Unleashing Initiative

by Mark Hennes | Mar 19, 2018

Quote of Note
"Initiative is doing the right thing without being told. "
- Victor Hugo

Setting aside his otherwise dictatorial tendencies there are many leadership lessons to be learned from Napoleon. One of my favorites is distilled in his maxim to “march to the sound of the guns”. To offer a bit of historical context, the armies of the early 19th century traveled either by foot or by horse. This meant that there were many mouths, both horse and human, to be filled at mealtimes. Their solution to this logistical burden was to disperse units for travelling along separate valleys and roadways to forage for supplies along the way. When it came time for battle, especially an unplanned battle, it was important to rapidly bring all of the one’s manpower and firepower to bear at the earliest possible moment. Napoleon, therefore left a standing order to his leaders to march to the sound of the guns. Since sound travelled faster than a messenger on horseback, this instruction meant that when leaders heard the guns firing in the distance, they should not await specific instructions. Rather, they should march straight away to join the battle.

As a leader, I've used this maxim as guidance to my team to take the initiative. I can't be there every minute of every day looking over their shoulder. They need to feel empowered to take the initiative and fix what needs to be fixed --- to do what needs to be done --- and do it to the highest standard possible.

Here are some ways that you can instill initiative in your team members:

Set the Tone – you must explicitly communicate that you want your team members to take the initiative. Tell them that you want them to solve problems and handle situations without bringing every little thing to your attention. Be sure to set some parameters to guide them, such as dollar limits for purchases or special situations or clients that need your immediate attention. Tell them what the lines are and what to do when they reach them.

Give feedback – give positive feedback when they demonstrate initiative. This is a behavior that you want to see again, so offer some positive reinforcement to encourage them to do it again. Conversely, offer negative feedback when they don’t demonstrate initiative. “Jim, I noticed that you passed that person and their complaint to me. Was there a reason that you didn’t handle it?”

Underwrite failure – communicate clearly that you understand that sometimes things don’t work out as planned. If they made the best decision based on good planning and the best information at the time, and things still didn’t go right, that’s OK. Ask what they learned from this situation that they can apply later. Let them know that even the best plans fail, but what’s important is getting better for next time. Also, perhaps their actions prevented further problems, which is a good thing.

Still not seeing initiative?

See if they’re overwhelmed – is the reason that your subordinates are bringing every little decision to you is that they’re overwhelmed, lack priorities or can’t fathom conflicting or non-existent guidance? Are they dumping on you or are they really asking for help? Remember that two key leadership responsibilities are to set priorities and provide resources. Maybe a weekly check-in meeting can help set the focus for the week and fence off time to get the priorities accomplished.

See if they’re untrained – is the reason that your subordinates don’t solve problems and can’t handle unexpected tasks is that they don’t have the skills necessary to perform? In the context of answering their question or solving the immediate problem, be sure to check to see that they have the skill and knowledge to handle these situations in the future. Again, be clear that you expect them to handle these types of situation and explicitly ask if they have the necessary skills to handle these from now on. You might also explain your rationale behind your decisions when you make them. Make sure that they understand your criteria and thought process so that they can act in the future.

See if they’re waiting for someone else to lead – perhaps they’re waiting for you or a peer to take charge. Maybe they’re waiting for guidance to act or they’re expecting another to act. You need to establish and reinforce the expectation that they are to act, even in the absence of explicit guidance. If this is an ongoing problem, then it should be part of your annual evaluation and goal setting process. Tell them that you expect them to take the initiative and include it as a goal in their annual evaluation.

Clear communication to empower your team is a must. If done right, you’ll see confidence and morale soar … and productivity, too!

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Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CAIU, its directors, or its staff.