What does it mean to be a responsive leader

Recently, I was asked to lead a workshop for executives on responsive leadership. What does it mean to be a responsive leader and why is it important?
I define a responsive leader as “one who uses healthy, proven behaviors to react in a complex environment.” (Note I said react, not overreact!)

  • A responsive leader recognizes the ever-fluctuating nature of business and can quickly react to new challenges and circumstances. A responsive leader also goes one step further, anticipating challenges before they arise and taking proactive measures to face them.

  • A responsive leader is driven to understand people and the operating context. Think about what it means to respond or react. You can’t respond to something you aren’t aware of, right? A responsive leader seeks to understand what’s really happening – as opposed to what he wants to see.
  • A responsive leader acknowledges when she doesn’t have the necessary tools/skills to handle a situation, and she seeks to build those skills, however uncomfortable that growth may be.
  • A responsive leader believes in continuous improvement – individually and organizationally.

So, what prevents us from being responsive leaders? Past experience coupled with fear.
Take a simple example: It’s your first time to give a presentation before a group of colleagues. It goes very poorly. For most of us, we come away with the following equation: me + presentation = bad outcome. To the extent possible, we avoid giving presentations thereafter or we expect the worst. We tend to decide pretty quickly what we are or are not good at, and accept that we can’t significantly change.
Here’s another example: Growing up, you were the class brain. But you were socially awkward, or at least that’s how the other students made you feel. As you got older, you became more socially adept and you almost forgot that you used to get picked on. Almost forgot, that is, until a work situation revived those very same dynamics. A bullying boss made you feel ostracized, and suddenly you were transported back to the 7th grade. And you reacted much the same way, shrinking back and not asserting yourself. Without even realizing it, you fell into an old, familiar pattern of dealing with an uncomfortable situation. The response doesn’t help you, but it does prevent you from having to change or confront a painful situation.
These are simple examples to illustrate a point. We develop behaviors or ways of thinking that aren’t in our best interest, and yet we fall back on them and even rely on them out of habit.
Responsive leaders have these same tendencies. The difference is, they recognize them and work to counter them. They acknowledge the behaviors that aren’t helpful and they experiment instead with behaviors that will bring them closer to their desired outcomes.
The responsive leader recognizes that she isn’t at her best when dealing with her bullying boss. Rather than continuing to minimize herself and her contributions, she sets small goals to assert herself and to overcome her fear and anxiety. She tests new, healthy behaviors that are constructive and productive until they become second nature.
Begin by asking yourself some questions:

  • In what areas are you modeling responsive leadership, and where do you need growth?
  • What old, unhelpful behaviors are you relying on?
  • What is your actual impact vs. desired impact?
  • What do you think/feel/say/do in difficult situations?


  1. What small, concrete action can you consistently practice to demonstrate to yourself the ability to change?
  2. Set small goals for shedding behaviors that aren’t helpful.

Write it down – both what you are committing to change, and the steps you are taking to get there.
Share the results of your experiment in the comments below or contact the author directly at [email protected].
DONNA RAE SMITH is a guest blogger for Smart Business.  She has forged a career, enterprise and an applied discipline on the practice of teaching leaders to be masters of change.  She is the founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc., a transformational change catalyst company with an emphasis on the behavior-side of change.  For more than two decades, Donna Rae Smith and the Bright Side team have been recognized as innovators in executing behavioral strategies coalesced with business strategies to accelerate and sustain business results. Bright Side®, The Behavioral Strategy Company, has partnered with over 250 of the world’s most influential companies.  For more information, please visit www.bright-side.com or contact Donna Rae at [email protected].