There’s so much discussion out there in the business-article-world about “initiative”. How do leaders get people to take more “initiative”? While there seems to be a lot of finger-pointing at different generations and gnashing-of-teeth in frustration, I’m not sure that getting people to take initiative solves everything. The flipside has its challenges too.
For me personally, initiative has never been my problem. As a recovering-control-freak, I’ve always had difficulty sitting on the sidelines. Leaving major decisions (oh heck, even minor decisions) to someone else can be very uncomfortable for me. To survive my own insanity I learned to take the reigns early in life. Luckily in business, this served me fairly well. People call it “initiative”. It’s supposed to be a good thing. It gets you kudos and clients, and promotions and all sorts of rewards that lead you to wanting to do it more. Pretty soon, you’re not even conscious you’re doing it. You join a team, within minutes of the first meeting you’ve taken over. You join a club and within a year you’re leading the thing. It’s your normal. It’s stressful, but that’s all you know. People love you for it and hate you for it. You love you for it and hate you for it. You don’t know a way out – for “taking initiative” is supposed to be the “right” thing to do. So if you’re doing the right thing, then why doesn’t it feel better to everyone involved?
I happen to know that in the leadership world there are a lot of recovering-control-freaks, like myself, out there (and some in desperate need of intervention). I mean no disrespect. It’s a relief to know I’m in such amazing company! You may be one. I’m sure you know one, or two, or ten. We’re running rampant out there, taking names and taking over. We’re the drivers. We get things done. But, like with all of our talents, our strengths can also be our Achilles heel.
The confusing thing about control is that, while it may seem powerful from the outside-looking-in, needing control is not a powerful place to be. It kills collaboration and intrinsic motivation for others, creates cultures riddled with tension and often fear, is stressful, lonely, and more often than not, counter-productive. If you’ve control-freak-DNA, your well intended initiative-taking can turn to martyrdom and resentment fast, if you’re not careful. ‘Taint pretty.
So maybe, rather than demonizing one side of the initiative-spectrum and celebrating the other, we’d be better served by recognizing that they’re two tonics for the same ache.
Author Madeline L’Engle wrote, “When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable.”
But being vulnerable at work stinks! None of us like it and we all have different ways of dealing with it. Some of us try to control every aspect of every project and every person and everything that we possibly can control, trying to prove ourselves, or to be perfect, or to avoid making a mistake. Others shy away from initiating, from fully engaging, playing it safe – maybe they care too much or maybe they’re trying to keep from caring at all – avoiding any risk of being vulnerable.
We can provide tools and strategies to make people better initiators and less controlling but unless we deal with what’s real – the very human fact that it’s incredibly uncomfortable to be vulnerable at work – we’re not solving the problem. How can we, collectively, find a way to bring more courage to the playing field?
Maybe our greatest responsibility as a leader is simply to make it safe for others to bring the courage they need to play full out. To make it safe for them to trust themselves and others. Maybe “initiative” and “control” are simply a red herrings, and what we should really be addressing is courage.
But that’s kind of “squishy” isn’t it? Uncomfortable. Maybe it takes courage to take on courage.