December 2, 2016

Proactive or Reactive Leadership, Which is Most Effective in the Workplace?


In recent years there has been a real shift in businesses looking for their staff to have a more proactive approach to working. Leaders have been taking a longer-term view on how they run their business and they now expect the same attitude from their staff. The employees who have a naturally reactive style could then be potentially overlooked; so is this a good thing for our current business climate?

As individuals we all have the ability inside us to be both proactive and reactive, so could it just be a case of allowing ourselves to use both skill sets, and knowing when one would be better than the other?

So, what are the different styles?

First it is important to fully understand the characteristics of both styles:

Reactive: Being reactive means you have the ability to handle pressure that comes your way in real time. Reactive leaders are also renowned for wanting to solve problems on their own and take the responsibility for it on their own shoulders.

Other characteristics include quick thought processes which are logical and planned to turn tasks around in the here and now. Often known as “firefighting” There is very little long term planning or forward thinking involved. Reactive thinkers find it easy to make snap decisions as this style does not lend itself to analysing what might be required sometime in the future.

A reactive style can be very stressful to live with, as it often means having to deal with a continuous string of problems. It can be quite difficult to motivate a team if they are all reactive employees.
On the positive benefit side, a reactive leader and workforce is exactly what you need to ensure the business can survives the short term issues and look forward to its future opportunities.

Proactive: This requires a different mind-set and skills, because when you don’t know what is round the corner; forward thinking and confidence is a necessity to figure out what needs to be achieved and then how to achieve it. By creating the groundwork, proactive people can run when others are just starting out because they have given themselves the time and space to analyse each decision.

A forward thinking approach can have its benefits, especially where motivating people are concerned. It has been said that this style is very infectious as once one person is proactive, others want to follow.
The downside of this approach is that looking into the future can sometimes take your eyes off the here and now and in times of crisis, this would not be a good thing. As George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright and a co-founder of the London School of Economics once said:

“People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make them. “

So which characteristics are most beneficial to business?

In essence you need both! A truly proactive person does not always have an eye on what is happening in the present. They are constantly looking to the future. This can be a very rewarding skill but the present needs to be handled correctly too.

It is important to be flexible in your working approach and often it is a balancing act. If you can create a team with an equal mix of proactive & reactive members then you are sure to succeed. Your team will be able to take action in the short term, and plan for the future.

Which style are you?

So, understanding the pros & cons, it is time for you to ask yourself which style you would say you are best suited to. Can you identify a style you naturally lean towards? It is also important to consider whether you are susceptible to change. Can you honestly say you could bend to meet the needs of the business?

Our word of the day is: Ownership – you are the driving force for how you behave in the workplace. Be confident in your skills set and make sure you can adapt to the changing nature of today’s business.

Vicky Bailey is a Vistage Speaker, for further information on her programmes and areas or expertise, see the Vistage Speaker Bureau, or email

More from Vistage:

The Talent Toolkit - Download now

Our gift to you...

Apply now for your personal leadership consultation with a Vistage Chair. They'll help you assess areas of strength of your business and identify areas of potential growth.

Apply Now

    Subscribe to Vistage Insights