Initiative: Why We Lack It and How to Develop It

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Want to improve your life and career? Your relationships and family?

Think of every skill and trait you’ve heard of that can help.

Entrepreneurship, intrapreneurship, grit, resilience, perseverance, innovation, ownership, service, sales, meaning, and purpose . . . You know them all.

None just happen. They require initiative. You can’t force anyone to learn them. Lectures, reading, and videos won’t teach them.

External success and internal growth require initiative.

Your teams, community, and family

Want to improve your teams?

Many leaders face the catch-22 of wanting members of our teams—and selves—to learn to act more entrepreneurially, but entrepreneurship training teaches people to leave to start something new.

How do we resolve the conflict?

We want them to learn and practice initiative—social and emotional skills to find and solve meaningful problems to where the community served supports the project enough to sustain it.

Initiative can mean entrepreneurship—that is, creating a for-profit venture—but includes starting a nonprofit, organizing a community, starting a podcast, organizing a book group, running for office, starting a hobby, and more.

Yet, like leadership, anyone can develop them. Learning initiative opens the door to all the rest.

The challenge is how.

Why we don’t learn initiative

Our educational system teaches to standardized tests that don’t exist outside schools. We teach compliance—the opposite of initiative. Our culture appears to celebrate initiative, but actually discourages it, as data shows initiative-taking is at its lowest levels in generations and falling, as we’ll see below.

Most importantly, initiative unearths passion. We all have passions, but they make us vulnerable so we protect them. Just as love may occur at first sight but in most cases emerges through experience and effort, passions rarely result from muses whispering in our ears. Like romantic love, passions come to people who open themselves to vulnerability, overcome challenges, reflect, persevere, resolve conflict, and so on.

Having coached and taught executives, business school students, undergraduates, and people at all levels in between for decades, I’ve seen our leaders’ and future leaders’ poor preparation in initiative. At the individual level it results in people accepting poor leadership, minimal responsibility and compensation, and complacency. In organizations teams don’t reach their potentials. As a culture, we are increasingly passionless and hopeless, unaware we can take initiative to improve our situations.

I’ve also seen what works and how we can restore the skills and practice of initiative.

Method Learning, Method Leadership, and Method Initiative

It means focusing on how we teach, not just what, which few people or institutions do. Learning social and emotional skills requires facing and overcoming social and emotional challenges, meaning creating anxiety, excitement, conflict and other emotions and situations to learn to manage them.

By contrast, outside of traditional academia, we teach many fields through facing social and emotional challenges, such as acting, sports, playing musical instruments, and the military—fields that are active, social, emotional, expressive and performance-based. We teach none of them mainly through lecture, reading and writing papers, or case study. We teach them by practicing basic exercises until we master them, then progress to practice more challenging exercises. In piano the basics begin with scales, in tennis ground strokes, and in the military basic training. Can you imagine training musicians, athletes, or soldiers primarily by lecture, papers, or case studies?

I call this process Method Learning after Method Acting, since drama already named the learning style, and I call such fields Method Fields. Method Learning develops authentic, genuine expression and social and emotional skills and behavior amenable to leadership. Note the number of U.S. Presidents who were former athletes, actors, and service members, for example. My book Leadership Step by Step showed how leadership was a Method Field and how I taught and coached it through Method Learning. The result, Method Leadership, develops the practitioner into an experienced leader, confident and effective in his or her personal style.

Initiative is a Method Field too, until now missing its equivalent of basic training. I’ve developed a progression of exercises that develop the skills of initiative in executives, undergraduates, and everyone between. It develops the practitioner into someone experienced at taking initiative confidently and effectively in his or her personal style. I call it Method Initiative and treat fully in my recent book Initiative: A Proven Method to Bring Your Passions to Life (and Work).

To see it in action, let’s consider an example that helped create Method Initiative, adapted from the book.

