Wooden Wednesdays: Initiative

Note: this is the eigth of a series of posts investigating the leadership style of John Wooden and its applicability to choral music education.

John Wooden’s third block in the second tier of his Pyramid of Success is INITIATIVE.

Wooden says, “Failure to act is often the biggest failure of all. Initiative is the ability to act. Simple as that.”

How many opportunities for growth are missed due to lack of initiative? How often do students miss moments to improve because they lack the initiative? Whether it’s trying a new musical technique, approaching a piece outside of their comfort zone, or simply using inevitable downtime as an opportunity to improve rather than an opportunity to groom their social media.

Wooden viewed fear of failure as the source of lack of initiative, saying, “Failure happens. None of us is perfect but you must train yourself not to fear failure. Fear instead inaction when it is time to act.”

Our educational culture has ingrained fear of failure to its very core. Consider the yin/yang of these two motivations: fear of failure and desire for learning. Which is more present in our students? Which is more present in ourselves? Educators struggle with the same fears, with the fear of high-stakes evaluations overshadowing their innate desire to take the risks they must take to guide students to their potential.

How do you teach initiative? First and foremost, by empowering it. We must, must, must find a way to reward striving instead of achieving. Achievement is certainly valuable, but if we want to teach our students to be leaders tomorrow, it starts by instilling initiative in them as a core value. Because music education is immune to many of the stakes that the rest of schools often struggle against, we can be central in teaching this skill. If we empower and reward it, we will begin to see results immediately.

We can do a better job of expecting initiative by explaining its value and offering strategies for our students. When you need to do a five minute sectional with the baritones, remind your other students of activities they could choose that demonstrate initiative – then observe and reward their initiative.

Finally, we must show our own initiative to exemplify it to our students. Be public about the ways you are trying new things. Be public about your own failures in the progress of taking initiative, share your shortcomings and the ways you are taking action to improve them.

To me, initiative comes down to a desire to execute change – personal, societal, global. The more students we can encourage to take daily initiative in their own lives, the better our future will be. The more daily initiative we and our students take towards improving our musical fates, the better music we will make.

“Initiative means having the courage to make decisions and take action. Simple as that. Keep in mind that we all are going to fail at times. You must understand this and not fear failure. None of us is perfect. But if you are afraid to fail you will never do the things you are capable of doing.” – John Wooden

By teaching fear of failure, we are denying our students the change to achieve their potential. Let’s teach initiative instead.