The Dance Between Purpose and Safety

If you are an average leader (Who wants to be average? I know!), you are likely subject to your thoughts and feelings much of the time.  You don’t have your feelings. They HAVE you. You aren’t conscious that you’re often afraid, you just ARE scared. You likely won’t easily see it or admit it though.

Since we humans are hard-wired to scan our environment for threats unconsciously much of the time, fear in the workplace is a topic we need to wake up to.

Simon Sinek says good leaders make their people feel safe. I agree. To a point.


Leaders certainly ‘bring the weather’. They create the culture.  And cultures need to be safe enough so people can be themselves, so they can have failures without dire consequences (Listen around min 17 for Safe to Fail Experiments). They also need to inspire risk-taking for forward movement in order to achieve results.  

And sadly, no amount of safety provided by leaders and the culture will be sufficient when individuals in the team are unaware of their own underlying beliefs. Beliefs are usually some version of “To be safe, I need to_____ (comply, control everything, keep my distance, be right all the time.”

Creating and managing the right amount of tension between purpose and safety takes great intention. Many leaders are not yet self-aware enough to manage this tension for themselves, let alone their company cultures.

I’ve noticed that the prevailing mood in some of my client companies is subtle fear.  The leaders we coach in these companies oscillate between pursuing what matters and playing safe, playing not to lose.  One month they will be on fire with purpose. The next month they will be gripped with uncertainty and fear, for themselves and the company. I see the incredible energy riding these waves consumes. And I see how the energy doesn’t translate into the results they so desperately want.

Other client companies dance more in the realm of their purpose, slipping into fear less often. Individual leaders still have uncertainty and fear because they are human. But overall the culture is safe enough that they feel free to be themselves and experiment. Their superior results are the evidence that enough safety + a compelling, shared vision drive results.

Accepting an invitation into the purpose vs. safety dance, we can pose great questions.

How can we:

  • Help our people get their safety needs met so they can live on purpose?
  • Face what is present and name it versus avoiding or wishing it was different?
  • Reveal our own tendencies (how we try to stay safe) and help our people do the same?
  • Lead with backbone and heart and create a safe AND courageous space for our people?
  • Encourage ourselves and our people to feel feelings all the way through so we can move from drama to our vision?

It’s awe-inspiring to witness a leadership team alive with purpose.  It’s soul-sucking to witness a team living in fear.

In the purpose vs. safety dance (or tug of war!), which side is winning at your company right now? And what are you going to do about it?

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