.

In one episode, MCNBC anchor and reporter Tamron Hall and Bear are moving down the face of a large rock. As Bear goes first, she comments that she is getting more nervous the farther away Bear gets. He is functioning as her secure base and she--understandably--wants him to be close by. At another point, Tamron is faced with repelling down a large cliff that’s basically straight down. She is visibly freaked out as most people would be. Bear, in his quietly confident style, instructs her and reassures her that everything will be OK. With a rope tied around her waist, she backs over the edge of a cliff along with Bear. She is shaking and scared, but she goes for it. Why? A lot of courage, and a lot of secure base in Bear Grylls. In this short period of time, Tamron came to trust that Bear truly “had her back,” and that he knew what he was doing. And this wasn’t theoretical trust; this was real trust that empowered her to take real risks and conquer her fears.

So, what exactly is a “secure base” and how do you create it for those you serve?

The idea of a secure base comes from attachment theory. An attachment figure is a person you look to for two things: 1) comfort and protection when you’re distressed, and 2) emotional accessibility to give you the confidence to explore the world and take risks. The prototypical attachment figure is a parent, but leaders also function as attachment figures in many ways. There is a growing research literature demonstrating that leaders with a secure attachment promote a number of positive outcomes in their followers. One of the key aspects of a secure attachment is providing a secure base for those under your care.

In an excellent recent book, Care to Dare: Unleashing Astonishing Potential through Secure Base Leadership, George Kohlrieser, Susan Goldsworthy and Duncan Coombe [1] directly apply attachment theory to leadership. The book is based partly on a qualitative study of how leaders provide a secure base for their people. They found 9 ways leaders provide a secure base.

Below I outline three of these practices that will help you become a connected leader.

1. Stay calm. One of the most common ways people reported their leaders provided a secure base was by remaining calm, especially during difficult times. This requires managing your emotions under pressure and distress and avoiding what is called an “amygdala hijack.” In the amygdala hijack, you lose your cool often due to the perception of threat. Sensory information enters the brain through the thalamus, and then through one pathway known as the “low road” where it goest straight to the amygdala, which is responsible for extracting the emotional meaning of a message. [2] This “low road” brain circuit doesn’t communicate initially with the higher (cortical) processing systems of the brain such as the sensory cortex and the hippocampus that are believed to be involved in thinking, reasoning, and consciousness (the “high road”).

While you can’t prevent all amygdala hijacks, there are ways to work around them. The main way to do this is to put structures in place to remove yourself from situations where you might respond with your amygdala hijacked. For example, shut down your email if your tempted to respond to an email while angry.  Leave the office and take a walk to cool down before attempting to deal with a problem that has your amygdala hijacked.  Reschedule a meeting if you need more time to process and cool off.  If you don’t have the internal space to respond productively to a situation, then you have to create that space externally.

On the positive side, staying calm communicates confidence to your people that everything will be OK. When they see this calmness in you, they catch the feeling, and this calms their fears and helps them to focus on the issues at hand.

Bear Grylls remains calm even when his celebrity adventurers are anxious or downright scared. His calmness provides a certain comfort and borrowed confidence, which helps them to stay focused on what they need to do.

2. Accept the individual. Connected leaders treat others with the dignity and respect that any human being deserves. This goes beyond seeing someone as just an employee, or as a means to the end of getting work done. If there is a problem, you separate the person from the problem. This is especially important when someone is under-performing. I recently met with a manager dealing with such a situation. Because he genuinely cared about his employee, he didn’t accept subpar performance because that is not in his employee's or the team's best interest. But he did accept the individual as a person, and because of that, he dealt with the performance issues head-on and attempted to help his employee improve and develop.

Not all the celebrities on Running Wild respond to the challenges with grace, but Bear consistently accepts them regardless of how they respond. He communicates respect for them, and praises their courage and the little steps in facing their fears.

Think about what you can do to communicate acceptance of people based on their unique personalities, strengths, and contributions.

3. Encourage risk taking. One aspect of a secure base is to encourage people to take appropriate risks.  This doesn't mean throwing someone in the deep end of something way beyond their capacity.  We sometimes feel like we should do this because it was done to us.  This is an unhelpful practice you don't want to pass down.  Encouraging risk taking means you need to see their potential, and believe in them, and communicate this. It involves inspiring others to believe that they can do more than they ever thought possible. Part of what empowers people to take risks is they they feel accepted (#2) and that they trust that you will be there to catch them if they fall.

Bear not only provides the security that empower risks, he encourages and inspires his celebrity adventurers to take them. He constantly praises them for their courage and determination, and communicates that he believes they can handle the challenge before them.

So, show your people that you believe in them, that you have their back, and that you see beyond their limited vision for themselves. Inspire them to take risks that will help them grow and reach their full potential. Be there for them when they stumble, and cheer them on to keep moving forward.

When they reach the end of the adventure, every celebrity on Running Wild ends with a new found confidence from doing something they never thought they could do.  Some even describe it as a spiritual experience.  When you see your people experience this new level of confidence, you will have your reward in full.

I hope these practices help you become a secure base for the people you serve.

Reflection Question

Who has been a secure base for you and how did they demonstrate this?  I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

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[1] George Kohlrieser, Susan Goldsworthy and Duncan Coombe. Care to Dare: Unleashing Astonishing Potential through Secure Base Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2015).

[2] Joseph LeDoux, The Emotional Brain (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 161.