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The Singapore Law Gazette

Going to War on Proactiveness

It’s a familiar refrain. “Step up”. “Make more of a contribution”. “Show more initiative”. “Be more proactive”. Managers give these statements with heartfelt yearning for team members to stretch themselves, extend themselves and challenge themselves. There’s just one problem. Both leader and lawyers often don’t know what proactiveness really means. Without clarity on what to do, professionals don’t have a plan to follow or those that are more independently minded, a plan to deviate from. Let us combine the wisdom of Sun Tzu with the research into proactive personality to see how the five parts come to life in different legal careers.

“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity”. In the same way entrepreneurs don’t ask for permission, a proactive person controls their own destiny rather than wait for others to make decisions for them. Problems of every kind can create opportunities to take action and make improvements. Making a list of things you would like to see change, identifying future changes that will impact your clients and deciding to tackle a regular frustration could all be ways to start. Be clear about your reasons for wanting to take the initiative and have a quiet confidence that you have what it takes to make a start and make it work. Receiving positive feedback and knowing that you have the support of others are just two ways to build your confidence.

“A tired army is a defeated army”. We now have good evidence to show what military leaders have known for a long time. Sleep is an essential ingredient to being proactive. A study of 98 professionals who completed twice daily surveys for a two-week period found that sleep quality impacts deciding to be proactive and going after the goals to achieve it. Think of proactiveness as a process rather than an individual quality that varies between different people and changes within a person during the course of the day. Compare your motivation to jump into things after a holiday compared with the end of a busy year and you get the idea.

“Every battle is won before it is fought”. After more than 15 years training lawyers in goal setting, I am no longer surprised by the level of resistance. Goal setting is an important part of preparation to be proactive. Setting a goal to achieve gives focus, allows progress to be tracked and increases the probability of success. Despite the benefits, I have found that perfectionism and fear of not succeeding get in the way. Start small, start under the radar and then involve others after you have made a little progress on your own. You will find you have a much more useful conversation with a leader, coach or mentor if they can see that you have already put in some effort and you will be on your way to winning the procrastination battle.

“Choose your battles and choose them well”. While many lawyers are comfortable speaking out on behalf of clients, when it comes to personal risk taking many retreat to the safety of existing ways of doing things. Start with a clear description of the problem and ask for low risk, low cost changes that will make real progress. Build a reputation for pragmatism before you take on larger projects, especially if you are leading your fellow partners or influencing an executive team. An important skill here is respect for past decisions. Turnover of managers in corporations can be high and that means that the person who made the decision in the past could have moved on. In partnerships and in house teams with longstanding members, it is likely that the original decision-maker is still with the firm and they need to be treated with respect.

“Who wishes to fight must first count the cost”. I have left the hardest for many until last. Scholars of Sun Tzu will know that the name he is known by in the Western World means “Master Sun”. As a person who likes a good sleep in, it pains me to recommend getting up early enough to see the sun rise, but the I’m afraid the research is pretty clear – as much as I don’t want to believe it. Individual sleep patterns and the needs of some roles to adjust to international time zones aside, there are advantages to getting up early and getting more things done in the extra time available, on the logic that most of us go to bed at roughly the same time each day. In legal roles, this might be the General Counsel who comes into the office early one morning a week to read about the company’s latest products or production techniques. It might be the government lawyer who meets a colleague from another agency to look for ways to streamline the analysis of data both collect, or it could be the private practice lawyer who sends early morning e-mails to the people they met at a seminar last week. Small actions cumulate in the same way that interest compounds in a bank account. A small cost today builds a large account over time.

Of the five focus pieces of advice given by both Sun Tzu and research into proactiveness, your practical challenge is to decide the actions that will make the most difference to you. For working parents already on the edge with little- person-induced sleep deprivation, start by picking a small battle and setting a realistic first goal. For people who are feeling a little too comfortable in their current role and ready for a new challenge, choose to engage in some battles that you think are worth fighting to renew your motivation and focus. For those who are focused on an important promotion this is the time to use all five as well as you possibly can. Proactiveness is often the unwritten criteria of making partner. Energy and focus are your secret weapons.


Parker, S. Bindl, U.K. and Strauss, K. (2010) “Making things happen: A model of proactive motivation”, Journal of Management. 36. 827-263.

Schilpzand, Houston and Cho (2018) “Not too tired to be proactive: Daily empowering leadership spurs next morning proactivity as moderated by sleep quality”. Academy of Management Journal. 61(6) 2367-2387.

Searl Street Consulting
E-mail: [email protected]

Anna Hinder works with professionals to improve the performance of firms, teams and individuals. Anna looks for practical solutions to tricky people problems that are informed by the best available research. *