Why Great Leaders Make You Feel Safe

I recently attended a business lunch which featured the CEO of a major corporation who gave a talk on his “unique” perspective on leadership.

Given his somewhat illustrious track record, the audience and I gave him a chance, hoping he’d avoid the prototypical leadership jargon that we’ve all heard hundreds of times. He lost us in the first 3 minutes after saying something along the lines of “you must be a servant leader” and “leadership is a choice”. After that, his talk never recovered.

I left that lunch bored to tears and somewhat agitated. I kept wondering to myself, “Will anyone ever have a refreshing take on what leadership truly means?”.

I mean, we’ve all had horrible bosses or supervisors who we’ve wished would just go and… well you can finish that sentence. But so few of us have been lucky enough to have worked for someone who has truly inspired us and who we’d have done nearly anything for.

So what is it that separates the two? Why is it that we fall in love with certain leaders and despise or ignore others?

The Safety Circle

Management theorist, Simon Sinek, suggests that what makes a great leader is someone who creates an environment that makes their employees feel safe and secure. Someone who draws employees into a “safety circle”.

This idea of a safety circle isn’t new. Actually, it’s not new at all.  It originates back tens of thousands of years ago when early hunter-gatherers were beginning to establish more permanent settlements.

Back then, early hominids faced dangers like predators, limited food, competing tribes, and diseases – which were all life or death circumstances. To protect themselves from these “outside dangers” our earlier ancestors evolved to trust in the tribe they belonged to because it gave them a better chance of survival.

If anyone within the tribe betrayed that trust, they were immediately excommunicated and left for dead.

Flash forward to the present day and we still face imminent dangers, especially in the business world – competition, lack of resources, economic recessions, predatory lawyers – all of which are trying to make our businesses extinct. Thus, great leaders understand that the only way to survive is to create an environment of safety and security within our organizations by reducing inner threats and uncertainties.

Our employees need to feel safe and secure before they can have the cognitive bandwidth to realize their full potential (think back to Maslow’s Hierarchy). Safety and security  are primal and foundational needs that must be met and are too often ignored in organizations.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs


When organizational leaders lead with an iron fist by firing employees without notice, yelling and screaming instead of coaching, or continuously requiring employees to work grueling hours, they’re violating the trust within the tribe. And this results in major consequences…

Employees who DO NOT feel safe and secure in their job:

  • Are forced to switch to “self-preservation mode” and have to expend their own time & energy to protect themselves from each other
  • Begin hoarding information and resources
  • Form a hierarchical organization with reduced collaboration and egos

This ultimately weakens and cripples the organization from the inside-out.

When leaders make the choice to put the livelihoods of others inside the organization above their own, unwavering trust is established and remarkable things begin to happen…

Employees who DO feel safe and secure in their job:

  • Will naturally combine their talents and strengths and work tirelessly to face the dangers “outside”
  • Will be more open to sharing information that is critical to making organizational decisions instead of keeping quiet to avoid being reprimanded.
  • Will become fiercely loyal and more engaged at work

If you can get the environment right, these situations will naturally occur. So, how do you begin to put this into practice?

From Principle to Practice

A radical example of creating an environment where employees feel safe and secure can be found at the fast-growing tech company Next Jump.

They’ve implemented a “Lifetime Employment” policy meaning if you are hired at Next Jump, you cannot be fired for performance issues…ever. Instead, they’ll coach you and help you move past those obstacles so that you can achieve more.

Charlie Kim, CEO of Next Jump, advises employers to be like a parent.  He comments, “If you’ve had hard times in your family, would you ever consider laying off one of your children”.

Next Jump is taking a new approach to leadership by providing their people opportunity, education, and discipline when necessary so they can grow and develop personally.

They’re out to prove that great leaders don’t lead by intimidation, but instead by creating an environment of stability and trust so that employees can thrive.

While I can appreciate the idea of a “Lifetime Employment” policy and believe it to be founded on some solid principles, we’ve gotta keep in mind that there are rarely any absolutes when it comes to this leadership thing. Indeed, great leaders should hire carefully. They should lead their employees by example. They should provide them with opportunities for growth and help them get the training they need to improve. And they should move them to better fitting positions if possible.  But, the reality is that businesses have to be competitive to survive.

Yes, it’s true that most of us would never consider laying off one our children if our family fell upon hard times. But this line of thinking fails to take into account a key factor: Companies can cease to exist if certain people aren’t fired, families don’t.

Indeed, great leaders should hire carefully, they should lead their employees by example, they should provide them with opportunities for growth and help them get the training they need to improve, and they should move them to better fitting positions if possible. But, the reality is that businesses have to be competitive to survive.

Even with the best hiring, leadership and management practices, there will always be rare (hopefully rare) instances where an employee must be let go. Unfortunately, not everyone has the so called “fire in their belly” and fervent drive to succeed. Sometimes leaders do everything in their power to provide an employee with the tools and resources they need to succeed, but it isn’t enough.

Eventually keeping toxic employees like these as a part of your “family” can severely damaging the working environment and harm the rest of the tribe. Not only that,  toxic employees like these can also harm your client relationships and put your customers at risk. Sometimes leadership is about being able to make hard choices for the good of the team and the company.

So now what?

This all being said, maybe a “Lifetime Employment” or “No Fire” policy is a bit too idealistic. The good news is that you don’t need to employ any extreme measures to begin creating a “Circle of Safety” within your organization. Here are just a few ways great leaders can start building safety and security amongst their tribes:

  • Lead by investing – Commit to the success of your employees by giving them the resources they need to learn and grow and by providing them with opportunities to develop both personally and professionally.
  • Erase the we/they line – Instead of an environment where your employees view managers and executives as “they” and your leadership thinks of themselves as some separate “we”, strive to align the goals of your organization with the goals of your employees and replace the “we/they” mentality with an “us” mentality,
  • Provide direction – Make sure your employees understand the work that is required of them, when it needs to be done, and why it’s important. This can help alleviate the need to micromanage (which can kill productivity and send the wrong message to employees).
  • Be open, honest and transparent – When communicating with your staff, be open, honest and transparent when at all possible. Employees recognize when a leader is being honest and are much more likely to reciprocate this honesty.
  • Listen more and talk less – Give your team a voice not only individually, but as a collective group, and be open to feedback. Take the time to listen to their feelings, opinions and ideas and act on them when it makes business sense.

Keep in mind, the employee/employer relationship works both ways. You don’t have sit on the board or be a part of the executive team to be a leader. Creating a “Circle of Safety” should be a part of everyone’s job description.