Success seems to be connected with action.
Successful people keep moving. They make mistakes, but they don't quit.
—Conrad Hilton, Hotel Executive
Of all the things a leader should fear, complacency should head the list.
—John C. Maxwell
Just Another Step Forward
Kemmons Wilson has always been an initiator. He started working when he was seven years old and hasn't stopped since. He began by selling magazines, newspapers, and popcorn. In 1930 at the ripe old age of seventeen, he decided to try a salaried job for the first time, working for a cotton broker. He made $12 a week writing figures on the broker's price board.
When a bookkeeper's job paying $35 a week opened up, Wilson applied for it and got it. But when he received his pay, it was still only $12. He requested a raise and got one. The next week he received an additional $3. When he asked why he didn't get the same $35 as the other bookkeeper, he was told the company wouldn't pay that kind of money to a seventeen-year-old kid. Wilson gave his notice. That was the last time in more than seventy-five years that he took a salaried job.
Wilson made money in a variety of businesses after that: pin-ball machines, soft drink distribution, and vending machines. And he was able to save enough money to build his mother a house. That's when he realized home building had a lot of potential. So he went into the business in Memphis and made a fortune, capitalizing on the postwar building boom.
Wilson's initiative made him a lot of money, but it didn't make an impact on the world—not until 1951, that is. That was the year the Memphis businessman took his family on vacation to Washington, D.C. On that trip, he learned about the sorry state of hotel lodging in the United States. Motels had sprung up all over the country since the 1920s. Some were nice family places. Others rented beds by the hour. The problem was a traveler didn't know which he would find.
"You never could tell what you were getting," Wilson recalled later. "Some of the places were too squalid for words. And they all charged for children. That made my Scottish blood boil." A guy like Wilson who had five children really took a beating. Motels charged $4 to $6 a night for a room plus $2 per child. It tripled his bill.
Most people would have complained and then forgotten about it. But Wilson, always the initiator, decided to take action and do something about it. "Let's go home and start a chain of family hotels," he said to his wife, "hotels with a name you could trust." His goal was to build four hundred hotels. His wife just laughed.
When Wilson returned to Memphis, he hired a draftsman to help him design his first hotel. He wanted it to be clean, simple, and predictable. And he wanted it to have all the things he and his family had missed, such as a television in every room and a pool. The next year he opened his first hotel on the outskirts of Memphis. Its name flashed out front on a huge fifty-three-foot-tall sign. It was called the Holiday Inn.
It took Wilson longer than he expected to reach four hundred hotels. By 1959, he had one hundred. But when he decided to franchise them, that boosted the openings. By 1964, there were five hundred Holiday Inns. In 1968, there were one thousand. And by 1972, a Holiday Inn opened somewhere in the world every seventy-two hours. The chain was still growing in 1979 when Wilson stepped down from the company's leadership after a heart attack.
"I was so hungry when I was young," Wilson said, "I just had to do something to make a living. And when I retired after my heart attack, I went home to smell the roses. That lasted about a month." It's just too hard for an initiator to stop making things happen.
Fleshing It Out
In The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, I pointed out that leaders are responsible for initiating a connection with their followers. But that's not the only area where leaders must show initiative. They must always look for opportunities and be ready to take action.
What qualities do leaders possess that enable them to make things happen? I see at least four.
1. They Know What They Want
Humorous pianist Oscar Levant once joked, "Once I make up my mind, I'm full of indecision." Unfortunately, that's the way many people actually operate. But no one can be both indecisive and effective. As Napoleon Hill says, "The starting point of all achievement is desire." If you are going to be an effective leader, you've got to know what you want. That's the only way you'll recognize opportunity when it comes.
2. They Push Themselves to Act
There's an old saying: "You can if you will." Initiators don't wait for other people to motivate them. They knew it is their responsibility to push themselves beyond their comfort zone. And they make it a regular practice. That's why someone such as President Theodore Roosevelt, one of the great initiating leaders of the twentieth century, was able to say, "There is nothing brilliant or outstanding in my record, except perhaps this one thing: I do the things that I believe ought to be done . . . And when I make up my mind to do a thing, I act."
3. They Take More Risks
When leaders know what they want and can push themselves to act, they still have one more hurdle. That's willingness to take risks. Proactive people always take risks. But one of the reasons good leaders are willing to take risks is that they recognize there is a price for not initiating too. President John F. Kennedy asserted, "There are risks and costs to a program of action, but they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction."
4. They Make More Mistakes
The good news for initiators is that they make things happen. The bad news is that they make lots of mistakes. IBM founder Thomas J. Watson recognized that when he remarked, "The way to succeed is to double your failure rate."
Even though initiating leaders experience more failure, they don't let it bother them. The greater the potential, the greater the chance for failure. Senator Robert Kennedy summed it up: "Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly." If you want to achieve great things as a leader, you must be willing to initiate and put yourself on the line.
Reflecting on It
Are you an initiator? Are you constantly on the lookout for opportunity, or do you wait for it to come to you? Are you willing to take steps based on your best instincts? Or do you endlessly analyze everything? Former Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca said, "Even the right decision is the wrong decision if it is made too late." When was the last time you initiated something significant in your life? If you haven't pushed yourself lately and gotten out of your comfort zone, you may need to jump-start your initiative.
Bringing It Home
To improve your initiative, do the following:
Change your mind-set. If you lack initiative, recognize that the problem comes from the inside, not from others. Determine why you hesitate to take action. Does risk scare you? Are you discouraged by past failures? Do you not see the potential that opportunity offers? Find the source of your hesitation, and address it. You won't be able to move forward on the outside until you can move forward on the inside.
Don't wait for opportunity to knock. Opportunity doesn't come to the door knocking. You've got to go out and look for it. Take stock of your assets, talents, and resources. Doing that will give you an idea of your potential. Now, spend every day for a week looking for opportunities. Where do you see needs? Who is looking for expertise you have? What unreached group of people is practically dying for what you have to offer? Opportunity is everywhere.
Take the next step. It's one thing to see opportunity. It's another to do something about it. As someone once quipped, everyone has a great idea in the shower. But only a few people step out, dry off, and do something about it. Pick the best opportunity you see, and take it as far as you can. Don't stop until you've done everything you can to make it happen.
In 1947, Lester Wunderman was arbitrarily fired from his advertising job in New York. But the young man knew he could learn a lot from the head of the agency, Max Sackheim. The next morning, Wunderman went back to his office and worked just as he had before—but without pay.
Sackheim ignored him for a month, but finally walked up to Wunderman and said, "Okay, you win. I never saw a man who wanted a job more than he wanted money."
Wunderman went on to become one of the most successful advertising men of the century. He is known as the father of direct marketing. It will take a bold step from you today to reach your potential tomorrow.