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Proactive vs. Reactive Leadership

While the most effective leaders are almost always proactive, the vast majority of organizational leaders I have met in the past three decades of working with organizations have been effective reactive behaviors. Dictionary.com defines “proactive” as: “serving to prepare for, intervene in, or control an unexpected event or situation, especially a negative or difficult one; anticipatory.” On the other hand, when we refer to reactive leaders, we usually refer to leaders whose actions are determined by the situations, so they generally act after the fact.

One of the main reasons organizational leaders react reactively instead of proactively is that a large percentage of leaders are afraid. Unfortunately, many leaders are unprepared for leadership and fear making the wrong decision, procrastinating when action would be the recommended course. This can result in them taking the wrong and indecisive action, or procrastinating and not taking the necessary action. Many of the most effective organizational leaders are extremely frustrated dealing with reactive co-leaders.

Organizations must do strategic planning, continuously. There is also, in most cases, the need to take greater financial control of your organization. Another area that proactive leaders realize they need to emphasize includes organizational budgeting and the importance of using zero-based budgeting effectively. Another danger for many organizations is that too many leaders do not recognize the importance of taking real fiscal restrictions and controls. Most organizations should severely limit the amount of control staff have over organization funds, including limiting the size of checks a staff member can sign. It is also recommended that organizations create a maximum amount where only one signer is required for a check, and above that amount more than one signer is required.

Leaders must recognize that the financial obligations and methods for organizations, and what are the appropriate courses of action, are different for organizations than for individuals. Much has been written about the “wise man rule,” which requires leaders to act in a fiduciary manner as the most prudent (or careful) individual would. While certain financial risks may be acceptable for individual portfolios and investments, much more conservative restrictions should be placed on organizational funds.

One of the most recurring issues that organizations face are those related to personnel. Proactive leaders try to anticipate what might happen, while reactive leaders often take a wait-and-see attitude, not rock the boat. Organizations that have continuous periods of reactive leaders almost always end up with problems and sometimes even crises, which are avoidable and unfortunate.

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