Encourage your employees to become leaders: How to teach initiative

Teaching your employees initiative is essentially teaching them to take risk. When you take a step forward on a creaky bridge, there’s a chance your foot might fall through — but there’s a reason the adage “no risk, no reward” caught on. Things don’t always go according to plan, but if you want your organization to grow or succeed through hardship, you don’t always have a choice but to take a chance.

If you’re the leader, you don’t want your organization filled with action averse employees who only move when you do. Empower them and ask them to bear responsibility with these four tips that doesn’t pass the torch but lights theirs.

Set Goals

Make known what you want your business or organization to achieve. Your employees won’t know how to get you there if you haven’t set clear plans and communicated that to the group. If people know where you want to go, they can help chart the course or even suggest alternatives.

Pass the Mantle

For the love of all that is good, don’t micromanage the troops. Once you’ve set goals, provide duties and allow people to take ownership of their role. Give them some space to figure out and overcome potential problems and conflicts themselves. You don’t want to hold their hand constantly or else no one is going to want to try or experiment without your permission.

Don’t Wait for Perfection

Your employees aren’t always going to take the perfect path. They might hit some with bumps in the road. That’s okay. If you set the expectation that nothing less than perfection is acceptable, you’re going to paralyze your workforce. People need to know that failure or opposition is acceptable — it should even be expected. “My way or the highway” isn’t going to work if you’re hoping for employees who can fulfill tasks themselves.

Keep Your Door Open

While you don’t need to be looking over everyone’s shoulder as they make calls or write emails, you should always keep your door open and make yourself available. Your employees are going to have questions or want your opinion. Encourage that kind of collaboration. Sometimes they won’t really need your help, but they just need affirmation. That’s okay. Sometimes you just give someone a nod of approval.

How Great Mentors Start Strong with Mentees

mentoringWhat makes some mentorship pairings take off, quickly becoming transformative developmental relationships, while others simply wither on the vine? This question often vexes mentoring program organizers. Even when a mentor and mentee appear ideally suited on paper, even when both claim real interest in the relationship, perhaps even sitting through a mentorship training session, some relationships never get off the blocks. Although most people report a preference for organically evolved (informal) mentorships, informally-developed relationships are less frequent. Organizations have learned that simply waiting for “nature to take its course,” for pairs to form informally, results in lower rates of employee mentorship. Therefore, more organizations attempt to launch mentorships through some formal strategy for pairing, training, and supporting mentor-mentee pairs. When a mentoring relationship has a formal “start date,” there are a few things effective mentors do to insure that those connections succeed. Here are two of the keys to starting your mentorship strong: be there and discern the dream.

Once the initial buzz and excitement of a formal mentoring program’s launch begins to fade it is easy for both parties to get sidetracked and bogged down by the tyranny of busy schedules and deadlines. As weeks slip by, well-intended mentors forget to reach out to mentees. Scheduled mentoring meetings get canceled or pushed-back by the latest emergency. Mentees may feel reluctant to “bother” their busy mentors and so resort to passive waiting for the mentor’s initiative.

There is a striking and consistent finding in research that compares the distinguishing characteristics of successful versus unsuccessful mentor matches in organizational mentoring programs: Those pairs that actually get together frequently during the first several months of the program tend to connect, hit it off, and go on to develop productive and enjoyable mentorships. This finding supports a fundamental principle from decades of social psychology research. When two people see each other and interact frequently (proximity) they grow to like each other more and increasingly enjoy their interactions. In other words, mere exposure to your mentor or mentee is likely to fuel your relationship during those precarious early months. Proximity and exposure help mentors and mentees bond.

You may get together in-person (ideal and preferred), or via some combination of face-to-face meeting, teleconference, or phone conversation; whatever your communication modalities, the secret it to make those meetings a top priority. Mentors, be sure to reach out reliably and consistently! Your mentee may feel like an imposter—somehow unworthy of bothering someone of your stature in the organization. Silence or absence on your part may erroneously communicate disinterest or disappointment on your part. Mentees, be sure to reach out reliably and consistently! Your mentor may be swamped, scattered, and/or new to the mentor role. Put aside your concern about being a “pest” and get on the phone or send an email. Prompt your mentor to schedule that next meeting or ask a question about your career or the organization to get the mentor thinking about you again. Engaged mentees—squeaky wheels—do get more mentoring.

