Action Vs. Reaction: How Do You Lead?

As a leader, you must always ask yourself if you are a person of action or reaction. We can define action as an act of the will, something done or performed, or the accomplishment of a task. A reaction is defined as the way someone acts or feels in response to something that happens or is said. It is a response to some treatment, situation, or stimulus.

We all understand that a reaction is what occurs following an action. The action comes first. The reaction is second. Throughout our days, we react to other’s words and actions, and even their attitudes, with our responses being all the way from silent thoughts to physical events. Our professional lives are filled with constant actions of our own and reactions to those around us.

In various areas of life — work, family, school, friends — we must evaluate whether our tendency in relationships is to initiate action or respond in reaction. As with so many other areas of our personal identities, we can write off our choices in how we respond by blaming our personality style or our past. However, as leaders we need to take full ownership for both our actions and reactions. This should take precedence and priority over any of our personal background, experiences, or workplace beliefs.

Leaders who act reactively, typically fall into three categories:

  1. Apathy: Avoiding action and any potential conflict — real or perceived — and staying in reaction mode is a lack of proactivity. While this approach can also be considered laziness, apathy is a stronger word because it is an anti-action as in unconcerned, unaffected, or unresponsive. Deciding to consistently lack action in our work relationships and communication brings about an apathetic attitude in our leadership.
  2. Fear: Consistent lack of action can be a sign of fear. Constant reaction just reinforces and creates more fear. The very nature of fear is a reaction to a negative stimulus. When we make a decision to overcome our fears and press onward, we choose action over reaction. Faith, the opposite of fear, always invokes some sort of action. It causes us to be hopeful and optimistic.
  3. Distrust: When leaders live and operate life in reaction mode, they usually don’t trust others. Distrust is a reaction to some sort of past hurt or disappointment where we leaders choose to protect themselves at all costs. They only way to overcome distrust is to choose the action of trusting once again. While this seems simple in theory, we all know it can be quite difficult to practice.

Proactive leaders take action in the following ways:

  1. Future-Focused: Action-oriented leaders think with an eye towards the future. They can see around the corner and anticipate what’s coming next. They tend to be visionaries and can see what ideal future state possibilities will look like. They can harness this energy to galvanize the masses and move people towards their desired outcomes.
  2. Calculated Risks: Proactive leaders are risk-takers. They aren’t afraid to fail and usually rebound quickly after a setback. When they make decisions, they take the time to think through all the possible outcomes, but in the end, are not afraid to make the call. They don’t lead out of fear. They’re optimistic about people and relationships, and look for the best in others.
  3. Accept Challenges: Leaders that take action step up to the challenges of the day. They get energized by looking for ways to develop and improve. I usually see this type of behavior with high potential-high performing leaders. They are always looking to stretch themselves and grow.

Leaders who continually live in reaction mode will eventually see themselves as passive bystanders of those around them that take action. A sign of leadership growth is when people move from reaction to action, even if its small steps moving in the right direction. Of course, we cannot live our professional lives in a constant state of action. There is always a give-and-take required in every relational interaction. Evaluating our tendencies toward action or reaction can help us make healthy adjustments that lead to fulfilled and successful lives.

Adam C. Bandelli, Ph.D. is the Managing Director of Bandelli & Associates, a boutique consulting firm focusing on leadership development and organizational effectiveness.

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