Be Proactive: The Mental Muscle Of Great Leadership

Viktor Frankl taught an incredible principle about freedom and choosing. While suffering unimaginable treatment and torture in Nazi Germany, he realized an essential principle while on the precipice of death: He could decide within himself how all of this was going to affect him.

In the bleakest of circumstances, he discovered this fundamental principle: Between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose. This principle, articulated in Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning, is the foundation of Habit 1 of Dr. Stephen R. Covey’s renowned book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Be Proactive.”

I share this to preface an experience I recently had during a client interaction. Our topic for the keynote was Unconscious Bias, one of FranklinCovey’s many performance-improvement solutions. As we made our way through the session, I asked an application-based question to help spark some discussion: “How do your biases impact the workplace?”

One participant raised their hand and clearly stated, “I don’t like stupid people,” and chuckled a bit. There were nearly 80 other senior-leader colleagues in the room, and some of them awkwardly chuckled along with their peer as I stood in front of all of them. It was a little stunning, to say the least.

As the facilitator for that session, my reaction and treatment of the situation were critical to the overall impact of that keynote. My response quite candidly would also be a reflection upon FranklinCovey, the company I work for and represent.

There were so many things to consider in that short moment: group dynamics, not defending or supporting their position, audience engagement, and ensuring we were reaching the most appropriate insights around unconscious bias and impact. I needed to really embrace that pause between stimulus and response to make the right decision to move the group forward for the day and turn a revealing and awkward situation into a win-win learning situation.

At that moment—in the space between stimulus and response—I was able to neutralize the situation by demonstrating some empathy and sharing that our intent is to value people beyond an initial and unconscious or conscious bias. This respectful interaction defused the situation, and we were able to move on and have a productive day. In the end, this individual approached me separate from the session and apologized for their comment.

At the heart of being proactive is our ability to choose our response. Effective leaders understand this and don’t blame circumstances or conditions for their behavior. Every moment in a work setting is a leadership moment.

Similar scenarios to the one above play out in team meetings frequently. When this happens, leaders need to hear it, let it sink in, and determine what the next move is, keeping in mind team and group dynamics, strategy, etc. If handled reactively, the team meeting will go sideways and diminish the effectiveness of the team and the leader.

Being proactive and not reactive is an incredibly difficult skill to master. We say it, but can we make the behavior change necessary to get there as unconsciously competent? It’s something I’ve been working on for more than twenty-five years, and in a moment of Private Victory, I was particularly proud of how I handled that situation a few weeks back.

I am not at all perfect at being proactive, and I’m always trying to get better. It’s something I think all leaders should recognize and do. Using that moment between stimulus and response will build your character, demonstrate your maturity in your role as a leader, and expand your Circle of Influence.


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