Reactive vs Creative Leadership

photo of scared-looking woman breathing into a paper bag

“Yesterday I told Fred he could work from home from now on because he has kids going back to school and his 90-year-old grandmother lives in his house,” said my client Lucy, a middle manager in a small corporation. “Tomorrow the management team is revisiting our work-from-home policies. I jumped the gun. Now what do I do?”

Lucy’s problem, in its broad form, is one almost everyone is facing. We’re confused, doubtful, inundated, exhausted. We’re besieged with information and guidelines that are constantly changing.

“I’ve got people with kids going back to school in a dozen districts, each of which has its own policies,” said Ethel, another client. “People want me to figure out how we can customize the work experience for them. But I can’t even figure it out for myself!”

Lucy and Ethel–and Fred, Ricky, and you and I–are operating from a reactive state. To be effective leaders, they–and you and I–need to find our way into a creative state.

The idea of reactive vs. creative leadership comes from Leadership Circle, a leadership assessment and training method in which I am a certified coach.

Reactive leadership:

  • Is fueled by adrenaline
  • Comes out of emotions like fear, panic, and anger
  • Can be characterized by shouting, people-pleasing, blindly following established paths, micromanaging, or shutting down, among others

Lucy’s quick decision to let Fred work from home was a reactive decision. Decisions we make in our reactive state are often the ones we regret afterward.

Creative leadership:

  • Is fueled by passion for the mission and the work
  • Comes out of reflection, deliberation, and authenticity
  • Can be characterized by self-awareness, contemplation, inquiry, and relationship building, among others

For Lucy, one possible creative decision would have been to tell Fred that he can work from home this week and that she will revisit the situation with him after the management team revises the WFH policy.

Decisions we make in our creative state tend to be rational, helpful, and durable.

Many of us spend a lot of our time in a reactive state. This is where we land whenever we confront a new situation or issue–especially if the new situation or issue carries a strong emotional charge. 

Not to be obvious, but a decision that could result in people getting sick or making their families sick is one that carries a strong emotional charge! That strong emotional charge puts us into a reactive state. In a reactive state, we are more likely to make bad decisions. 

To make good decisions, we need to move into a creative state. 

The two states are mutually exclusive. You can’t be reactive and creative at the same moment in time. 

We will fall into a reactive state whenever the stakes are high–and sometimes even when they are not. Operating at a high stress level all the time (hello, 2020-2021) puts us into a reactive state even if the decision is what to have for lunch. 

So the trick is knowing how to move out of a reactive state and into a creative state. 

The five steps I outlined in my last blog are a good starting point:

  1. Stop.
  2. Center yourself.
  3. Take stock.
  4. Get curious.
  5. Give yourself time.

We need to give our panic, anger, and bewilderment time to dissipate. Then our brains can return to full function. Then we can ask questions, make connections, elicit help, mull over pros and cons.

Then, finally, we can arrive at reasonable solutions. The solutions won’t be perfect. But they will be better than anything we could have decided when our reactive state was in charge.

Maybe 80% of what my coaching clients learn prepares them to undertake the reflection and inquiry that lead to creative decisions. You might want to sign up for a free exploratory session to see whether coaching is right for you.

If you’d rather be part of a learning community, consider a new course I’m offering this fall with my colleague Alice Ford, PCC (Professional Certified Coach). It’s called Keep Moving: Leadership Practices for Uncertain Times. Sign up now for our free introductory session on September 16 to get a taste of the content and process.

Like this Post? Please Share! 

Leave a Reply