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Are you leading in a Proactive or Reactive way?

Updated: Apr 5

It's an old adage that we write what we need to hear.

I certainly don't have it together as a leader. In many ways, with a new team, I'm relearning what it means to lead - and it's not glamorous. Rather, it's a commitment to stay open to feedback and do the more routine work of having team conversations, researching, building sales pipelines and so on. It means pausing our go-to passions to complete our role(s), ensuring that no ball gets "dropped," to borrow a juggling metaphor.

I think most leaders would agree that the requirements of leadership are shifting of late, and we are not necessarily well equipped to harness the opportunities that come with the changes.

A case in point is a medical institution that I have known for a while. The manager in a key, frontline department has become merely an administrator. It appears that she chose management because it was the logical promotion opportunity, as it is in many organisations, even though The Leadership Pipeline was published more than 20 years ago. In the current environment, she is being exposed, and this won't change much. She clearly did not want to develop, care for and connect with human beings. Yet these are fundaental competencies for modern managers, if they choose to lead. She is not alone, unfortunately. Each year, I meet hundreds of managers who have not chosen to lead. They have assumed that their title/role/track record is enough, and their people bear the scars. The worst thing is that I have been one of those managers.

My favourite definition of leadership comes from Kevin Cashman: "authentic influence that adds value". To lead is to go somewhere meaningful, inspiring others to follow through example and skill; to guide others towards a compelling vision of the future. How often, though, haven't I found myself immersed in the operations of the business, working mostly "in" the business rather than "on" the business, too. When it's a business you co-founded, it can be difficult to let go of certain responsibilities, because your passion - and often your ego - is attached to them. Yet growth cannot happen in a vacuum. We cannot expect others to step into spaces that we refuse to vacate. Delegation needs to happen when the readiness of the delegatee (is that even a word?) matches the timing to hand over responsibilities and tasks. Interfering once a job has been delegated is unhelpful. But even worse is holding onto it way beyond its sell-by date. I found that when I let go, I felt free to focus on innovation, and developing others, which is at least as satisfying as performing the task I was holding onto.

The Covid-19 pandemic further influenced me in a negative way: I found myself less in control of where the business was heading and what we could plan for. What I failed to see is that I was, in fact, not controlling the "controllables". In my case, that meant the messaging, marketing and people management. I was so focused on product and service delivery that I was losing a) close connections with my team, b) my energy (busyness gives birth to busyness, not rest) and c) opportunities that were arising from the mist of the challenging environment. The circumstances were a call to reboot, rewire and rekindle relationships.


Some signs that you are being reactive, as opposed to proactive:

::: you spend most of your day locked away from others, fulfilling administrative duties

::: your understanding of market trends is based on news stories "pushed" to your device

::: you regularly tell people what they are doing wrong, but seldom take time to share vision and expectations

::: you find yourself enforcing policies, rather than sharing a compelling vision

::: you spend little time observing or listening to your team, to understand what they are experiencing

::: you haven't attended a networking or marketing function in months, online or in person

::: your personal brand and thought leadership is missing in action

::: your planning is based on historical trends/patterns, rather than customer or staff nee

::: you only check-in on your team en masse, not individually

::: if you are responsible for business development, you have not made a sale in months


Reflection is such a key part of modern leadership, and we need to ensure that we are getting open, honest feedback that tells us how we are doing. We're building in "red-flags" that warn of danger and avoid derailing careers. If we aren't receiving this, chances are that we have not built feedback mechanisms, are surrounded by those who aren't used to providing candid feedback, or are not asking the right questions. We can tune-in with greater self-awareness and consider how our words and actions might be impacting our team. We can embrace vulnerability (situations in which there is "uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure" likely), because this is the norm in business right now. We don't need to have all the answers. We can ask for data to improve our leadership. If, however, we choose to bury ourselves in the office, or stick to our comfort-zone specialty, we will bury our progress at the same time. Proactive leaders ask, share and courageously engage. They include others and let them feel proud to be an "insider", with purpose and meaning in their work clear.

How are you doing at this? If you're battling, welcome to the club! You are not alone, though, and we are all getting better at being front-footed. We will not "arrive", unfortunately, but we will build trust and accountability, if we remain open to learn.

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