Migrating Canada geese have a very public and proven way of spearheading their progress. By advancing together in a vee, their leader induces an aerodynamic lift for all who follow. And if you observe carefully, you’ll note that the Chief Honker switches periodically, as another energetic follower extends its neck and takes the lead for a time, sacrificing extra energy for the good of the flock.
Yet their unobstructed view of land and sky ahead is only a picture of their future—until the entire flock arrives and inhabits it.
But not all the geese take a turn at the front—only those with the ambition and initiative. Like those who always trail the forerunner, people who wait for others to move first are merely followers who, while benefiting from the leader’s draft, cannot steer where they’re going. It takes someone who values that grand scenic of what’s ahead and exerts influence to bring the rest of the flock to where it needs to be. Take a gander: it may be both strenuous and lonely out front, but it’s only there where true leadership is practiced.
Initiative is the ability to view a preferential future, navigate the route, and act before others do. It’s identifying and seizing an opportunity. It’s recognizing and filling a need. It’s owning and solving a problem. It’s creating and fulfilling a destination. It’s taking charge for making change.
But by its very nature, initiative also requires a personal, sacrificial, faith-filled investment in time, self-worth, energy and resources—all of which is placed at genuine risk of mistakes, ridicule, conflicts, failure or loss.
Stephen T. Mather, the first Director of the U.S. National Park Service, was appointed to his post in 1917 when its few properties were administered by Army officers or political hacks. He brought a vision of preserving scenic wilderness areas and opening them to the public, and used his personal funds to publicize their wonders and develop a wider appeal. He built basic amenities that enhanced visitor experiences, championed the National Park to Park Highway as a way to bring popular access, created a corps of trained specialists to operate and manage the parks, and established criteria for identifying and creating new parks. Despite being periodically sidelined by his health (during which his able assistant Horace Albright took a turn as acting director), by the time he left his position in 1929 due to a stroke, the NPS included 20 national parks and 32 national monuments.
Few, if any, of Mather’s initiatives would have been established by the generally apathetic Congress of his time—which couldn’t fully catch his vision or fund it. Despite controversies and downright opposition from certain factions throughout the country, Mather initiated most of the foresighted foundational policies for the Park Service that still today extend a cherished legacy to grateful generations.
What makes such foresighted leaders effective is not that they know everything, but that they know what they want—and persuade themselves to act, despite the risks. It’s that capacity that ultimately enables the initiator’s dreams to come true—and can be yours as well. Here’s what to know and do:
Initiative is a life decision. But then, so is indecision, selfishness, negative attitudes and many of the other vices that oppose it. Which means that you already possess the power to determine what you believe, how you act, and who you are.
♦ Decide to move forward.
Initiative is a learned behavior. Study those ahead of you in your profession. Contrast their uncertain beginnings with now-established endings. Discover the reasons they stepped forward when and how they did. Apply their lessons to jumpstart your own experiential education.
♦ While you’re in the slipstream of good leaders, benefit from their lift.
Initiative is a living muscle. The more it is used, the stronger and surer it becomes. Exercise it in low-impact workouts until your confidence develops and your courses of action become more intuitive. Wield a sensible influence in small things and soon others will look to you to lead in larger ways.
♦ Exert energy to distinguish yourself from the rest of the herd.
Initiative is a long-range migration. One overt step does not complete a journey—both responsible leader and responsive flock are together in transit to a purposeful destination. And as crucial as the flight plan is, the condition in which everyone arrives is what counts. A leader who flies too far ahead arrives alone and destitute.
♦ Take a turn at the front: initiative leads to leadership.
MasterPoint: Initiative leads to leadership.