Leadership Retreats Resources

Initiating Action—Learning from the courageous leadership of Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman to travel in Space. 

Initiating Action As A Leader

June 11, 2018
Lead Self

A hallmark strength of a great leader is revealed in the process of responding with courage and initiating action.

Like any muscle, strong “action muscles” require repetitive practice to gain strength. If you don’t use them, then your action muscles stay weak.

In the case of Dr. Mae Jemison, a strong action muscle made the difference between life and death for one of her patients. Speaking at Leadercast Live 2018, Dr. Jemison, an American engineer, physician, and NASA astronaut (the first African American woman to travel in space), shared her story of responding with courage and initiating action in a big way.

Early in her career, Dr. Jemison served in Sierra Leone as a Peace Corps Medical Officer. One of her volunteer charges became extremely sick and needed a military medical evacuation The Admin Officer, unwilling to pay the $80,000 cost, challenged her call for evacuation. He phoned various officers in Europe and the embassy, questioning her authority and trying to stop the evacuation.

Knowing she did not need anyone’s permission for a medical decision, Dr. Jemison ordered the evacuation and the patient survived. Dr. Jemison offered this advice, “Be prepared and know your job and your most important responsibilities; don’t doubt yourself – dare to do it. Do the hard stuff when no one’s paying attention to you. It will prepare you for the hard stuff when they are.”

To strengthen your action muscles so you are prepared for the “hard stuff”, practice the following steps:

Acknowledge your fears and change your perspective.

Respond quickly by taking ownership of your problems and their solutions. Everyone is afraid at some point; without fear, courage is not required. A crisis can be viewed as either a danger or an opportunity. The decision is yours.


Take action in big and little ways.

When you have an idea, look for an appropriate place to share the idea. Each action, big or small, requires courage. When you’ve practiced on the little things, you may well find that it’s easier to act on the big ones.


Don’t wait. Anticipate and initiate.

Seize opportunities as they appear before you and learn to foresee those that will emerge. You know what needs to be done in your situation. You are the only one stopping yourself. Don’t be tempted to make excuses. If you wait too long you may lose your own ability to act courageously.

Start now! Have you been avoiding a situation, like sharing your input on a project, making a difficult decision, or mending a broken relationship? Ask yourself why you have been avoiding it and acknowledge your fear. Then take one small step toward addressing it. You may be able to begin by simply calling a meeting, writing a memo, or making a phone call. No matter how small that first step, start walking towards it and initiate action. All great leaders do.

Dr. Jemison offers this last word of advice, “What do we do with our place at the table? Use it!”

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