proactiveI’ve been reading a book that many consider a classic – Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  I’ve never read it, and I’m finding some great leadership principles that are very applicable to my life.  I’m going to do a “mini-series” of posts here on the blog regarding some of my thoughts about these principles and how I think they are applicable in my context as well as in your leadership.

The first habit is “be proactive.”  Of them all, I think this is the one I have the least difficulty with – and the most difficulty with. Let me explain.

Covey states, “Proactivity means more than just taking initiative. It means that as human beings, we are responsible for our lives. Our behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions… Highly proactive people do not blame circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behavior. Their behavior is a product of their own conscious choice, based on values, rather than a product of their conditions, based on feeling.”

This was one of the most helpful and challenging parts of the book for me.  I typically don’t have problems taking initiative, which is what I thought when I saw the name of the first habit.  That’s what leaders do!  They don’t sit around waiting on someone else to solve problems; they jump in, define the problem, and move to the solution side.  I’m all about that.  Covey’s habit, though, is more complex than simply a bias toward action.  It involves our attitude – specifically, owning our lives.

Here are three ways this habit can be applied by leaders of any organization:

1) Don’t play the blame game. Far, far too often, I hear people in positions of leadership playing the blame game (for a great example of this, watch the speeches of members of Congress on CSPAN). Any problem always has someone who can be blamed – and it’s usually not the person speaking.  It’s easy to point and ridicule such behavior, but then I look in the mirror and wonder how often I fall into the same trap.

When confronted with a problem, is my first response to blame conditions?  To blame circumstances?  How often am I using phrases like “if only,” “I can’t,” and “I wish?”

When I make a mistake, the proper response as a leader is to own it, fix it if I can, and learn from it so I don’t repeat it.  When I play the blame game, I short-circuit that process and don’t learn from it.

2)  Focus on what I can control, not what I can’t. Instead of focusing and dwelling on those things I cannot control, I need to focus on what I CAN control – and often, that means me.  I can control myself, and so do you.

Paul wrote to the church in Galatia about the fruits of walking in the Holy Spirit.  Among the fruits listed is “self-control.”  That’s a critical aspect of great leadership.

Leaders, what’s our response to unexpected conditions or circumstances?  How do we handle the surprises that are unavoidable in leadership?  By focusing on my own attitude, my responses, my reactions, I focus on what I can control. And when I get this right, I find that this has a ripple effect beyond me.

As a leader of people, you set the tone.  You know you do!  And when you’re constantly focusing on what you can’t control, you will lead others to do the same.

3)  Watch what we say. As leaders, our words matter.  A lot.  Andy Stanley says it this way: “as a leader in the room, my words weigh 10,000 pounds.”  If you’ve been a leader in a meeting, you know what he’s talking about!  Watching what we say and how we say it matters far more than we think it does.  And so often, I tend to forget this.

Too often, I can simply “react” to something someone else says or does.  And when I do, too often it’s not the best reaction!  Covey gives examples of reactive language: statements like “there’s nothing I can do,” “I can’t do that,” and “I have to do it.”  Statements like those reveal what’s underneath our words. When we move to a proactive attitude, we’ll say instead “let’s look at our alternatives,” “I choose to take this action,” or “how can we empower others to take appropriate action?”

It doesn’t matter if you lead in the church, in a non-profit, in business, or in public service – these principles can transform how you lead.  And when you apply them, you’ll see others in your organization begin to follow your lead.

Can you remember incidents when you applied (or didn’t apply) these principles in your leadership?  What steps can you take to help you remember them when you need them?

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