Being proactive is Stephen Covey’s first habit in his bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and rightly so. Why does it make sense to start from there? Covey’s six other habits of highly effective people are:
1. Beginning with an end in mind (personal leadership)
2. Putting first things first (personal management)
3. Thinking win-win (interpersonal leadership)
4. Seeking first to understand and then to be understood (empathetic communication)
5. Synergising (creative cooperation)
6. Sharpening the saw (self-renewal)
If you think about all these six habits, and what it takes to obtain them, then you can clearly see that proactivity is a foundational requirement. “Proactivity” is being responsible for your own life and how it pans out. It is so much more than merely taking initiative, and can be exhibited in countless ways in your everyday life, be it in the personal sphere, career-wise, or in your community.
“Our behaviour is a function of our decisions, not our conditions. We can subordinate feelings to values. We have the initiative and the responsibility to make things happen,” writes Covey. What does that mean? It means that we have the power to control how we feel about different situations that are around us and how they affect us. What is important is not the feeling, but the action we take towards it and how we let it influence us.
“Look at the word responsibility – ‘Response-ability’ – the ability to choose your response. Highly proactive people recognise that responsibility. They do not blame circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behaviour. “Their behaviour is a product of their own conscious choice, based on values, rather than a product of their conditions, based on feeling.”
And that is the difference between reactive people, and proactive ones. Reactive people let themselves be affected by the circumstances around them. Proactive ones, on the other hand, choose how to deal with the situation in a way that frees them from the negativity and the apparent obstacles that a circumstance may provide.
WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE
The language we use has much to do with our attitude. The type of language we use can affect the way we view situations, and can influence our commitment to do something about them or not.
“A serious problem with reactive language is that is becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. People become reinforced in the paradigm that they are determined, and they produce evidence to support the belief. They feel increasingly victimised and out of control, not in charge of their life or their destiny.
“They blame outside forces – other people, circumstances, even the stars – for their own situation,” explains Covey.
How then can we change the language we use? Covey explains that a feeling, like love, can easily be viewed as a verb. Once you cease to see it as something that you either have or you don’t, it suddenly becomes something that you can work on.
You can put in the effort, and through your actions ensure that love becomes something that you have influence over. Something that you can encourage yourself to feel once again, or encourage someone else to feel for you.
CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE AND CIRCLE OF CONCERN
In our lives, we all have issues that we are concerned about. Things that we would like to be able to make a change in. In general, our problems can be categorised into three groups:
1. Those that we have direct control over
2. Those that we have indirect control over
3. Those that we have no control over
As such, there will be certain issues that we are concerned about, but cannot do much to solve them. And there are others that we can solve by changing something in ourselves.
Covey argues that we all have a circle of concern, and a circle of influence. The circle of concern covers all the issues we are concerned about, whereas the circle of influence, which usually lies within the circle of concern, covers all the issues we can actually do something about.
For proactive people, the circle of influence is much bigger. As they focus their efforts on the issues they can actually do something about, their energy is positive, enlarging, and magnifying, allowing them, through their optimism and bright attitude, to tackle even more issues than they originally thought would be within their control.
For reactive people, on the other hand, their circle of influence shrinks. Their tendency to focus on the things they cannot change, such as the weaknesses of the people around them and problems with their environment, makes them neglect the areas they can do something about, thus making their circle of influence smaller.
Going back to the three categories of our issues – direct control, indirect control and no control, the proactive approach would be to tackle the ones that fall under our circle of influence first, starting with the direct control ones. And the way to solve them, is by working on our habits.
The ones in the indirect control category are dealt by changing our methods of influence. If we accept that we can learn new methods of influencing those around us, it will, for sure, liberate us and open up so many doors of opportunities ahead.
As for the problems that fall in the “no control” category, we just need to learn to peacefully accept them and live with them with a smile, since we cannot affect their trajectory in any way.
EXPANDING YOUR CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE
By attempting to do more than expected, to reach more people, to anticipate their needs and provide for them, we suddenly become irreplaceable and we extend our circle of influence.
How do we accomplish that? For one, we need to leave behind the negative mind-set and the habit of finding fault in everything and everyone around us.
If, for example, you think that your boss is horrible and all he/she does is tell you what to do, instead of talking bad about them or merely thinking that the problem is with them, try to go beyond what they ask you to do.
Anticipate what they need to reach a certain decision, and go beyond what they ask for to provide them that something extra – perhaps more data than the mere minimum, some analysis on it, and even your recommendations based on the facts that you provided and any other knowledge.
Being proactive, in addition to taking initiative to correct situations around you and essentially change your life, also means looking into the future and foreseeing any possible issues that may arise.
It is true that everyone makes mistakes. We all make mistakes, and once done, there is nothing we can do to correct them, except learn from them and move forward.
“The proactive approach to a mistake is to acknowledge it instantly, correct and learn from it. This literally turns a failure into a success,” writes Covey.
Part of being proactive, entails learning from these mistakes you and those around you did, and deciding how best you can avoid them in the future.
Your aim is to look forward, and use these past experiences, good or bad, as a guide to how you should deal with various situations.
Planning ahead is a big advantage in leadership. After all, no one wants a leader (or even a team member for that matter) that dwells on the past and cannot figure out a way forward.
You need to take that extra step, that leap of faith and dare to plan the unknown, by gathering information and coming up with a strategy as foolproof as it can be.
“Many people wait for something to happen or someone to take care of them. But people who end up with the good jobs are the proactive ones who are solutions to problems, not problems themselves, who seize the initiative to do whatever is necessary, consistent with correct principles, to get the job done.”
Have you ever noticed that if people around you are really pessimistic about something, the mood suddenly spreads? Similarly to letting other people’s weaknesses and shortcomings get to you, you have to do quite the opposite – once you become proactive, optimistic and happy yourself, spread it around.
And this is actually easier than it sounds. In the company of very self-assured, confident people that are encouraging you to be the same, you become, to a certain extent, more confident than you used to be.
Proactivity is a gift that is best shared with others. Ideally, you want everyone around you to turn. Because if you are the only one that does so, this will not be sustainable for long.
The pessimism, mediocrity and complaints of those around you will eventually bring you down (if you allow them to do so of course!).
KEEP YOUR COMMITMENTS
“At the heart of our circle of influence is our ability to make and keep commitments and promises. The commitments we make to ourselves and others, and our integrity to those commitments, is the essence and clearest manifestation of our proactivity. It is also the essence of our growth,” writes Covey.
At the end of the day, it is up to us to keep working on our “proactiveness”. It may take a while for us to accept it and for it to come naturally to us, so it is important to have the self-discipline to monitor our behaviour and always pull us back in line when we tend to go off road, especially at the beginning.
Many a times we make promises or commitments to ourselves, colleagues, friends and family that we do not keep. We will exercise more, spend more time with our children, put more effort in our work and meet up more often, we say.
We tend to break such promises, but the biggest step to proactivity is to keep the commitments and promises we make. If we master the determination to do so, we are one step closer to being proactive, and one step closer to being a great leader.