Why is Initiative So Rare?

This week I experienced a “first” in nearly 30 semesters of teaching “leadership” at University of California Berkeley. A student led other students to meet as a group outside the class schedule.  It may not sound like a big deal, but see why it was . . . for what it says about initiative.

I have long borrowed a practice from the Leadership Detroit program through which an entire class session is set aside for each person in the group to have a couple minutes to share a “defining moment” from their life.  If you stop to think of a moment that defined who you are, could you imagine sharing it with 70 other people?  The impact of such human transparency is powerful. Among other things you realize:  that “sorority girl” or “nerd” or “total introvert” or “black guy” carries within them powerful human experiences that make those labels absurdly, painfully, embarrassingly reductionist.  This sharing of vulnerability not only generates respect for others, but generates a peculiar bond of authenticity which they build upon throughout the semester.

Some stories are dramatic – car accidents, cancer diagnoses, or even a woman whose father was murdered in Afghanistan when he intervened to stop the authorities from killing a teenage girl. Other stories have no Hollywood blood or sirens.  Instead, a “routine” loss or disappointment can trigger enormous awareness that changes the arc of a person’s life. The sharing and listening this Fall was no different.

(not really Ken 🙂 )

Ken, one of the students, told me after this round of defining moments that he had done a 180 before the microphone arrived around the circle to him. He had been intending to tell a story of a moment of great personal achievement that totally altered his view of life and of himself, but with everyone telling stories of crises and tragedies, he didn’t want to sound disrespectful or just tone deaf.  So he too shared a crisis point in his life.  A few weeks later he talked to his small group (about 7 students), and they proposed that we convene a second round of defining moments, but this time explicitly dedicated to successes, breakthroughs, etc.

They held them over three sessions this week.   It was uplifting to hear the tales – what it meant to get into Cal after messing up throughout high school; how after multiple trips to court and to jail, a student picked up the phone to get himself into rehab, or how a food-poisoned swimmer was carried to the pool – he was so sick – but somehow managed to win his race in NCAA Division 2 record-setting time. We had seen vulnerability, now we saw heroic effort and deserved (but usually well-hidden) pride.

Ken Montgomery initiated this amazing experience that inspired our entire class.

School and work unfortunately but systematically beat the hell out of initiative. For instance, one former student – one of the most brilliant and hard-working I have seen – was fired last week. And a second former student just emailed for advice, because his CEO refuses to listen to why one-half of his IT team has quit in the last year and how they could change that.

Too many authority figures – starting with parents – think they are leaders. They are not. They are in love with their authority. They are afraid to be challenged. They need to keep control. They need to be the one talking. Leaders listen. Leaders seek criticism. Leaders invite initiative.

Please file this one under:  I (Dan) teach (or in this case write) what most need to learn.  At my weekly lunch with students this past Wednesday, two of them told me: You talk too much. They learn better when they are truly freed to initiate and

Lead with their best self.


  • Dan – Your article today goes back to: “Listening is a major part of the art of leadership.”

    Very good process that you’ve developed – both crisis and success stories make the differences in our lives. All good learning.


  • Dan,
    I love your honesty!!! Thanks for listening to your students–they told you “you talk too much” because they felt safe to do so.

    Feeling safe is about trust, and trusting your leader/supervisor/teacher/parent is absolutely paramount to having the courage to take initiative. To take a risk, you need to know it’s OK to fail. It’s how we learn.

    Thanks for another great lesson in leadership!

  • The distinction between being a leader and being an authority figure is my takeaway and reminder. Ken was a leader without having any formal authority. Bravo to him and many others like him. I’d like to see more people with formal authority being leaders.

  • Dan,

    This exercise was one of my favourite moments at Cal (2016). We fear strangers because of their “otherness” until we can connect on a human level. I felt so connected to everyone after this exercise; thank you for guiding that awareness.

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