As a young man, I learned a valuable lesson from my parents. Although it didn’t sink in until years after I left home and started assuming adult responsibilities, the importance of taking initiative was planted early in my life. Initiative is the willingness and ability to assess and take action on things independently. It’s the will to act or take charge before others do. Taking initiative is foundational to leadership. When you create a culture of initiative most of your work as a leader is done because you are inspiring others to be leaders. It’s considerably easier – and more enjoyable – to live and work in a place where people see work that needs doing and step up to the task, when they don’t wait for direction but take the initiative to create direction, and when people pick up after themselves instead of expecting someone else to do it for them. How to create an environment where people learn to take initiative has been a passion of mine for some time.
After facilitating a three-day leadership workshop in Oklahoma, I was out for dinner with a technical sergeant from the US Air Force who had twenty years of experience in a variety of leadership roles. We agreed that taking initiative is vital to success in life and it is perhaps even more important in the military. We came up with five strategies for creating a culture of initiative:
- Answer why. Show people that what they do has value to the organization. Every employee needs to know why his or her job is critical to the success of the team. Make sure you have this conversation. If you want someone to take out the trash on their own initiative, without having to be told, just telling them to “take out the trash” is far less likely to be successful than if you explain why taking out the trash benefits the entire unit. Even better than you telling them why, get them to tell you why it is important. They have to see the big picture, and how the job in front of them fits into that picture. We are much more likely to take initiative when we have our own skin in the game and understand how the work we do makes a contribution to the greater whole. While chores are always part of a good team, it’s having a sense of contribution that motivates people.
- Make it safe. This is a critical leadership imperative that you have to continuously work on. Do people feel safe to ask questions? Do people feel safe to make mistakes? Do people feel safe to say, “I don’t know how to do this and I need help?” I have found, from observing leaders for more than thirty years, that there is a relationship between a leader’s stress level and how safe people feel around them. The best way to create a safe environment is for you to be at peace with yourself as a leader. If you are walking around tense and stressed, you create tension and it feels unsafe for people to open up. And people who are open are more apt to take initiative. If you want people around you to take initiative, find ways to lessen your own stress level.
- Be Respectful. You will have an easier time fostering value in a culture when people know you genuinely care about them. If they sense your caring, they are more likely to respond in kind and offer caring in return. When you have earned their trust by investing honestly in their life – by genuine acts of listening, investing in the trust account, showing interest, and expressing concern, they are more willing to take initiative and step up for the good of the team.
- Lead by example. As a leader, you have to model the way. People need to see that you expect nothing from others that you aren’t willing to do yourself. Do your people see you taking out the trash? Do they see you cleaning up after yourself? Do they see you taking initiative? Initiative is about taking ownership, and ownership starts with you.
- Don’t over do it. Having said all this, we always have to be careful to not do too much for people. Any strength, taken too far, becomes a weakness. Initiative, my father would say, cannot be taught; it must be caught. We will inevitably take initiative when we are uncomfortable enough. Remember: making it safe, being respectful, leading by example, doesn’t mean we have to rescue people from their unhappiness. If you always take out the trash, why would others take the initiative? If you are always walking around making it safe, you want to check that you aren’t coddling your team members and making it too easy for them. Sometimes people have to smell the garbage before they’ll pack it up and take it out to the dumpster.