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Emotionally Intelligent Leadership - Taking Initiative

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 

"If you want to do something great, put yourself in a position to fail."


The posting below looks at the factors that hinder taking initiative and what can be done about them.  It is from Chapter 9, Initiative, from the book Emotionally Intelligent Leadership: A Guide for Students,  by Marcy Levy Shankman, Scott J. Allen, and Paige Haber-Curran . Copyright © 2015 by Marcy Levy Shankman, Scott J. Allen, and Paige Haber-Curran. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. Published by Jossey-Bass  A Wiley Brand . One Montgomery Street. Suite 1200, San Francisco, CA 94104-4594

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Rick Reis
UP NEXT: How Soon They Forget



Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Emotionally Intelligent Leadership - Taking Initiative


Taking action.  Initiative means being a self-starter and being motivated to take the first step.  Emotionally intelligent leaders are ready to take action, demonstrate interest, and capitalize on opportunities.

A Broader Perspective

What if Abraham Lincoln had not taken the initiative to tackle the issue of slavery in the United States?  What if he had decided that it was simply too controversial to take on?  All of us would be different people, living in a different world.  Leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Gloria Steinem, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King Jr., Golda Meir, Mikhail Gorbachev, Mother Teresa, and Lech Walesa sparked change in their countries and the world.  In the words of Kouzes and Posner (2007), "Leaders go first," and each of these individuals took initiative, even when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds.

Initiative is powerful.  The individuals listed not only saw that the world could be different but also took action.  Thankfully, we do not have to be world leaders to take initiative.  Every day people take initiative in large and small ways.  The key is that we see and we act without being prompted to do so.  In his video The Power of Vision (1991), futurist Joel Barker suggests, "Vision without action is merely a dream.  Action without vision just passes time.  Vision with action changes the world."

Reasons for Not Taking Action

In our work with students, we have witnessed a great deal of untapped potential - individuals who could have made a difference and accomplished their goals, but for one reason or another chose not to.  This is a problem for many reasons.  Organizations, groups, campuses, and society must continue to grow to stay relevant and best serve their purposes.  Initiative is about being proactive to bring about change by showing interest, being a self-starter, and taking action.

Based on our experience, we see four primary reasons that students fail to take action in various contexts (e.g., groups in class, student organizations, workgroups in their place of business, athletic teams): fear of failure, apathy, popularity, and the inability to manage conflict.

A teacher once told us, "If you want to do something great, put yourself in a position to fail," and it's really stuck with me.  He meant that if you don't take any risks, and don't put yourself out there, sure, you won't be embarrassed, but you also won't accomplish anything.  Fear of failure is very counterproductive because it doesn't necessarily protect you from failure, but it does impede your success.  - Naomi Grant, high school junior from Beachwood, Ohio, involved in student council, school newspaper, yearbook, and Model UN

Fear of Failure

In each and every organization there are problems. Whether it is a fraternity that hazes its new members, a student government bogged down by gridlock, or a new organization trying to recruit members and develop traditions, leadership can move an organization past its challenges and unhealthy behaviors.  This only happens, however, when someone takes the first step and speaks out against the norm or takes an unknown path.  This can be risky business.  Thus, initiative takes courage because leadership can be dangerous.  Simply look at the names mentioned earlier in this chapter and you will see what we mean.  Think about your own organizations.  The thought of losing friends, not being cool, looking foolish, or not succeeding are enough to stop many people from taking initiative.  Fear of failure causes many of us to stall, hold off, or choose a safer path.  EIL [Emotionally Intelligent Leadership] helps us take that first, difficult step.


Another reason for inaction is the amount of work and energy it takes to begin the work toward change.  Many of us may simply think we do not have the energy or time to take on new efforts, and, as a result, problems persist.  Every organization, group, and workplace has members who are apathetic, unmotivated, and even lazy.  However, when formal leaders are also that way, a dangerous and unhealthy dynamic occurs, and the organization can quickly spiral downward. Tackling touchy issues or starting something new takes a great deal of time and mental energy.  Focusing too much on the cost rather than the potential benefits is one of the many reasons why apathy may keep us from taking initiative.


A third reason for inaction is popularity.  It may be deemed unpopular to take a stand against hazing, eating disorders, alcohol or drug abuse, or cheating.  The fear of being outcast by others we care about is a powerful force.  As a result, many follow the herd and put up with unhealthy practices, behaviors, and even personal habits to the detriment of the larger group.  Each one of us has fallen victim to this reality and wish we could go back and alter our approach.  However, conforming and maintaining popularity among peers is a major driver of behavior, no matter how old we are.  We see this in athletics, politics, business, and social groups.  When was the last time you failed to take a stand because it was the safer option?  When was the last time you opted out of doing something different because you were afraid of what other people would think?  How did that affect the organization?

Inability to Manage Conflict

A final reason for not taking action is fear of conflict. As we discuss in the chapter on managing conflict (see chapter 19), the goal of maintaining harmony is a strong driver of behavior.  This is especially true if you do not feel like you are skilled at navigating difficult conversations or extended periods of conflict.  Cliché as it may sound, the fear of "opening a can of worms" or "discussing the elephant in the room" is real.  This fear surrounds us, in our families, organizations, friendships, and workplaces - really in all human social systems.  The downside of inaction is that when problems persist, self-doubt festers and relationships and groups become divided.  In a leadership role, we may be perceived as weak and ineffective because a certain faction would like the conflict addressed, and by choosing to do nothing, that faction becomes disheartened, disengaged, or apathetic.  For all these reasons, and more, EIL advocates taking initiative.

