Success Depends on a Proactive Mindset

by Alan Hastings

Recently, a West Point Cadet asked me what I, as a Troop Commander, expected from a Platoon Leader. I provided four traits that I believe define successful lieutenants: unquestionable integrity, an aggressively proactive attitude, a willingness to engage in open and candid communication, and a commitment to self-study.

I want to highlight the second trait, maintaining a proactive mindset, which in my mind separates mediocre and outstanding junior leaders. Being proactive, especially in the face of potential obstacles and failure, is a key determinant of one’s level of success.

Lieutenants share four common situations that can lead to failure:

  1. You don’t know how to accomplish a given task.
  2. You know how to accomplish a given task, but (you think that) you can’t.
  3. You know how to accomplish a given task, but choose not to.
  4. You know how to accomplish a given task, but make mistakes or errors that cause you to fail.

For each cause of failure, there is a proactive response that leads to success. Let’s explore each of the reasons for failure and corresponding reactive and proactive responses.


U.S. Army Capt. Chad Pilker (right) and a lieutenant from Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 2nd Cavalry Regiment discuss strategy during a decisive action training environment exercise, Saber Junction 2012, at the Grafenwoehr Training Area in Grafenwoehr, Germany, Oct. 15, 2012.  U.S. Army photo by Specialist W. Ryan Livingston/Released.

1. You don’t know how

Reactive response: “But none of us have ever done that before. I don’t know how.”

Proactive response: Seek out advice from your non-commissioned officers, subject matter experts, and references and resources on the task at hand. This approach has many benefits. You begin creating a personal learning network of professionals with whom you can solve problems, discuss ideas, and cooperate on future projects in the future.  Additionally, by learning a new skill or gaining new knowledge in order to accomplish the mission, you add another tool to your tool kit bag.

You can also request additional guidance, coaching, or some impromptu on-the-job training from your Commander. A good commander should recognize his/her role as a trainer, coach, and mentor, and can capitalize on a leader development opportunity.

2. You know how, but (think) you can’t

Reactive response: “But we don’t have enough time, manpower, money, etc.”

Proactive response: Often, a task requires more time, manpower, and resources than you have immediately available to you and your formation. Brainstorm different uses of the time and assets available. Reconsider priorities. Develop recommended courses of action that achieve the mission and alert your Commander to the resulting sacrifices with each.  Also, engaging the resources adjacent to and above you can expand the number of options available. You don’t have to solve the problem, but being proactive means that you are part of finding the solution.

Reactive response: “But the regulation/policy letter/senior-leader says we can’t.”

Proactive response: Recognize that regulations, policy letters, and senior leaders can’t consider every potential scenario in which subordinates might apply a rule. Determine the intent of a given policy or regulation and develop recommended courses of action that achieve the desired endstate. Pitching a recommended solution to your commander indicates that you haven’t simply given up on finding a solution.

Additionally, be wary of those who automatically cite a regulation or drop a senior leader’s name as an obstacle to success. Often, you’ll find that a little research in the matter yields more freedom of maneuver than previously thought. Ask to see the regulation, policy letter, directive in question and make your own conclusions.

Reactive response: “But we can’t proceed because we’re waiting on approval on/processing by higher headquarters.”

Proactive response: Do not allow lines of effort to stagnate due to bureaucracy or others less proactive than you. When placing mission success in the hands of another individual or organization, agree upon an estimated time to completion and hold them to it. Understand that face-to-face interactions achieve better results than coordination via e-mail or phone.

Not only can your commander leverage additional resources, but also access his/her rank and position to affect change. Understand the ‘rules of engagement’ with people and organizations that prove to be obstacles to success and escalate up the chain-of-command where necessary.

3. You know how, can, but decide not to

Reactive response: “But this is neither important nor urgent.”

Proactive response: As early as possible, communicate to your commander your intent not to complete an assigned task and your reasons for not doing so – it’s never good to blindside the boss. Not only is he likely counting on you to accomplish it, but there may be additional lines of effort depending upon the task’s completion. The commander will either accept your actions or redirect you to accomplish it, perhaps providing some perspective or details that you were not previously tracking.

Reactive response: “But this is stupid. I’m not doing this.”

Proactive response: Often, you will disagree with your commander and higher headquarters. However, before dismissing your superiors as short-sighted, ignorant, incompetent, or all of the above, respond proactively. Engage your chain-of-command to develop some perspective. Develop a thoughtful and professional argument against devoting time, energy, and resources to a mission with which you adamantly disagree. Attempt to lead change rather than resign yourself to reactive thought. At a minimum, express your concerns and receive feedback.

Whatever your reason for not accomplishing a task, be prepared to accept the consequences of that decision. Unless it’s unethical, illegal, or immoral, you are responsible for the accomplishment of the mission assigned to you.

4. You know how, can, but made mistakes or errors that caused you to fail

Reactive response: “But the mission failed because…”

Proactive response: Placing the blame on others or external circumstances condemns failure to repeat itself. Rephrase the statement to begin with “I failed to accomplish the mission because I…”  Accept responsibility for the failure and focus on identifying and correcting the contributing factors that reside within your ability to influence. Ask “What could I have done differently?” and be brutally honest with yourself.

When you do screw up, improve the position. Develop and refine TTPs and SOPs to prevent repeating past mistakes. Help others avoid your mistakes and misfortunes by sharing your after action reviews, lessons learned, and revised TTPs. Capitalize on failure.

Exercising disciplined initiative is a principle of mission command and is an essential element for success for both individuals and organizations. Indeed, Stephen R. Covey describes being proactive as the first habit for successful people in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. As a Troop Commander, I depend on junior leaders that attack a problem or ‘come up on the net’ with recommendations on how to solve it.  These leaders consistently perform above their peers and most contribute to the organization’s overall success.

Questions for Leaders

  • What examples of success and failure can attribute to proactive mindset, or a lack thereof?
  • How can a junior leader’s proactive attitude contribute to an organization’s command climate?
  • How do you inspire a culture of proactive behavior within your formation?
This is a guest post by Army Captain and current Troop Commander, Alan Hastings. Follow him on Twitter at @ar_alanhastings.

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Thanks for the great article. As a relatively new PL, this article cuts to the core of the issues I face. The biggest obstacle I’ve faced has been lack of domain knowledge. I have been so impressed with my NCOs and their willingness to teach me while still following my decisions.