In addition to being there, excellent mentors understand the critical importance of working early and often to understand their mentee’s fledgling career dream. In a famous study of adult development, psychologist Daniel Levinson and his colleagues determined that young adults in any profession or discipline begin to formulate a still-hazy sense of who they may become and what they might achieve in their lives and careers. Levinson called this underdeveloped and vague sense of self in the adult (professional) world the dream. The dream may have the quality of a vision or an imagined possibility that generates excitement and vitality in a mentee. It is the early career mentor who must nourish this dream in the mentee and set the mentee into creative flight, affirming the exciting possibilities while tempering idealism with the wisdom of experience.

Mentors, one of the more important things you can do for your mentees is to “listen” for hints and clues to your mentee’s fledgling aspirations. Remember that your mentees’ career/life dream may feel fuzzy and shapeless, even to them. Mentees need us to take time to get to know them, to ask the right questions about what they love doing and where they imagine their career might take them. They need us to listen carefully, to gently paraphrase what we hear, and in so doing, help them give form and bring clarity to their dream.

To make the job more challenging, mentees are often reluctant to give voice to career aspirations that may feel grandiose and unreachable. Most of us feel anxious early in our careers, often questioning our own competence, feeling like an imposter among accomplished senior colleagues. Yes, we imagine thrilling career trajectories but we also harbor hidden doubts about whether we have what it takes. When a mentor asks us what we’d like to do in our careers, we can freeze up, feeling self-conscious and reluctant to risk embarrassment by revealing ambitions that sound farfetched even to our own ears.

Mentors: It is your job to help your mentee overcome these barriers to forming, articulating, and pursuing the dream. Take time to meet with your mentees and when you do, listen carefully to discern their unique talents, inclinations, and interests. When you decipher glimmers of the dream, help your mentees express it in their own words and then affirm their vision like crazy! When a mentor both communicates and demonstrates faith in the mentee’s ability, the mentee is more likely to trust the mentor and believe the dream may be within grasp.

Mentees: Use your mentoring relationship to actively explore and then discuss your ideal—“perfect world”—career dream. If everything in your personal and professional life were to come together seamlessly, how would it look? What jobs might you have along the way? What would the dream job look like (at least, from your current vantage point)? Be bold and think through these questions out loud and in the presence of your mentor. That’s what mentoring is for!


Brad Johnson, Ph.D. is a Professor of Psychology at the U. S. Naval Academy, a Faculty Associate at Johns Hopkins University, and an expert on mentoring relationships. His latest books include Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women (with David Smith); The Elements of Mentoring (with Charles Ridley) and On Being a Mentor: A Guide for Higher Education Faculty.

Leadership Lessons from the Alamo

Leadership Lessons from the AlamoAlamoBattlePaintingTexasStateLibraryNArchives

The Alamo fell after a 13-day siege March 6, 1836 — 180 years ago this month. All of the defenders were killed, though many historians believe that a few survived the fighting and were later executed on the order of General Santa Anna. These included Jim Bowie, William Travis, and Davy Crockett. The total number of Mexican casualties is unknown. Santa Anna claimed only 70 of his men were killed, but there are a number of accounts by other soldiers and inhabitants of the city that suggest over 400 were killed in the fighting. Susanna Dickinson (the wife of an Alamo defender), her infant daughter, as well as Colonel Travis’ slave Joe survived and were released by Santa Anna.

There are numerous leadership lessons/insights that can be taken from the siege and battle but let me provide five:

The importance of the leader’s vision. Every organization needs a vision that defines where the organization is going. One of the most important tasks of any leader is not only to articulate his/her vision but also to emphasize it when speaking to the members of his/her team. An effective vision must provide clarity of purpose and be communicable, comprehensive, and transformational.

Stephen Austin is in many ways the father of Texas. He arrived in 1822 and accepted a land grant from the Mexican government. He fulfilled the requirements to become a Mexican citizen and guaranteed the same for the other immigrants that accompanied him. Over the next decade he would encourage other Americans to settle in Texas and would become a leader of independence. Later in his life Austin would say:

“The greatest consolation I ever expect to derive from my labors in the wilderness of this province will arise from the conviction that I have benefitted many of my fellow beings, and laid the foundation for the settlement of one of the finest countries in the world.”

How do you identify future leaders? This is a real challenge for any leader. The leaders at the Alamo and for the entire Texas revolution were somewhat surprising. Jim Bowie had been accused of being a land swindler and being involved in the slave trade. It is alleged that he was a friend of Jean Lafitte’s — the pirate! William Travis had abandoned his wife in Alabama and fled to Texas. She would later follow to divorce him. Davy Crockett was a famous frontiersman and Congressman, but prior to coming to Texas in 1836 Crockett would lose a reelection campaign. Prior to leaving Tennessee, he allegedly told some of his constituents, “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas!” Sam Houston was not at the Alamo but would lead the Texas revolutionary army to success at the Battle of San Jacinto. Houston had been governor of Tennessee but resigned after his wife deserted him. He became an alcoholic and returned to live with the Cherokees where he had spent time as a boy. He had come to Texas to make a new start in 1832 and after the success of the revolution became the first President of the Republic of Texas.

