It's an interesting question isn't! What is initiative? Can you train people to have initiative? Can a person be held accountable for not displaying initiative? Does the culture of your company breed initiative?
An old philosopher Albert Hubbard says this "THE WORLD BESTOWS ITS BIG PRIZES, both in money and honors, for but one thing. And that is Initiative. What is Initiative? I'll tell you: It is doing the right thing without being told"
Hubbard tells the story Andrew Rowan said to the President,
"There is a fellow by the name of Rowan will find Garcia for you, if anybody can."
Rowan was sent for and given a letter to be delivered to Garcia. How "the fellow by name of Rowan" took the letter, sealed it up in an oil-skin pouch, strapped it over his heart, in four days landed by night off the coast of Cuba from an open boat, disappeared into the jungle, and in three weeks came out on the other side of the Island, having traversed a hostile country on foot, and having delivered his letter to Garcia-are things I have no special desire now to tell in detail.
The point I wish to make is this: McKinley gave Rowan a letter to be delivered to Garcia; Rowan took the letter and did not ask, "Where is he at?"
Garica wasn't told how to act, or where to look, who to contact, he just took the letter set out and made the right thing happen. Read the whole story if you have time.
Seth Godin calls it being a torchbearer and says this
Now, I'm not talking about working hard, or being dedicated, or putting your mission first. Being a torchbearer has nothing to do with how late you work at night, or whether you give your cell-phone number to your boss. No, I'm talking about the people with that rare skill, the ability to dig deep when the need arises — to get past the short-term pain and to pull off an act that few would have believed possible. In the new economy, people are doing things that have never been done before. Faced with the unprecedented, in an environment that's unstable, many people say, "It can't be done." The torchbearer is the one who does it.
I love Hubbard's quote. I think initiative is doing the right thing without being told. I think training helps, culture is important, accountability is paramount and these things can help people fell comfortable with taking initiative. I also think some people have been trained their whole lives to lack initiative and they must now retrain. Eventually it comes back to a readiness and ability to initiate action, the right action. Ultimately it comes back to the individuals deep resolve to do the right thing every single time. If that desire is not there they will never carry the torch across the finish line nor find Garica.
Initiative is doing the right thing without being told.