Hallmarks of Initiative

So what does a healthy level of initiative look like?  In our work, five major actions stand out.  People who take initiative actively engage, are confident in their abilities and beliefs, consistently innovate, secure support, and maintain focus.  Each of these actions is like a lever for change.  They don't necessarily have to follow one another because sometimes just one action is sufficient.

First, taking initiative means seeing a gap or opportunity and acting to fill it.  For example, within a student organization you may see an opportunity to grow your organization and actively seek ways to enhance the group.  In your personal life, you may see a friend with an eating disorder and try to help.  Taking initiative means you are actively engaged; you see an opportunity to act and do so.  Taking action and pushing through challenges are key components of initiative.

A spoken word is nothing but sound.  A spoken word with initiative behind it is a powerful tool that can turn any thought into reality.  - Rebecca Clements, Central Michigan University junior, involved in the honors program, and as a leader advancement scholar and leadership safari guide

A second hallmark of taking initiative is having the confidence to stand up for what is right and work through the issues that may follow.  Emotionally intelligent leaders know they can navigate change and make their group, their community, or the world a better place.  We have great respect for those we know who have tackled problematic traditions in organizations such as: sexism, racism, homophobia, hazing, and alcohol or drug abuse.  We have seen students completely transform their organizations into stronger and more inclusive organizations that make a significant impact on campus. We have seen students work with a friend through difficult personal issues, even when it meant taking a personal risk themselves.  Taking initiative requires confidence in your ideas and in your ability to make a difference.

A third hallmark of those with initiative is they are innovative and often seem to be ahead of the curve.  Think about Steve Jobs and his career - for years, he was on the cutting edge of multiple industries.  Throughout his career he took risks, and much of the time (but not all) it paid off.  Now, we do not assert that Jobs was perfect by any measure, and by many accounts, he lacked emotional intelligence, but he did exemplify innovation.  Successful designers, engineers, programmers, video game architects, artists, and musicians are often innovating.  Think of someone you know who is creative or an entrepreneurial thinker.  They often see problems as opportunities.

Our fourth hallmark is about securing support.  Knowing that there are inherent obstacles ahead, taking initiative includes reaching out to mentors, trusted advisors, peers, and others who can serve as sources of support.  By doing so, you gain emotional support and identify valuable resources to help you climb over, crawl under, or work through barriers in an effective, ethical, and entrepreneurial manner.  This is certainly challenging, so seeking out people who have a similar vision and can help support you makes a significant difference.

A fifth hallmark of initiative is to focus.  Initiative requires us to set a goal and stay focused on the end product.  With this focus, we can remain highly motivated and not easily distracted until we have met our goal.  This means we may get up early, stay late, or even view everything through the lens of meeting our goals and the goals of the group or organization.  In this way, initiative is directly linked to the capacity for achievement (see chapter 10).  Initiative is about being the spark, and achievement is about following through.

Without initiative, no leader would be where they are today.  Initiative is the backbone to a successful leader.  - Katherine Du Pont, University of Oregon recent graduate, involved in female associated students, student recreation center advisory board, and as an athletics commissioner

A Door Waiting to Be Opened

We love the following quote from our friend Denny Roberts (2007): "To envision is to have a picture of how something might be.  It is having a different idea in our head about how a particular circumstance might be if it could be improved" (p. 110). This vision may be about you, your group or organization, a cause, or your community.  Regardless, EIL means demonstrating your interests, finding or creating opportunities, and acting upon them.  This means staying focused.  Whether it is a problem in the current culture or an idea that can take an organization or even yourself to the next level, you act.  Hearing objections does not distract an individual with a healthy level of initiative.

Initiative means that when you discover a closed door, you see it as just that - a closed door, waiting to be opened.  Of course this can be taken to an unhealthy extreme, so it is important to turn to others for feedback, guidance, and support.  After all, it is just as important to know when not to take initiative, hold off, take a more measured approach, or look for opportunities elsewhere.

Student Voices

"Initiative is important for any student leader, but especially for students at large universities because opportunities are much more difficult to locate, strictly due to the breadth of the school.  In order to change the world, students have to be inspired and diligent in finding the opportunities to support their choices."  - Alex W. Bugg, University of Kentucky junior, involved in agricultural biotechnology club, student government association, and as a college of agriculture ambassador

"A student who has too much initiative may preemptively agree to take on new leadership roles or tasks without realizing the toll they will take on him or her.  It is important for a student to always be "hungry" for a challenge or for trying something new, but he or she should make sure it is feasible with his or her lifestyle and schedule first". - Erica Bilodeau, Castleton State College recent graduate, involved in student government association, student orientation, residence life, and a student activities intern

"There's a difference between having initiative and being a pest.  I've found that a good gauge is to read the feedback you're getting.  If someone is excited to be talking to you, engaging you, and asking questions about your ideas, then you know this is someone you want to continue working with. On the opposite end, if you're receiving terse responses that cut to the chase, generally it's time to direct your efforts elsewhere."  - Tess Duncan, Elon University senior, involved in student government association, Greek life, and freshmen summer experience


Barker, J. (1991). The power of vision (VHS). United States: Starthrower Distribution.

Kouzes, J., & Posner, B. (2007). The leadership challenge: How to keep getting extraordinary things done in organizations (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Roberts, D. (2007). Deeper learning in leadership: Helping college students find the potential within.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Reflection Questions
-    Which of the four causes of inaction have you displayed? Which do you see as most common?
-    When have you embodied the five hallmarks of initiative?  Which might you further develop?
-    What does initiative taken to an extreme look like?  Can it hurt an organization? If so, how?
-    How do leaders spark initiative in others?
-    Who do you turn to as a source of support?  How has this helped when lea