Why is it so hard to get people to take initiative?

I asked my students this question:
How many times were you told to take a risk or break a rule by a teacher in a classroom?”
“Call it out,” I said, and I cupped my hand behind my ear and looked down to concentrate on the answers. I heard, “0,0,1,0,0,never,once,twice,zero,zero,never,once or twice.”
“Isn’t that amazing?” I asked. “Did anyone have another experience?” A student of these 60 said, “I had a teacher who hated MLA and Chicago style and told us to format any way we wanted.”

Many laughed. I could hear others say, “wow, that’s crazy” and I saw students look amazed — presumably that a teacher was such an irresponsible iconoclast, destroying students’ SAT potential. I was amazed that there was just this ONE student who had a solid example of a teacher encouraging them to get out and risk and break a rule.

The next day in my class of 40 students we repeated the experiment, and I got the same nearly totally unanimous answer: ZERO times were they told to break rules and take risks. I asked for exceptions.  One student raised his hand and said he had an English teacher who told them all the time to be risk-takers. And one young lady said her school constantly taught them to try new things and take risks.  “And did you?” I asked.  “All the time she replied.”

I shared this Math with them:

100 students (between my two classes)
12 years (pre-college)
180 days (per year)
5 classes (per day)
1,080,000 class periods


3 years in college
2 semesters x 4 classes/semester x 30 class meetings
+ 1,080,000
1,152,000 total class meetings.

Over a million class meetings, and only 3 students had any stories of being told to take risks.

It is a wonder there is a worker, neighbor, churchgoer, manager, teacher anywhere in America who takes risks and breaks rules.

One of my best clients, a CEO came to talk to these students.  I asked him in front of them, “As you seek to create a culture that is dynamic and encourages smart risks, what do you most tell your employees? What are you looking for from those you hire?”  His answer, “Don’t ask, ‘What does the CEO want?’ Ask, “How can I best add value? What do I think we need to do?”

If you, like him and like me as a teacher, want your people to be generators, leaders, innovators, then we’ve got to remember the gale force winds — of compliance, safety, and passivity within them that — we are steering into, the powerful current we must swim against to get real innovation to break loose.

If you want some cool, LEADING results this week, encourage some risk taking, celebrate some mistakes, give some power away, don’t solve all their problems, and

Lead with your best self!

  • Dan, I wonder if you might hear more people have been encouraged to take risks in business (although it likely still isn’t enough)? I do work with some forward thinking tech companies, and in order to remain relevant, they MUST actively encourage and reward risk taking. Although I am not terribly familiar with the culture academia, the reputation of these institutions – in general – is that they are “conservative”. It certainly would be a good thing if more students coming out of these institutions had been encouraged to take some risks when they go into the work world!

    • Mary Jo,
      It really is kind of amazing that we break any rules and innovate at all after all the education for passivity.
      We can be truly adaptable beings, and as they say, “awareness is curative!”
      Best to you in K-zoo.

  • Dan, I learned from one of those precious few teachers who encouraged his students to take calculated risks. He taught at the two-room parochial school where I learned my first letters. Mr. Neinas had to deal with a class smart aleck (me) and he did so by encouraging me to challenge him during class, but only if I did my research first, because he would treat me as a colleague and debate me as an adult. Mostly, I was wrong, but I did score a few points. He celebrated my attempts, right or wrong. If only more of my high school and university instructors had been as open to challenges — my educational career might have been less contentious.

  • Getting people to take initiative means getting them to accept responsibility for their risks in most cases. In a classroom, taught by Dan Mulhern or other similar minded teachers there is less risk, but still, the student will risk criticism by his fellow students, or they risk feeling bad due to what they see as failure of their idea/ risk. Where I see this lack of initiative frequently is the actions, or lack of action by public board members, and even private board members, who want to pass on responsibility, but instead defend the recommendations of staff, or of a hired “expert.” They will say they just make policy, or that this is in the jurisdiction of another body, and they can do nothing. They learn to not respond to criticism no matter how valid, and how to quash internal dissent, while appearing mature. These are common failings of those given authority on appointed to boards.

  • My daughter Grace’s favorite quote talks about security vs.
    risks. “Security is mostly a superstition, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Live is either a
    daring adventure or nothing.” Helen Keller.
    One of her senior year college professor’s declared that everyone in the class was either searching for a job or going on to grad school. She smiled and thought to herself, “not I”. Grace was planning a 45 day cross country road trip to all the major national parks to be immediately followed by hiking the entire 2,200 mile Appalachian Trial over five months. Since graduation in May, Grace has driven and toured through 19 states and hiked through 14 states from Maine to Georgia covering a total of 33 states. She has accomplished more dreams in seven months than most do in a life time. Many adults and recent graduates have
    said to her, “I wish I could do that.” She can’t comprehend why they don’t follow their passions. I guess she believed me when I told her she could do anything, just as I believed my Mom. It makes all the difference having important role models encouraging you to push to higher levels and taking risks in your life whether it is at home, school or work.

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