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"Motel Fires and Motivators: Why Initiative and Courage Need to Be Trained in All Leaders"

Building fire and leadership perspective approach

Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF):

  1. Initiative is one of the hallmarks of a leader at any level.

  2. The desire to act means nothing if the courage to execute is lacking.

  3. Encouraging initiative leads to greater initiative development and courage in subordinates.


While I was serving as a Combat Instructor at the School of Infantry in southern California, I had several of my friends who were instructors from another training company tell me of the courage of their young Marines who were still in training, fresh out of bootcamp. They had just celebrated the Marine Corps Birthday Ball, and were staying at a hotel just south of Los Angeles. An electrical fire broke out and burned the building to the ground, causing over $5 Million in damages.


“If it hadn’t been for the Marines, there’s a good chance some of them wouldn’t have gotten out.”


While the fire was still small, one of the eight Marines noticed, and began going door-to-door with five other Marines. The remaining two took the initiative to organize traffic and get headcounts of people who were exiting in their vehicles. The Orange County Fire (OFCA) Board Chairman stated that “If it hadn’t been for the Marines, there’s a good chance some of them (the people) wouldn’t have gotten out.” All eight of the Marines were awarded OFCA Certificates of Heroism and were recognized by their Commanding Officer. They were all under 20 years old…still teenagers.


Marines are taught to always take the initiative, even before attending bootcamp. One of the 14 Leadership Traits of the Marine Corps is Initiative. Warriors call it “spirit”, “aggression” or “violence of action”. Ultimately, it’s the desire and execution of a plan without direct orders or even guidance from your boss. I'd rather have a dog whose leash I have to tug on every now and then, than a jackass who I always have to kick in the...jackass.

Jackass stubborn no initiative perspective approach leadership training

When I was a younger Marine, I had a Sergeant tell me to, “Always give 100 percent! You’ll either be 100% right, or 100% wrong, but you’d better be 100 percent!” What he was trying to instill in me was the desire to always do what I thought best, and to do it to the best of my ability. When a leader (particularly a younger, or more inexperienced leader) makes a mistake, one of the last things we want to do is destroy their desire to take the initiative. Of course, we have to make the correction and enforce the standard, but to kill initiative is to kill leadership.


“You’ll be 100% right or 100% wrong, but you’d better be 100%!”


That same Sergeant used to frequently tell (yell at) me, “Good initiative, poor judgement”. I would then be reprimanded or disciplined (never fun). But he made the point of always appreciating and encouraging my initiative. I carried on this tradition with my Marines when I was promoted. I never had to worry about my Marines being complacent or refusing to take ownership. I just had to make sure they were educated and trained enough to make the best decisions and get results (win missions).


One of my favorite authors, C.S. Lewis, once said, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality. The desire to take the initiative to improve a situation or develop a process means next to nothing if a leader is too afraid of being reprimanded. One of the worst phrases a leader can utter is that a subordinate is “not paid to think”. That sort of management is what creates drones who will never care about the company, the leadership, or the mission. It facilitates a transactional relationship of “I work for you and you pay me and that’s it.”


“Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” – C.S. Lewis


  • 63% of Millennials say their leadership skills were not being fully developed. – Deloitte

  • 77% of organizations report they’re currently experiencing a leadership gap. – Brandon Hall Group

  • 91% of Millennials expressed a desire to lead according to a survey conducted by Virtuali and Work Place Trends. Nearly half of those surveyed said that they believe leadership almost exclusively about the empowerment of other people.

How do we encourage courage? (See what I did there?). Look at the very word “encourage”. It means to stimulate, uplift, and inspire. Courage is something that can be trained. It can be developed and honed. It is not merely something a person is born with.


“Courage is not the absence of fear, but action in the face of it.”


I used to tell my Marines all the time that courage is not the absence of fear, but action in the face of it. There’s a quote that is often attributed to John Wayne. “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” My contention is that a person cannot be brave unless they are first scared. How do we both remove barriers to initiative while at the same time developing the trait of courage in our subordinate leaders and people?

The answer is simple enough to surprise most leaders: Do what the Marines do. We develop initiative in our leaders by creating opportunities for our people to apply their skills and by testing them. It’s not merely about tasking them with missions or micromanaging their day away. We create an opportunity for them to lead others, develop a new process, train someone using one of their strengths, etc. This encourages that person to take the initiative more often. It’s also critical for a leader to remember the “good initiative, poor judgement” philosophy (though a bit more tact might be in order).


Here are some simple ways to practice developing initiative in subordinate leaders and your people:

  1. Give detailed guidance on a desired outcome but leave the process up to the person. Offer advice and encouragement as necessary. (This also encourages ownership.)

  2. Allow subordinates to identify one of their strengths or talents and teach a principle or practice to another employee.

  3. Allow your people to always have a voice, even when they don’t have a vote. See our advice on that here.

Ultimately, a leader’s job is to ensure that the results are achieved for the good of the organization, and to build more leaders to sustain and grow the company. Instilling a practice of taking the initiative in your people is one of the first and one of the most important steps towards that goal.

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