The selection and development of the next generation of leaders in any organization may be the most important task of any leader. Most organizations depend on resumes and interviews that are largely focused on what an individual has accomplished in their career to that point. But the Alamo suggests that Peter Drucker, the internationally renowned management consultant, was correct when he said, “experience only matters if you believe the future will look like the past.” The hiring and promotion process must include some consideration of individual competence, but it also must include an examination of potential, interest, drive, ethics, etc.

Critical thinking. Effective leaders should always challenge the implicit and explicit assumptions of their organizations. He/she must constantly be reminded that critical thinking is important to the success or failure of the organization. This is the leader’s ability to receive information, evaluate the information, recall prior relevant information, assimilate the information by comparing differences and determining cause/effect, and evaluating the information in order to make timely decisions and solve problems.

The Texans assumed Santa Anna would not lead an army into Texas until late spring. But the Mexican president surprised them by leading his army across 300 miles of difficult terrain during a bitter winter. Colonel Travis, commander of the Alamo, ignored reports from his Texcano scouts that the Mexican Army approached. Santa Anna might have totally surprised the Texans had a rainstorm not bogged down his advance a scant eight miles from San Antonio. All leaders must keep in mind that despite their best plans and efforts their competition or opponent also “gets a vote.” As you make decision and adjust your plans, they can do so as well.

Diversity on the team can be a strength. We often think or talk about the defenders of the Alamo as “Texans.” This is inaccurate. Half of the 180 defenders came from the southern portion of the United States and twenty from the North. 29 were from Tennessee. Many were not Americans including a number of Texcanos (Mexicans who had chosen to fight for independence). Forty came from Great Britain (eleven of them were Irish). There were a few Germans and one Dane.

Successful leaders realize that there is strength in diversity. But diversity is often times not just ethnicity or race. It also includes the number of men and women as well as sexual orientation. Diversity can also be considered for the various generations that are on the team from the Baby Boomer to the Millennial. Diversity allows an organization to draw on differing perspectives and insights. Furthermore, diverse organizations frequently have an advantage in terms of innovation and new ideas. But this requires leadership that, beyond underscoring the importance of diversity, emphasizes the requirement to help members of the team learn both the importance of diversity as well as the need for team harmony in order to be effective.

The power of communications. Communications is fundamental to leadership and is a skill that leaders can develop. Modern leaders must deal with multiple forms of communication — written, oral, telephone, email, social media, etc. The effective leader must decide which is appropriate for each situation. At a minimum, the leader must frequently communicate the organization’s mission, vision, and values to all of the members of his/her team.

By February 24, 1836 Colonel William Travis realized that the situation at the Alamo was becoming increasingly desperate. He sent a famous letter to the convention of Texas patriots that were meeting at Washington-on-the-Brazos. In the letter Travis describes the mounting threat the overwhelming Mexican force poised to the defenders and requested reinforcements. He concludes the letter with the famous line “Victory or Death!” A rider departed the Alamo under the cover of darkness that evening and delivered it to the convention. By March 16 the letter and Travis’ final words had spread across Texas to New Orleans and from there across the United States. It would become a rallying cry for Texas independence.

On March 6, 2016 I encourage you to take a moment and reflect on this famous battle that occurred nearly two centuries ago, the men who died, and the lessons we can learn. Some historians argue this was one of the most important battles in the 19th century. The Battle of the Alamo allowed time for the Texas Army to prepare and eventually defeat Santa Anna at San Jacinto roughly a month later. This resulted in the creation of the Republic of Texas that would join the United States in 1845. The subsequent war with Mexico ended not only with an American victory, but the United States expanded its territory from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This relatively small battle and the efforts of the 180 defenders of the Alamo set the stage for the establishment of the continental United States.


Dr. Jeffrey McCausland, Founder and CEO of Diamond6 Leadership, LLC is a retired Army Colonel with over 30 years of unique and challenging leadership experiences. As a retired military officer and veteran Jeff’s work has taken him all over the world serving in a variety of command and staff positions in places such as the on National Security Council Staff, U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, PA, and the Pentagon.