If you were to take the word initiative and ponder on what it means to you as a trait in yourself and in others and how important you consider it to be in relation to whatever you have created or achieved in your life, how high would you rate it? How important has it been? Think about the single one or two most important things that you are most proud of – what part did initiative play in those successes?
Initiative derives from the Latin word initium, meaning beginning and, in its most common form, the Oxford English Dictionary refers to initiative as being ‘the act of taking charge before others do’ and ‘an act intended to resolve a difficulty or improve a situation; a fresh approach to something’.
To my mind, it is probably THE most important characteristic demonstrated by those who create, those who begin, those who resolve issues and find solutions. It is the essence of entrepreneurship because it is about taking action. Things only get built, created, designed, tested and re-tested when someone takes action.
In particular, when that action might not have been tried before, there is an element of newness and beginning involved and therefore risk and vulnerability. But this is the core of learning and growth and the source of what makes us alive.
So how do you make sure that you have people with initiative around you, advising you, working with you? The answer is straight-forward – we have an abundance of initiative and we know how to use it and apply it. So why does it seem to be such an uncommon trait? Why is it that we regularly hear ourselves and others saying, in relation to colleagues and staff members, and even our children, “He/she has no initiative, no get up and go”?
The answer has nothing to do with them having or not having initiative. It is because something is stopping them from using it, and that something is usually fear! Because initiative requires vulnerability and boldness and whilst it is vitally important for making progress and finding answers, it doesn’t guarantee that the action is going to lead to the desired outcome.
In which case, if the act of initiative has previously been criticised because the outcome was wrong or an error was made, then just like an animal brushing up against an electrified fence and not doing it a second time, the emotionally bruised staff member, colleague or child will also avoid risking repeated chastisement.
So how do you create a culture or environment of personal responsibility, initiative and creativity, when the biggest challenge of doing so successfully would be the undoing of years of negative conditioning? According to Brené Brown, such a culture requires being non-critical of results, the positive acknowledgement of effort and even the celebration of initiative. It is by no means easy because business is so results-driven but patience and an understanding of the end game is essential to stay the course in the early stages.
Just think of it this way. If you are the coach of a football team and none of your players will take a shot on goal for fear of being berated and criticised for missing, then your team will never score. You might draw the game occasionally but you will never win!
On the other hand, if you take and follow through on Michael Jordan’s advice, you can take some heart and encouragement from creating an initiative focused culture. He said, “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed. Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen. I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.”
Taking initiative, trying and failing are the key components of success. True leaders know and understand that it is their responsibility to encourage all three, both in themselves and in their teams.