Rafael

Rafael came to me for help. He couldn’t stand his managers at the media firm where he worked. He had an MBA and an undergraduate degree from top schools and worked hard to reach his position. He earned plenty of money and performed well. He wanted to participate in strategic decisions. The firm was small but never accepted his proposals.

He said, “Josh, I can’t work for other people any more. I have to start a company. You’ve started companies. Please help me start one.” He didn’t have an idea or team. He didn’t know what company he would start. He wanted something different.

We started working together. I coached Rafael through a simple program of exercises to help him find direction and reach his goals that would later coalesce into Method Initiative.

A few months later, instead of having left to start a new venture, he was working happily at the same firm on a project his managers valued and gave him ownership of. They gave him responsibility for his project’s success or failure, which might before have caused him anxiety, but they also gave him the autonomy and resources to make it happen, which turned the anxiety to enthusiasm, even excitement. He also worked fewer hours for the same pay. He was happier, more productive, and enjoyed his time and relationships at work.

He took no time off or formal classes. He only did those few exercises with me. His managers didn’t change. He didn’t suddenly get another degree. He didn’t magically become reborn with new skills. He didn’t get it from watching Shark Tank.

He created this result through Method Learning. He created his project, involving his managers in the process, so they happily gave him ownership and support.

Looking back, he saw that he wanted responsibility and ownership but to find office space, benefits packages, and other non-operational parts of entrepreneurship. He felt he needed to act dramatically because he only knew two options—stay or leave. He didn’t know how to take initiative to create the outcome he wanted.

He developed the social and emotional skills, experiences, and beliefs to initiate, serving others enough that they rewarded him for it. That is, he found a problem worth solving, figured out tentative solutions, worked with relevant people to refine the solution, and attracted people with resources to help.

What he did wasn’t hard. He enjoyed it more than the work on his job description. He had just never taken initiative like that. On the contrary, his formal education taught him the opposite—to comply.
Involving decision-makers led them to trust him and want him to succeed. He put the resources the project needed in the plan his managers helped create so that marshaling them became part of the project. He didn’t need impossible-to-get connections, funding, or any other resource to start. He didn’t need to be born with special genes or a gift to sell.

In short, Rafael solved a problem he cared about that helped others enough that they rewarded him for it and helped implement it. Doing so unearthed latent passion. He could have acted earlier, but he thought he had to do everything himself and that he needed answers for everything before presenting anything. He didn’t see that he had access to people who could have provided what resources he needed, including his managers.

He took initiative in business, but could have applied the same skills with his family, friends, community, or any part of his life. In fact, he later applied them throughout his life.

What happened to taking initiative?

Rafael’s starting situation is common. Sadly, his transformation is rare, though as accessible to anyone as it was to him. A kitchen full of ingredients and utensils won’t help you make dinner if you don’t know how to cook. On the contrary, knowing you could do something in theory but can’t in practice can make you feel frustrated, as Rafael did.

People everywhere in all walks of life feel stuck, professionally and personally. Like Rafael, they see the alternatives as so big and challenging that they don’t act until their situation becomes unbearable. So they endure just-bearable limits.

If Rafael needed only a few months of exercises without time off or formal classes, why didn’t he know how? Why hadn’t his education prepared him? Why did he default to the overkill of starting a new company instead of developing relationships with people who he could have led to become happy to support him?

Doesn’t our culture celebrate entrepreneurship? Bookstores and web sites fill sections on entrepreneurship. Why didn’t these resources help? Why, amid plenty, did Rafael and so many others feel stranded?

With all the media hype, Silicon Valley billionaires, and university entrepreneurship programs, aren’t entrepreneurship and initiative more active than ever?

Not according to the data. In a September 20, 2017 article by Ben Casselman, “A Start-Up Slump Is a Drag on the Economy. Big Business May Be to Blame,” The New York Times reported that “the share of younger companies—less than one year old—in the United States has declined by almost half over the last generation,” lamenting, “The start-up decline might defy expectations in the age of Uber and Shark Tank. But however counter-intuitive, the trend is backed by multiple data sources and numerous economic studies.” A February 6, 2018 New York Times article by Eduardo Porter, “Where Are the Start Ups?”, showed data that the effect was global.

