Proactivity and Leadership

Posted on January 15, 2010


In my many years of leadership experience, what I have discovered is that a key factor that instantly differentiates an effective leader and a mediocre one is proactivity. In his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, Steven Covey describes proactivity to be having the initiative to actively take massive action, and emphasises its importance in allowing a person to succeed in anything he does. It can be seen as preventive rather than reactive in handling problems.

Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States, proves this point. I believe many of you will agree with me that President Obama is among the more effeective leader United States has seen. When we begin to reflect on his policies and decisions, we may begin to realise that many of it has proactiveness at its heart. A case in point would be his healthcare reform movement. Not since the time of President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 was there a plan for healthcare reform that was passed by both the House and the Senate; Presidents since then have attempted and failed to introduce reforms. President Obama could easily have concluded that it was not feasible to do so and hence drop the idea, allowing him to focus his attention on other pressing matters such as the economy or the troops in Afghanistan. However, he realises that having 45 million Americans uninsured for their healthcare bills is a valid and grave problem that America faces, and chooses to take action instead of letting the matter pass. In his joint speech to the House and Senate, President Obama urged the politician to see how they must not allow this to carry on and leave the matter for the next generation. The president was probably already aware when he decided to push forward that doing so would mean the path of highest resistance, and his popularity could also take a beating. However, his proactiveness spurs him to make the right decision versus the easy.

Often, it is easy to rest on our laurels and assume that no news mean good news. It is convenient to think that as long as operations are running smoothly, nothing is wrong with the system. However, this could be the most fatal mistake a leader can make.

I once had the misfortune to witness a severe case of management gone bad due to complacency of the higher management, back in the country club I worked in. The higher management at that point of time was fairly nonchalant about the operations of the club, and assumed no bad news to be good news. When not handling administrative matters or in meetings, the members of the higher management are often found playing golf or relaxing at the café by the golf course. They rationalised their actions by thinking that as long as they have no commitments in the office, they are free to pursue their own enjoyment. As such, they are often ignorant of the happenings at the office. Over time, their subordinate managers also decided that it was not necessary to inform them of any major events as they would not be much of a help all the way from the golf course. The staff at ground level also became resentful of the higher management as they felt that should the higher management be so free, they could spend time understanding their issues and help to improve the working conditions of the organisation as a whole rather than just care for their own enjoyment. It was only after a major accident that occurred in the club premise that led the higher management to scramble to find their assumptions wrong. However, they were an accident too late and nearly the whole team was replaced.

We may have heard employees complain that the higher management “knows nothing” or “doesn’t care about what happens at the ground”. More often than not, this is a function of complacency and resting on laurels. Being proactive in solving problems helps to prevent this. More importantly, being proactive allows us to weed out any underlying problems that the team may face, that could potentially surface as a large obstacle in future.

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