Competency is not enough – Creating Safe Spaces to build confidence in leaders at all levels 

17/03/2023 - Competency is not enough – Creating Safe Spaces to build confidence in leaders at all levels 

Sara Dewar is a leadership development specialist, coach and mentor who leads on the Community Engagement for Leading to Change and the Leadership and Management Development Programme for the Scottish Clinical Leadership Fellowship.  

I believe that developing leadership competencies is not enough. We must create safe spaces where leaders at all levels, from self-leadership through to leading teams or organisations, can build confidence and find courage to use those competencies, even when the situation is difficult and personal reserves are low. 

Competency without confidence is like having a car full of fuel but with no gearstick to get it started. You have what you need to travel but without the ability to put the car in gear, you cannot move forward. 

To offer people the chance to put their leadership competencies in gear we must do two things: 

  • Create psychologically safe spaces and  
  • Provide interactive opportunities to hear from real people who are trying to lead with compassion and courage in tough environments that are recognisable. 

I’ve been a leadership development specialist and coach for more years than I want to admit and yet it is still the same thing that brings me joy at work; seeing leaders, in any level, role or career stage, step up with confidence and try something new. 

It is often something small, something practical and something from a group discussion or coaching session such as listening to a colleague for 2 more minutes before speaking. Small can be significant if taken forward with confidence and repeated. 

The difference has been the provision of a safe space to talk about what is hard, why it is hard, and how difficult it is to find the idea of what to do differently. Another frequent theme in these conversations is finding the courage and energy to keep trying to make something new become something that feels natural. 

The Leading to Change Community Events are an excellent example of how we are providing safe spaces, the connection with new people also interested in similar topics and challenges, and the support to have the conversation and move that into ideas, insights or tips from other’s experiences. Everyone leaves with one thing that they will try and we know this because they tell us. They tell us as they leave, energised with a little more hope, a little more confidence and something new to try. 

I have been humbled and inspired by the way people have trusted our facilitators, opened up about how things really are, and then empathised and supported each other from their own experiences – both successful and not. 

This collective shared learning is hugely powerful and arguably far more valuable than standard courses or books – both of which still have their place. 

We are people caring for people and that humanity needs to extend to our spaces for connection if learning is to happen. 

By sharing our reflections on what is said by the speakers, by connecting with their experience, first personally and then with others in small breakout groups, we start with what we have in common – shared experiences, feelings, hopes and fears. 

If the space is truly safe, then this allows us to be open and vulnerable to share our stories safely. This allows us to build shared learning which leads to a sense of connection, which then leads to confidence to try new things as we realise and believe that we are not alone. 

Even those of us who facilitate in our community events reflect on the learning, insights, connections and courage we take from them. We all learn from being part of these events.  

I am looking forward to our next series; to more stories from real people; connections, conversations and courage – all enabled by creating safe spaces for anyone who wants to stop, take a breath and be human. 

Reflective challenge: where can you access or enable safe spaces to let real people connect, share and learn from each other? 

If you would like to run an event locally you can use our guide and if you would like to talk this through with one of our team please contact us

a photo of someone wearing a black jumper

Sara Dewar

Principal Lead, Leading to Change Delivery Team, NES,

Sara is a coach and people development specialist in Executive and Leadership development, coaching, talent management and engagement. Coming from the private sector, she has embraced the chance to work with health, social care and social work related organisations. She enjoys working in the NES Leading to Change Strategic Delivery team and as also a coach with the opportunities to connect across the wider system as part of this role.

Sara currently leads for Digital, Communications and Engagement for Leading to Change and also leads the Leadership and Management Development Programme for the Scottish Clinical Leadership Fellowship in NHS Education for Scotland. She is also involved as coach for Coaching Matters, Coaching for Wellbeing and in third sector pro bono programmes.

A mum to two boys, she can regularly be found at the side-line of a rugby or football pitch holding water bottles and hoodies.

All information regarding our contributors was correct at the time of publishing.

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