What if Uber and Shark Tank are exacerbating entrepreneurship’s decline? How did the entrepreneurial spirit at the foundation of capitalism become a media spectacle anyway?

How did solving problems and starting projects become so dramatized and institutionalized? What happened to plain old initiative? When the threshold to start becomes so high, what falls through the cracks? Why does our society fail so many people who could take initiative?

The problems unsolved and people unserved are the tip of the iceberg. Greater is our helplessness and dependence, blinding us to opportunities and inhibiting us from acting. We believe myths that you need passion to start or, conversely, that only by acting big will passion emerge, among others. Rafael lacked not drive or knowledge but experience, skills, and beliefs. Beginners see black and white—to stay or start from scratch. Masters see nuance and subtle indications of unsolved problems that others will reward them for solving.

What works—what develops passion and gets the job done—is easier, fun, and rewarding.

The Exercises of Method Initiative

Before describing the exercises of Method Initiative, I’ll describe what they aren’t.

They aren’t simply interning at a start-up. They don’t only apply to starting a for-profit venture. They don’t require an idea or team to start. They aren’t dramatically different than business practices like Lean, Design Thinking, marketing, sales, and other standard practices. On the contrary, those practice derive from elements from what works, as military basic training derives from many training techniques relevant for combat. Push-ups, for example, aren’t unique to basic training, nor does a soldier do push-ups in battle for that matter, but basic training involves practicing them—a lot of them. Method Learning combines an effective, comprehensive mix of what works in a given field.

Method Initiative does so in the domain of taking initiative. It starts with exercises so simple anyone can do them. One recalls UCLA college basketball coach John Wooden each first practice instructing how to put on socks, despite his players being the nation’s top recruits. Some ways work, others cause blisters. Only practice develops the former. Hardly a waste of time, starting with basics wins championships—in Wooden’s case, an unmatched ten in twelve years.

Space prevents describing each of Method Initiative’s ten exercises in full. Describing the basics rarely conveys their value or results. How would you describe the value of piano scales, for example? They’re mechanical, seemingly the opposite of artistic expression. Yet they were the first step for nearly everyone who played Carnegie Hall.

The first Method Initiative exercise is to write a personal essay. Why? Partly because it’s as simple as putting on socks, partly because it points you in the right direction for you. It’s not just any personal essay. The specific instructions suggest choosing to write on a field of interest while discussing the low-stakes nature of that choice. Many people feel anxious about choosing wrong: what if I choose field A but I really love B or C more? Method Learning doesn’t avoid such emotions but teaches us to learn from experiencing them, enabling us to handle them again when stakes are higher. The instructions also suggest listing several people in your field you can access and role models you may not have access to. This instruction points you to focusing on people, not engineering, design, analysis, planning, or other domains less likely to create relevant emotions or social interactions.

Exercise 2 has you list five problems in that field, whether or not you think they’d make a great exercise, then to write candidate solutions for each, no matter how rudimentary or silly. Why? Because few successful projects emerged from the first solution their founders originally conceived. The greatest early hurdles are not a lack of ideas, but inhibitions to work with and develop rudimentary ones. Those inhibitions are internal: anxiety, inexperience, fear of judgment. You become a successful initiator by working with them and developing silly ideas into plausible ones.
The second exercise isn’t designed to create a candidate for the next Airbnb, but a seed for the next exercises: something you care about, but not so attached that you can’t let it evolve or drop it and start with a new one. A viable project is only the short-term result of Method Initiative. The long-term result is to make you an effective initiator for the rest of your life.

Developing initiative skills enables you to sense your priorities. With practice, you’ll sense which field you prefer, A or B. Or C if it comes up later. Your fear of picking the wrong field or problem to solve transforms to confidence if you picked the one you like the most, or confidence to change if you didn’t. People who switch fields or problems find themselves not feeling regret at their “wrong” choices but gratitude at choices they realize they had to make to learn their priorities. They wish they had chosen earlier, no matter how “wrong.”

