Proactive or reactive: which type of leader are you?

What enables a person to be an effective leader? Leadership has different facets and being able to identify your own leadership style as either proactive or reactive and having the ability to switch between the two can make a huge difference to your success. So, what are the different styles and which do you most identify with?

A reactive leader can handle pressure that comes their way in real time

Reactive leaders take responsibility and solve problems on their own. They also often possess ‘firefighting’ skills; the ability to think quickly, creatively and yet logically when faced with an emerging situation to prevent problems. Firefighting can be an extremely useful skill, but doesn’t lend itself to long term planning or analysis to prevent the problem from arising in the future. Rather than being prepared for future challenges, reactive leaders may miss out on opportunities because they have not anticipated change. A reactive leader and workforce is exactly what companies need to ensure that the business can survive short-term unexpected issues.

Proactive leadership styles are focused on the future

Being a proactive leader requires a different mindset and skills, figuring out what needs to be done and how to achieve it without knowing exactly what the future holds. In a business context this means building a sound knowledge of your market and competitors and learning how to anticipate change, not just waiting for it to happen.

There are many advantages to adopting a proactive leadership approach. These include more accurate and effective strategies and projections, ensuring the business is relevant to customers, improved cost and resource efficiency, aligning daily decisions with long-term objectives, and getting ahead of the competition. The downside of a proactive approach is that focusing on the future can mean you are not fully focused on the task at hand, which could have serious consequences, particularly during difficult times.

Which type of leader is best for business?

In their recent study of one million global leaders, Anderson and Adams found that most struggle to deal with the complex challenges they face. This makes development – both self-development and developing other leaders and future leaders at scale – a business imperative. In their research, they identified 18 key creative competencies which highly correlated to measures of leadership effectiveness and business performance, falling into five categories:

  1. Achieving – the ability to plan and get results
  2. Systems awareness – the capability to think systemically and design organisational systems for higher performance
  3. Authenticity – the willingness to act with integrity, speaking the truth even when it is risky
  4. Self-awareness – recognising your own strengths and weaknesses and taking ownership of your decisions
  5. Relating – the capability to build teams, collaborate with, and develop people

Reactive leaders can be considered successful in many respects, Anderson and Adams believe that the focus tends to be on ‘quick wins’; large achievements in the shortest possible time that doesn’t allow them to concentrate on other parts of their role that would give greater long term success, such as strategizing or forecast analysis.

A strong leader needs to balance reactive and proactive skillsets to be able to act in the short term, and plan for the future.

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