I have come to recognize there is one aspect that all leaders have in common. Collaborative leaders have it; authoritarian leaders have it; team oriented leaders have it; quiet leaders have it; bold leaders have it; good leaders have it, and very bad leaders have it. Dictators have it as well as benevolent leaders. Autocrats and democrats all have it. What is this one aspect of leadership that without it no one is a leader? No… this is not about “having followers.”I have been thinking a bit these past weeks about what sets leaders apart from other people. Hundreds, if not thousands, of books have been written defining good leaders. We read that leaders are honest, humble, encouraging, clear communicators, visionary, listeners, coaches, team builders, and on, and on.
There is a group of leaders that I work very closely with, who stand out in my mind as people who choose to display this leadership aspect. As we recently discussed a difficult organizational decision, they came to a place where they could either choose to keep stirring their ideas around with no real action being taken, or they could (and did) choose as a group to display this most important leadership quality. What is it?
Initiative. All true leaders take initiative. Many people have great abilities to think and strategize. Every organization needs people that can brainstorm and motivate. And often people who serve on committees within non-profit organizations are good managers by nature. To say someone has initiative makes no comment on their fitness to lead, or the quality of their leadership. If someone has all of the other qualities of a leader that are possible to have but still lacks initiative, they will never get anything done… they will never lead.
You see, leaders rise above those who follow them because they are initiating. They are bringing the organization to develop new programs, practices, activities, or endeavors. Leaders are leaders not because they sit quietly and manage what is, they are leaders because they create and produce what can be. They inspire people, and organizations, to endeavor something new and reach for yet unreached goals. Leaders motivate others to exchange “what is” for “what can be”.
They may fail, or they may succeed. They may be doing a great thing for their people, or they may be leading them towards their demise. No matter the outcome (or virtue) of their goals, they are by definition leading. And they are leading because they took initiative.
To be an initiator means to act when something needs done, or to follow through quickly on tasks you have accepted to do, because others are waiting on you. When you procrastinate, you steal time from other people who rely on you. Initiators help their group see what needs to be done, and help them stay ahead of troubles. Initiators are more interested in fixing the problems we discover together, than analyzing and evaluating them. Initiators/leaders ask, “What might we do to resolve the dilemma and improve our position?” Managers ask, “How can we cope and weather the storm?”
I have worked with many people who serve on leadership teams within many different organizations over the past decades. To my disappointment most of them are ok to talk about leading and discussing the future, but naturally fall back to managing the status quo. Many people who accept the responsibility to help lead, actually fail to help initiate.
If you have been asked to serve in leadership, it’s because others have seen in you some qualities of a leader. The one quality they cannot see until you have used it is “initiative.” Choose to take the gifts and abilities you have and begin to use them to truly lead, by becoming an initiator! That does not mean you have to be a maverick or a Lone-Ranger. We can still be collaborative and initiate. We can still listen, coach, encourage, and build our teams, but we must stop kidding ourselves on this one thing: Without initiative none of us are leaders.
You might disagree with me, so I invite you to respond and let me know your thoughts. Go ahead… initiate a conversation.