Reactive vs. Creative Leadership

“Obstacles cannot crush me. Every obstacle yields to stern resolve. He who is fixed to a star does not change his mind.” ~ Leonardo da Vinci

In my free ebook Leadership That Changes the World (if you don’t have a copy yet, you can download it here), one of the things I talk about is the difference between a Reactive Leader and a Creative Leader. A Reactive Leader is one that habitually focuses on the many problems, obstacles and other forms of resistance that regularly show up in leadership. They are drawn to see what’s not working, what’s broken, what’s missing, and so on, and spend the bulk of their energy attacking these issues. They are the leaders who say (even proudly) that leadership is problem solving, and if you aren’t solving problems, you aren’t a leader. While there is certainly some truth to that statement, I think it’s a particularly weak and narrow view of what leadership is and can be.

Conversely, while a Creative Leader certainly does address problems and obstacles that arise in leadership, that isn’t her primary focus. Rather, the Creative Leader is laser-focused on the vision she wants to create. She’s fueled by the inspiration of positive action toward a compelling dream of what could (and what she would say, must) be. Instead of spending her energy moving away from what she doesn’t want (i.e. fending off unwanted obstacles and problems that arise on the path), she focuses the bulk of her passion on moving toward what she does want ~ her compelling vision made real.

I really enjoy snowboarding, though I confess I’m no shredder. Still, I do love a challenging run. I especially enjoy boarding through the trees. The challenge and art of weaving my way through a dense patch of giant conifers is both exhilarating and strangely peaceful to me. But on my first attempt at boarding through a forest, I couldn’t slide more than five feet before crashing into a trunk. Same thing happened on my second attempt, and my third, and my eighth, and my tenth. It was like these trees had some extra gravity or something; no matter what tactic I tried, they kept sucking me in. It was not only frustrating; it was exhausting!

Finally, I humbled myself and asked a buddy of mine (who boarded effortlessly through even the darkest of dark woods) to take a run with me and watch me to see if he could diagnose what I was doing wrong. We didn’t have to go more than two crashes in for him to see exactly what the problem was.

“You’re looking at the trees,” he said.

“Of course I’m looking at the trees,” I said, a little incredulous. “I’m trying to avoid the trees.”

“That’s the problem. You’ll go where you’re looking. To ski through the forest, don’t look at the trees. Keep your focus on the spaces between the trees.

On my next run, I made it all the way through the woods without a single crash.

That’s the essential difference between a Reactive and a Creative leader. The Reactive Leader keeps a vigilant watch on the trees, and so keeps slamming into them. The Creative Leader knows the trees are there, but keeps his focus on the spaces between them, on where he wants to go (not where he wants to avoid going). When you do this, the trees can actually become part of what makes the journey fun.

I think this is part of the lesson Jesus was trying to teach Peter when he walked on the water.Get obsessed with the waves, and you’ll lose heart and start to sink. Keep your focus on the compelling vision in front of you, and miracles happen.

So, if you’ve been stuck in a reactive leadership paradigm, how can you make the shift? Here are a few tips I often suggest to my clients:

  • Make Your Vision Truly Compelling. And by “compelling,” I mean it sucks you in, gets you excited, awakens your courage and sense of wonder, strikes you as beautiful, and genuinely compels you to action. If your vision doesn’t do that, it isn’t compelling enough to hold your attention when obstacles and problems appear to distract you off focus.
  • Leverage Your Vision to Solve Problems. When challenges arise, instead of putting your full focus on them, keep one eye trained on your compelling vision. Imagine what your team will be like once your reach your goal. Imagine the way they’ll interact, the confidence they will stand in knowing that the vision has been made real. What would that “future team” do to resolve this problem? How would they handle it? The more you can lead your team (and yourself) to stand in that future reality, the more creatively you will deal with problems and the more quickly  you will reach your goal.
  • Reframe Problems as Possibilities. When problems arise, do some personal wisdom sleuthing. Ask yourself: What’s the opportunity this problem opens up for us? What’s the gift here? How can this problem be leveraged to create something beautiful/powerful/in service of our vision?
  • Stop Resisting Problems as Things That Shouldn’t Be Happening.Problems, obstacles and resistance are a normal, healthy part of any change process. In a way, problems in an organization are analogous to pain signals in an athlete’s body. When problems arise, it’s a pain signal pointing to a danger that something isn’t working the way it needs to work to reach the goal. It isn’t evil or unfair; it’s a natural and expected part of growth. Accepting this can go a long way toward reducing your fear when problems show up.
  • Hold Daily Personal Strategy Sessions. As a part of your daily devotional time, take a few minutes to look at your schedule for the day ahead and ask yourself: What do I want to create today? What attitude do I want to inspire in my team? What blessing do I want to leave in my wake? How can I remind my people of our compelling vision today? Based on your responses, choose one or two actions you will take each day to train yourself to lead from a creative rather than reactive stance.


The bottom line is this: To be a Creative Leader, don’t focus on what you’re trying to avoid. Instead, look at what you want to create, and lead from there.

Read more from Michael here.

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Michael Warden

Michael is a leadership coach and team dynamics expert who partners with Christian leaders to help them become better leaders and help them change the world.

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What say you? Leave a comment!

VRcurator — 12/04/13 12:34 pm

Thanks Rosalie! Great personal applications everyone can learn from.

Rosalie — 12/04/13 11:45 am

I'm not a leader or church employee, but I love the concept. Same with bowling--don't look at the pin, aim for the space between the pins and you'll be more likely to score better because you'll knock more out. I'm going to do this on a personal level: "as part of your daily devotional time, take a few minutes to look at your schedule for the day ahead and ask yourself: What do I want to create today? What attitude do I want to inspire in my [environment]. What blessing do I want to leave in my wake?" I'll try to relate it to physical, spiritual, environmental, relational, financial, and paid work areas.

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comment_post_ID); ?> I am a senior citizen who has lived in many areas of the US, the farthest south being Virginia DC area. There are several church plants in the area--some failed, some doing well. One of the sadist failures was a plant in NW Washington near a large Presbyterian Church (I had been an elder in the church, so I knew the area) where changes in church doctrine was driving many away from the PCUSA churches. There were many mature Christians who lived in the area who were very willing to participate and give generously to the church. Its failure was a loss. The pastor and his wife lived in a VA suburb, wanted something that would appeal to their tastes, which included "praise music". There was a professional piano teacher and several people who had sung in choirs in the area. Their suggestions were completely ignored. Forget that there was joyous participation in singing hymns and silence by many for the praise music. The experienced church leaders that were attending were expected to seek the wisdom of the pastor who did not live in the area rather than have any role in leadership. There is another church plant in Northern Virginia that seems to be going the same way. My take: the pastors should get past their high-school and college days culture and get to know and appreciate the people of the community. Do not try to reproduce Intervarsity or Campus Crusade. Hymns are not a sin and "uneducated" (never graduated from college) should not be ignored as uninformed or stupid. People who have served in and/or live in the area are needed in leadership and not just to serve coffee and give. We all need to pray together and serve God in the community in which there is to be a plant. Glenna Hendricks
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comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
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comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
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