So why do our elected leaders have few initiatives?
The dictionary defines “initiative” as the action of taking the first step; responsibility for beginning or originating; the characteristic of originating new ideas or methods; the ability to think and act without being urged by another.
Napoleon Hill, a well known author on how to be successful in life, wrote a book in 1928 titled The Law of Success in Sixteen Lessons. In “Lesson Five: Initiative and Leadership,” Hill states: “Initiative is the very foundation upon which this necessary quality of Leadership is built. One of the peculiarities of Leadership is the fact that it is never found in those who have not acquired the habit of taking the initiative.”
In his book, How to Be a Star at Work, Robert Kelly discusses strategies for success. According to Kelly the core quality of a star performer is initiative.
Kelly estimates that average performers constitute up to 80 percent of the workforce. Only 20 percent of us stand out, by doing something significant and going beyond the expected.
Why don’t more people take initiative at work? According to Kelly, to exert ourselves is a risky proposition. We’re afraid of making enemies. Taking initiative implies making changes, doing something differently, upsetting the status quo. It is uncomfortable proposing an idea that might fail.
An open floor for proposing new ideas
Every two weeks elected leaders at the village, town, city, and county level meet and vote on how to run our local governments. At these bi-weekly meetings elected officials have the ability to file a resolution on any topic they wish and ask their colleagues for support.
For the year 2012, I reviewed every resolution filed by members of Buffalo’s Common Council. The Common Council consists of nine elected members. The City Council meets approximately 24 times per year. In 2012, 300 resolutions were filed by councilmembers, for an average of 12 resolutions per meeting. One hundred forty-two Council resolutions addressed the following:
40—waiving permit fees for block clubs and non-profit organizations (i.e. using city park, special events, band shell rental).
39—Aapprove the issuance of bonds for capital budget projects.
22—symbolically calling upon the federal or state government to take action (i.e. calling for the US Postal Service to continue one-day delivery of first-class mail).
18—approving the hanging of street banners for community events.
16—support for various grant funding applications by community organizations.
7—trailblazing signs to name a city street after someone.
In addition to the above 142 items, another 98 resolutions addressed routine matters of city government including the appointment of marriage officers, transferring funds, approving appointments to boards, approving hiring of employees etc. None of these resolutions contained any new ideas or initiatives by councilmembers.
Substantive initiatives: 20 percent
Only 60 Common Council resolutions addressed new ideas or concerns of a substantive nature regarding city government. Of the 60 items, very few are creative or innovative. I personally contacted all Buffalo councilmembers by e-mail on several occasions providing them with drafted resolutions for the following items: conducting performance evaluations of city employees; requiring quarterly meetings with the mayor, city comptroller, council president, Buffalo School District, Buffalo Sewer Authority, Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, and economic development agencies for purposes of developing a strategic plan for the city; requiring the mayor to submit an annual management plan; and developing priority goals for every city department.
Although required by the city charter, none of the above-mentioned items are occurring. I could not interest a single councilmember in introducing any of these policy items directly related to the management and performance of city government. Yet councilmembers did file many other resolutions that were not directly related to the policies and procedures for operating city government, suuch as: use of bisphenol in food products; support for International Safe Toys and Gifts Month; support for National Breast Cancer Month; urging resolution of National Hockey League lockout; urging US Foreign Affairs Committee to hold hearings regarding Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill.
Quantity vs. quality
Perhaps the number of resolutions filed by a Councilmember is not the best way to evaluate leadership. While one Councilmember only filed three substantive resolutions, her filings were at least focused on the operation of deli stores and code enforcement. Every other Councilmember seems to have a scattered approach to issues that concern them.
Former Western New York resident Seth Godin, the author of many top-selling books, says the following about our fear of taking initiative in his book Poke the Box: “The simple thing that separates successful individuals from those who languish is the very thing that separates exciting and growing organizations from those that stagnate and die. The winners have turned initiative into a passion and a practice. The challenge, it turns out, isn’t in perfecting your ability to know when to start and when to stand by. The challenge is getting into the habit of starting.”
Leadership is about taking initiative; we need elected leaders who are passionate about initiating new ideas.