Proactive vs. Reactive Leadership: What’s the Difference and Who Cares?
I talk about proactive versus reactive leadership a lot. A ton. If you’ve been following this blog, this is definitely not the first time you’re hearing about this topic.
And because this concept is so essential to strong leadership, I wanted to give you a more in-depth look at it. I’ll explain the differences between proactive and reactive leadership, clarify the ways in which they can help or hinder your business, and give you tips for shifting your mindset.
But first, I’d like to make one very important distinction.
A lot of people think of proactive versus reactive leadership in terms of problem-solving.
They think reactive leaders respond to problems as they arise, while proactive leaders anticipate problems and get out in front of them.
While this is true, the distinction between these two leadership styles runs so much deeper than that. I encourage you to think about it more like this:
Proactive leaders take responsibility for their growth by making decisions based on where they want to be. This type of leader may still have to respond immediately to unexpected problems. But they will always take a beat to breathe and choose the best course of action based on their vision.
Reactive leaders surrender control by making decisions based on what they want to avoid. When problems arise—urgent or non-urgent—they respond with fear and do whatever they have to do to make the pain of the problem go away.
In short, proactive leaders thrive. Reactive leaders survive… and sometimes they don’t even do that.
Let’s break this down even further.
Qualities of a Proactive Leader
How do you know a proactive leader when you see one? And how do you know if you’re a proactive leader?
Proactive leaders are:
- Eager to grow. Proactive leaders don’t get too hung up on being impressive. They are more interested in growing, and they know that means facing failure, being honest with themselves, and choosing uncomfortable challenges.
- Opportunity-focused. In both good and bad situations, proactive leaders look for an opportunity to further their vision. This could mean tapping into a new market, innovating their services, nurturing potential leaders on their team, developing their own skills, etc.
- Comfortable with discomfort. Proactive leaders are resilient enough to sit with an unsolved problem when it means giving themselves time to think it through. They’re also willing to step outside their comfort zone to turn a problem into a growth opportunity.
- Open to feedback. Proactive leaders engage their team, mentor, or peers when tackling a challenging decision.
- Clear in their vision and intentions. Even if the day doesn’t go as planned for a proactive leader, they keep their eye on their vision and still make sure they do something—however small—to move their business forward.
- Energetic. It’s hard to maintain conviction if you’re exhausted and underfueled. Proactive leaders commit to daily habits that keep them energized—body, mind, and soul.
Qualities of a Reactive Leader
And what about reactive leaders?
Generally speaking, reactive leaders are:
- Protective of their leadership role. Many reactive leaders are afraid of failing in front of their team, colleagues, or even family. They’re afraid that a failure will be seen as a sign that they’re not in control. As a result, they hurry to make problems go away before anyone else finds out about them.
- Obstacle-focused. It’s all about the roadblocks for the reactive leader. They put all their attention on bad luck or adversaries and convince themselves they can’t move forward because the opportunity isn’t there.
- Resistant to failure and other forms of pain. The greatest priority for reactive leaders is to make the bad thing go away. If a client is angry, they just want to do whatever it takes to make the anger stop. If an employee quits, they just want to hire someone else quickly to prevent the workload from becoming overwhelming. They don’t stop to think about what they can learn or how they can re-strategize.
- Independent decision-makers. There is nothing wrong with having a strong inner-compass. But reactive leaders tend to make independent decisions as a way of maintaining control or proving their value. This means losing out on a lot of valuable insight from others.
- Vague in their vision and intentions. Or maybe they’re clear on their vision but they’re low on conviction. Either way, they let just about anything derail their intention for the day.
- Low-energy. Speaking of conviction, proactive leadership often requires us to do that hard thing, and that is a huge ask when energy levels are low. You see this in many reactive leaders. They are often tired, sluggish, and burned out.
How to Become a Proactive Leader
Now that you understand why proactive versus reactive leadership matters, how do you make the shift to proactive?
I’ll tell you upfront: it’s going to take time. Like most significant mindset shifts, becoming more proactive requires major internal growth, and that isn’t easy.
But there are a few things you can do to make the process easier:
- Get in the habit of asking, “How can I use this situation to grow?” Ask it a lot. Not just when you’re nailed with a major problem at work, but also when you confront small challenges or opportunities in life. Your kid won’t go to bed? You and your spouse got a bigger-than-expected tax return? Your cholesterol is too high? “How can I use this situation to grow?”
- Actively choose discomfort. Try something that intimidates you. Learn a new skill when you’re pretty sure you’ll fail. The more time you spend getting cozy with discomfort, the less likely you’ll be to react impulsively in a tough situation.
- Get clear on your vision and write your goals down every day. Keep your destination top-of-mind. With time, you’ll find yourself naturally factoring in the vision when making decisions.
- Design an energizing daily routine. You can get some suggestions here and find advice for building habits that stick here.
Take Advantage of Tools to Help You Become More Proactive
We at Get Out of the Truck have created some great tools to help you become a more proactive leader.
Our SWOT Analysis Tool is great for—you guessed it—generating a SWOT analysis. If you don’t know, a SWOT analysis is a system for identifying your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. This helps you make better decisions based on how your business is positioned to succeed and how it might be vulnerable to particular challenges.
You can also use our Business Plan Wizard to generate a business plan built around your goals and revenue drivers. This is another great tool to help you zero in on the things that really matter in your business.
And that’s what really sets a proactive leader apart from a reactive leader: the ability to focus on what actually matters.
The ability to see potential, not fear.
That’s how you become a major player in your industry.
So get to it.
Further Resources on This Topic
Free Video Course: Cultivating a Growth Mindset on the Job