Why Leaders Need Safe Spaces To Learn And Grow

What are the safe spaces in your life? How are you using these spaces to become a better version of yourself?

Steffan Surdek
April 18, 2017
A man holding a card saying Practice, Practice, Practice!

Early in my career, I used to be very demanding of myself. It was hard for me to accept when I made mistakes in life. I remember one day, I was working on a woodworking project in my garage, and I got upset from making mistake after mistake. I got so mad, I eventually picked the project off my workbench and literally threw it against the wall. Afterward, I took a moment to calm down and wondered how unpleasant and expensive woodworking could get for me as a hobby if kept I reacting like this to my mistakes.

I decided in the moment to see this project through and let mistakes happen. Once it was over, I would get more wood and restart from scratch using the lessons I learned. That day, I learned two valuable lessons:

  • Despite my best intentions, I would always make mistakes.
  • By creating a safe space for myself to make mistakes, I could work and learn from them instead.

What Are Your Safe Spaces?

That simple woodworking project completely changed how I dealt with making mistakes. Over the last few years, while honing my coaching craft, I came to realize that leaders need to create safe spaces for themselves to practice, make mistakes and learn from them. Safe spaces can be anything, really, from a simple safe-to-fail experiment you can do at work to trying something new in your personal life.

Take one of my clients, for example. He saw the world from a perspective where everything was black and white or right and wrong. Everything had to be done in a certain way. He would especially get upset when his colleagues would fall on the wrong side of his assumptions.

One day, in a coaching conversation, I told him to leave his bed unmade for a week. It challenged his beliefs around how things needed to be done in a certain way. After a couple of weeks, he admitted how difficult it had been but also recognized that nothing bad had happened from leaving his bed unmade. This simple experiment allowed us to talk about the things his colleagues would do that would trigger him and how maybe there wasn't just one way to do things.

How To Integrate Your Safe Space At Work

Although it is nice to practice outside of work, eventually, the goal is to bring the lessons you've learned into your professional life too. I had another client who wanted to create a better connection with her employees. In our discussions, I learned she was struggling with her relationship with her son at home too. We focused on helping her become more present and grounded in order to communicate more calmly with her son and hear and identify the needs he was expressing. We also worked on helping her better express her needs too.

After a few weeks, as she was sharing her learnings, I started showing her the parallels to her existing situations at work. For example, could the empathy and compassion she was showing her son be useful in a professional context? How could she do this as part of her job? For some reason, many people seem to create an invisible barrier between their professional and personal lives, almost as if they don't realize there are some skills that can be applied universally.

I often find myself telling my own team we will make mistakes and that we may (and probably will) get something wrong the first time we do it. The idea is that we should try something and fail quickly at it rather than talk forever and remain paralyzed looking for the perfect solution. We will learn much more, much faster if we are willing to take that first step forward.

The biggest key to creating safe spaces is to develop the opportunity to learn and experiment. Be clear on what you are trying to learn from it. When working with a team, framing the experiment properly and putting the emphasis on what you are trying to learn as a group helps create safety for everyone. The trick is to not experiment just for the sake of trying something but regularly circling back and checking in on what you are learning and what you can do with this newfound knowledge.


Leaders should look for safe spaces in different areas of their lives to help them develop their leadership among other skills. By creating spaces and actively learning from them, you will discover new abilities or new things about yourself that you can eventually circle back to other areas of your life.

Safe spaces apply not only to individuals but to entire teams as well. Once you start experiencing the benefits of these spaces, help others around you find the space they need.

What are the safe spaces in your life? How are you using these spaces to become a better version of you?