The Need for Proactive Leadership

It is always easy to write about leadership, and always difficult to do leadership. However, in this current crisis I wanted to point out to a need for a special type of leadership.

Good leadership in in this day has many facets: It is empathic, you need to be able to lead remotely, you need to enable others to do their job, and of course you need to navigate your organization through the crisis. All of these are and continue to be relevant. But one thing stands out for me and I want to zoom in on one specific element of leadership: Reactive Leadership vs. Proactive Leadership.

Reactive leadership is waiting for what others do and then finding the optimal solution. Proactive leadership is to continue and follow one’s own course. Both have advantages and disadvantages. The downside of proactive leadership is that sometimes you can go in the wrong direction and move too fast.

Postponed Action

But the downside of reactive leadership is much greater in times of rapid change. You ask people what they want, do surveys and then it comes: you have the perfect plan, with a polished powerpoint, for the coming weeks!

The problem is that reality has already shifted and moved on. You’re constantly in catch-up mode and never in the driver’s seat again. That is the main problem of reactive leadership. It can work well in a predictable world. It doesn’t work so well in an unstable world.

How do we best develop proactive leadership? Like everything that has to do with leadership, it is multi-faceted. However, five qualities of proactive leaders stand out, and they need to be shown much more in the coming months.

1. Have a Compass

First, proactive leaders exercise self-leadership: they have a strong inner compass. They have their own scorecard for what is right or wrong. From this and from self-reflection they get the strength to act, also against hardship. One of the best questions to ask themselves regularly is: “How would the leader I would like to be do the things I am about to do?”

2. Practice First-Principles Thinking

Secondly, there is first principle thinking: proactive leaders distinguish the underlying principles – such as motives and trends – from the daily noise. This requires a constant analysis of the ‘first principles’. Learning, researching, understanding, asking ‘why?’ five times, all of this helps to develop thinking in first principles.

3. Live the Fire principle

Third, proactive leaders live the ‘principle of fire’. An executive once pulled me out of a meeting. He said, “You and I have to drop everything this morning.” “Why?”, I asked. “Because of the fire principle! We have a problem here and need to act quickly. If a fire is still small, it is easy to extinguish. But as soon as it expands, it is almost impossible to control”. Extinguish the fire while it is still small. Or as author Nassim Nicholas Taleb puts it: ‘If you have to panic, panic early’. The ability and courage to do so is an essential requirement for proactive leadership.

4. Have a Vision that Bends Reality

Fourth, proactive leaders have visions that ‘bend’ reality. Nobody has a crystal ball, but great proactive leaders need to have an image of what the future may look like. Just asking people what they want is not enough. Then you get something reminiscent of a famous statement attributed to the car maker Henry Ford. “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said: faster horses.”

5. Experiment

Finally, there is the need to experiment: as you embark on the path of proactive leadership, you must constantly experiment and adapt according to the results. That is really the only way. Great proactive leaders set themselves a framework for constant and structured experimentation.

Those who begin to live up to those five qualities will get more and more into the ‘driver’s seat’. Of course there will be setbacks, discussions, reflection. And of course you have to keep listening to others, stay in touch with reality. But to really navigate through unknown territory, one has to be a proactive leader.

When should we start being that type of leader? As the famous saying goes, the best time to plant a tree was ten years ago. The second best time is now.

This is the English version of an opinion article published in Business Newspaper “De Tijd” on 21.10.20. You can find the original article here.

Lars Sudmann was the CFO Belgium of P&G during 2008-2010 and has lived through the financial crisis first-handedly. He is now a board advisor, strategy consultant and keynote speaker for online and offline events. Additionally, Lars is a Council Director for Strategy & Transformation at the global think tank The Conference Board. His latest book is “Innovation that Sticks” and deals with how to innovate and navigate in uncertain environments.

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