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On Initiative

"Most people in most organizations most of the time are more stale than they know, more bored than they care to admit. All too often it is because they have not been encouraged to use their own initiative and powers of decision." So writes John Gardner in On Leadership.

He goes on to warn, "Followers who are passively awaiting orders have lost much of their capacity to help. It is a loss we cannot afford. It is in the very nature of large-scale organization that its only hope of vitality is in the willingness of a great many people scattered throughout the organization to take the initiative in performing leaderlike acts, in identifying problems at their levels and solving them. Without that, the organization becomes another of those sodden, inert, nonadaptive bureaucracies that are the bane of modern corporate and government life -- rigid, unimaginative, and totally unequipped to deal with a swiftly changing environment."

Fortunately, most nonprofit organizations are relatively small and unfettered. They tolerate, if not encourage, risk-taking and failure or mistakes. There generally is ample opportunity for initiative, for creativity. But they, too, are populated mainly with people who do not take initiative.

Initiative. The dictionary defines it as: the action of taking the first step; responsibility for beginning or originating; the characteristic of originating new ideas or methods; the ability to think and act without being urged (by another).

In his new book, How to be a Star at Work, Robert Kelly discusses strategies for success. He and Janet Caplan developed a star performance model illustrated by concentric circles. At the core of the star performer is initiative, cognitive abilities and technical competence. Kelly asserts that initiative is the primary requirement for success as an outstanding achiever. All the other strategies follow.

It seems we can’t get away from that old 80-20 rule. Kelly estimates that average performers constitute up to 80% of the workforce. Only 20% of us stand out, do something significant, go beyond the expected.

Why is that? Wouldn’t you think that we all want to be successful? That we all have challenging goals that we desire to achieve?

To exert ourselves is a risky proposition. Too risky, apparently, for most of us. Kelly believes that there are two things at work here. The first is that we’re afraid of making enemies. Taking initiative implies making changes, doing something differently, upsetting the status quo. We may be seen as a threat to colleagues or supervisors. We don’t want to risk being different, being outcast, being alone.

The second is that we’re putting our personal reputations on the line. Niggling self-doubts begin to erode our confidence and our resolve. We might fail. And then what will people think? In True Success, Tom Morris suggests that "maybe somebody else could do better, but maybe they won’t even try until they see you giving it a shot." He believes that when we take initiative, we enhance our own abilities and so, in the end, we make ourselves the right person for the job.

William Helmreich looked at the differences between European Jews who emigrated to the United States before World War II and those who survived the holocaust and then came to the States. The survivors had less education on average, yet enjoyed more successful careers and earned higher incomes. The difference? A readiness to take initiative and the ability to adjust and adapt to changing circumstances.

So, what does it mean to take initiative, to be a star performer? Kelly identifies four criteria.

1. Seek out responsibilities above and beyond the expected job description.

2. Undertake extra efforts for the benefit of coworkers or the larger group.

3. Stick tenaciously to an idea or project and follow it through to successful implementation.

4. Willingly assume some personal risk in taking on new responsibilities.

Why is this characteristic of initiative so important? It’s an essential component of leadership. In helping nonprofit organizations find chief executives or development professionals, the paramount quality we look for is leadership. The same applies to recruiting volunteers to chair capital campaigns or committees. Nothing is more important than leadership.

But initiative doesn’t rest only with those who occupy leadership positions. As John Gardner writes, "the purposes of the group are best served when the leader helps followers develop their own initiative....To the extent that leaders can [achieve this], they are creating something that can survive their own departure."

Gordon Sullivan and Michael Harper offer a useful model for initiative which they term the "leadership action cycle" in Hope is not a Method . The model is comprised of these components: observing, reflecting, deciding, acting and learning. It’s a variation of the traditional scientific and clinical models. The key is to use these strategies intentionally to prompt initiative throughout the day.

Observe: What is happening and what is not happening? What are our strengths? What are the opportunities? What is keeping us from achieving our goals?

Reflect: What assumptions have we made? What options do we have? What are the risks and consequences? What can I/we do about it? How can we best move forward?

Decide: What is it that has to be done? Who needs to be involved? What resources do we have? What do we need to be successful? How much time do we have or how much time will it take? How will we measure our efforts?

Act: Now that you’ve thought about it and developed a plan, just do it! Don’t delay, procrastinate or over-analyze. Stay involved, keep focused and be wary of the unexpected.

Learn: Pay attention to what is happening and make adjustments. Change your objectives if necessary, modify your methods, admit mistakes and move on.

Robert Kelly advocates starting with a good idea. Demonstrate your personal commitment and don’t expect that others will embrace it at first. Then give it your best effort and don’t give up if at first you don’t succeed. Kelly believes that "overall, it is the effort that builds the worker’s initiative reputation, as much as success or failure."

Initiative is demonstrated by small, day-to-day actions as well as in blockbuster, head-turning accomplishments. It is a persistent way of being, of living. As Kelly observes, initiators "draw upon some mysterious reservoir of confidence and commitment, assume some personal risk, and take some initiatives that go well beyond what is expected."

As development professionals, our commitment to service calls us to "go well beyond what is expected" on a regular basis. We are called to be initiators both within and on behalf of our organizations. We might, each one of us in our own way, pause to reflect on the source of this "mysterious reservoir" that sustains our efforts. We may find reason for giving thanks.

Suggested readings:

Gardner, John, On Leadership, Free Press, New York, 1990.

Kelly, Robert, How to be a Star at Work: Nine Breakthrough Strategies You Need to Succeed, Times Business, New York, 1998.

Morris, Tom, True Success: A New Philosophy of Excellence, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1994.

Sullivan, Gordon and Harper, Michael, Hope is not a Method: What Business Leaders can Learn from America’s Army, Broadway Books, New York, 1996.

Michael R. Maude, ACFRE, FAHP
Partners In Philanthropy


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