All the exercises build to the tenth: speaking to valuable people in your field to get advice on your project. By this point you’ve spoken to many people in the field, iterated your project, and more. You’ve learned to ask for advice, which makes people feel vested in your success, instead of judgment, which tends to separate. Most of all, you’ve developed as a person. In fact, the ninth exercise is a second personal essay to help people see how much they’ve developed. That way they can confidently speak to these people so they treat them as peers. They don’t need to know the project may not have existed more than a month before.

Below are the names of the exercises. While their names don’t convey their value, nor could any description. Only doing them does. In the words of Alan Iny, Global Leader, Creativity and Scenarios at Boston Consulting Group and co-author of Thinking in New Boxes: A New Paradigm for Business Creativity,

The common “wisdom” of expecting passion to automatically lead to action only works if you’re amazingly lucky. Initiative gives you a powerful toolkit to explore your interests and passions and create what makes you excited to work – how to make your own luck. No more Monday morning blues. If you work through the exercises here, you’ll stop saying “somebody should fix that” and become the one who does, to the world’s benefit, and especially your own.

  1. Personal Essay
  2. 5 Unsolved Problems
  3. 5 Close Contacts
  4. 10 Friends and Family Members
  5. 5 People Who Feel the Problem
  6. 10 People Closer to Your Field
  7. Create a Visual Model
  8. Details, Sustainability, and Financials
  9. Second Personal Essay
  10. Valuable People

Conclusion and Recommendations

The application of Method Learning to initiative is young. I don’t pretend my implementation of Method Initiative is the final word, though client and student results show it works. Others can too. John Wooden wasn’t the only coach who won a lot of championships. Other coaches coached their ways, though they always practiced the basics.

At the top level, I recommend recognizing that no one is a born initiator, entrepreneur, salesperson, or practitioner of any field any more than anyone else. Skills one person learned another can too. If you see someone with skills you want to master, lamenting that they must have been born that way and sadly we weren’t keeps us from learning what they did. So do content-based books, courses, and resources that don’t develop social and emotional skills.

Recognizing that “what he or she learned, so can I” points us to ask them what experiences developed those skills.

Method Initiative emerged from asking experts what worked for them, then refining and testing over hundreds of clients and students.

At the individual level, we can learn to initiate through practice. If we practice enough, we can master initiative.

At the team and organizational level, leaders can train teams to learn Method Initiative. Those who do will take more responsibility and solve more important problems with more passion without the best people leaving. Those who learn together bond for learning each other’s passions. They may transform that organization’s culture.

At a national level and beyond, business, institutions, and culture can reverse decades-long trends of decreasing initiative with resilience, perseverance, service, passion, and all that comes from Method Initiative.

It’s not always easy or fast, but all it takes is practice.

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Joshua Spodek

Joshua Spodek, bestselling author of Leadership Step by Step, is an Adjunct Professor at NYU, leadership coach and workshop leader for Columbia Business School, columnist for Inc., and founder of SpodekAcademy.com. He has led seminars in leadership, entrepreneurship, creativity, and sales at Harvard, Princeton, MIT, INSEAD, the New York Academy of Science, and in private corporations. He holds five Ivy League degrees, including a PhD in Astrophysics and an MBA, and studied under a Nobel Prize winner. He helped build an X-ray observational satellite for NASA, co-founded and led as CEO or COO several ventures, and holds six patents. He earned praise as “Best and Brightest” (Esquire's Genius Issue), “Astrophysicist turned new media whiz” (NBC), and “Rocket Scientist” (ABC News and Forbes) and has been quoted and profiled by ABC, CBS, NBC, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. He has visited North Korea twice, swam across the Hudson River, and has done burpees every day since December 2011. He lives in Greenwich Village and blogs daily at www.joshuaspodek.com.

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