One of my favorite business authors, Seth Godin, has an interesting blog post about initiative. The premise is that the local volunteer firemen clean the trucks whenever they’re waiting for fires to occur. The alternative according to Godin? Maybe they should be out actively preventing fires? I know that many fire companies do just this with community education and safety checks, but it’s an interesting metaphor that Godin uses to point out that most of our institutions do not instill nor encourage any kind of initiative.
I’ve been going back and forth trying to decide how right this post really is. On one had it rings true. Thinking back on school, from elementary through college, I was hard pressed to find an exercise that really taught or encouraged initiative. On the other hand, an organization where everyone was bursting with initiative would be a dissonant mess as well. I’d say that the real problem at the fire company is that the leadership is not acting on the organization’s goals. When the junior firemen are sitting around with nothing to do, the leadership should direct their actions in a way that is consistent with the goal of saving lives and property. Likewise, leaders in business should keep their reports focused on actions that help achieve organizational goals, and not let firedrills detract from real productivity.