Sioux Hans Odenthal

Hans Odenthal is group lead at Sioux Technologies.

15 June 2020

Is leadership something only the happy few can attain? Perhaps if you take a very narrow-minded view. To me, “leadership is all about the question if you’re willing to take initiative,” as one of my favorite quotes says. It’s a simple piece of advice but not always easy to follow through on. Like one of the employees I coach once said: “I really want to be more proactive, but I don’t know where to start.”

So, is “to be proactive” a synonym for taking the lead? Yes and no. Yes, because here it all starts. If you take the lead, others may take a cue from you. And no, because there’s more.

If you take the initiative, always add a little bit of something of yourself. Do you appreciate someone sharing a Linkedin post without providing context that lets you know why you might find it interesting? Did the sender agree with the author? Or did he think that the article was complete nonsense? Believe me, you don’t want to be known for passing on mysterious messages.

So, if you’re proactive and you add meaningful information, does that make you a great leader? If that was the case, everybody would follow you blindly. We all know that this isn’t common practice. You will get questions, pushback or endless discussions. It all comes to finding the right balance between being persistent and keeping an open mind. As always, the truth lies in the middle, but the middle shifts, depending on context.

In the mix of required skills to take the lead, you always need to add some herbs and spices. These will make a difference in how your opinion is going to be digested. A teaspoon of courage, a pinch of storytelling and, of course, a splendid idea are essential ingredients. These ingredients are readily available, yet not so easy to get.

One of my colleagues was grumbling about his project. “Nobody communicates,” he said. “What would you change, if you were the boss?” I asked him. The condition of being the boss removes the obstacles to finding solutions. “If I were the boss, I’d immediately organize lunch sessions to share the status of each team.” He looked at me, waiting for me to respond. I dropped a silence. He continued: “I could suggest this to the project manager.” And after an even longer silence: “Or maybe I should organize the first and share the status of our team.” It only took a nod from me to start the first lunch session.

My colleague is now organizing these lunch sessions on a bi-monthly basis and they’re much appreciated by the team. Instead of complaining, he took the initiative to start something new. Is this rocket science? No, definitely not. But it makes clear that everyone can take the lead. Even better, you end up with an organization with shared responsibility. People don’t need to be told what to do, they just do it. Other groups have already started to copy his idea.

A lot of people hesitate to take initiative because of the responsibility that comes with their idea or proposal. We like it when people follow our ideas, but a lot of us don’t like to be accountable for it. I have to warn you: it’s a package deal. You’ll get compliments and you’ll get complaints. Leadership means that you have to deal with both. A chef cannot simply say: “That’s not my dish, I only advised on the ingredients and on how to put them together.” You design the dish, you take the lead in the kitchen, with feedback from the guests and hopefully their praise. But all great stories start with taking initiative and taking that first step.

Leadership takes flight with you taking the initiative and taking ownership. It’s within everybody’s range to take the lead. It’s not a matter of where to start; it’s more a matter of daring to start.