The term proactive, in comparison to reactive, only dates back to 1964.  #AbrahamZaleznik, a professor of organizational psychodynamics and practicising psychoanalyst, cited Chester Barnard in the distinction for managers performing in nonexecutive and executive functions. Building on Sigmund Freud’s later development of energy cathexes, with emotional energy towards (i) ideas, (ii) persons, or a (iii) fusion of the two, the predisposition of a manager influences priorities. These may (or may not) be altered through (executive) education.
A central objective of … training efforts [within and outside of universities] is to modify behavior, usually interpersonal, according to some set of norms that relate to organizational effectiveness or improved individual and group performance.
The purpose of this paper is to raise for inquiry the adequacy of existing notions of what interpersonal competence is, how it relates to the manager’s job, and the best means for helping managers achieve this competence. [Zaleznik (1964) p. 156]
Executive functions ensure the organization operates as a cooperative system through specialized authority; nonexecutive functions include technical activities of the organization that might be carried out by others.
A manager, according to Barnard (1958), operates in two spheres simultaneously. He performs a set of functions that relate directly to the technical aspects of his job, such as deciding on a brand name for a new product, or preparing a capital expenditures budget for the firm. Barnard calls these functions nonexecutive, and they can be expected to vary in content from job to job and organization to organization. Another set of functions that Barnard calls the executive functions of the manager deal with the organization as a co-operative system in which interpersonal phenomena are a significant aspect. To quote Barnard: [p. 156]
“It is important to observe, however, that, not all work done by persons who occupy executive positions is in connection with the executive functions, the co-ordination of activities of others. Some of the work of such persons, though organization work, is not executive. For example, if the president of a corporation goes out personally to sell products of his company or engages in some of the production work, these are not executive services. If the president of a university gives lectures to a class of students, this is not executive work. If the head of a government department spends time on complaints or disputes about services rendered by the department, this is not necessarily executive work. Executive work is not that of the organization, but the specialized work of maintaining the organization in operation.” (1958, p. 215). [pp. 156-157]
Earlier, Barnard states:
“Organization results from the modification of the action of the individual through control of or influence upon … [(1) purposes, desires, impulses of the moment, and (2) the alternatives external to the individual recognized by him as available]. Deliberate conscious and specialized control of them is the executive function.” (1958, p. 17)
The juxtaposition of these two quotations serves to raise one fundamental issue in considering the nature of interpersonal competence as an aspect of the executive role. Barnard stresses as the core of the executive function the problems arising from personal and interpersonal attributes of Organizations as systems of co-operation. [p. 157]
The first class of executive functions cites physiologist Walter Cannon, who was known for his 1932 book on The Wisdom of the Body. Organisms, as open systems, are able to maintain constancy (e.g. body temperature).
Barnard stresses as the core of the executive function the problems arising from personal and interpersonal attributes of Organizations as systems of co-operation. With his emphasis on executive work as “the specialized work of maintaining the organization ” he implicitly points to interpersonal behavior of the executive that is directed toward assuring the internal stability of the organization. This function may properly be related to the homeostatic processes discussed by Cannon (1915, 1945), whose concept of an organism suggests that certain automatic devices must operate within the system to maintain a steady state in the face of changing conditions in the environment.
Following this line of thought, one’s attention is then directed toward an understanding of the interpersonal processes that are associated with maintenance of this organization. These processes we shall refer to as the interpersonal behavior directed toward the homeostatic functions of the executive. [p. 157]
The second class of executive functions — beyond a view of a single executive function — recognizes an open system intervening in its environment.
The second part of the quotation from Barnard cited earlier produces a note different from maintenance. “Organization results from the modification of the action of the individual through control and influence.” This statement suggests that the executive function proceeds through a kind of intervention, not directed necessarily toward maintaining a steady state, but directed instead toward altering behavior and attitudes with conscious intent. The way behavior is to be altered presumably is determined by the organization’s problems of mutual adaptation with its environment. We can conceive of the environment as establishing a press on the organization, requiring some internal change. The executive function, then, is to influence individuals and groups within the organization to modify behavior and attitudes so that some different adaptation to the environment is established.
This second set of executive functions we shall call mediative, since it is concerned with internal cbange in response to environmental press. Now presumably mediative functions imply certain kinds of interpersonal processes that may or may not be different from the homeostatic. [p. 157]
The third class of executive functions looks beyond the immediate of the homeostatic and mediative, with the open system anticipating future environment(s) and actively intervening.
Ordinary observation shows a type of executive function that actively seek out environmental possibilities. Instead of being reactive to environmental press, the behavior is proactive and in a sense induces change in the environment to conform to the creative use of resources available within the organization. We need not dwell too long on establishing the significance of proaction. The automobile, for example, did not emerge from environmental press, but rather from innovative behaviors of certain individuals who used a new level of scientific and technological sophistication. Let us for purposes of discussion call the third set of executive functions the proactive, although innovative would do just as well. [p. 158]
All too little is known about the psychology of proactive behavior, and this area of our understanding is at the frontier of knowledge. But what we do know suggests a conversion and release of aggressive energy directed toward altering the environment. It is anything but conservative, and typically becomes the type of managerial behavior that in its interpersonal frame tends to induce resistance, counteraggression, and in some cases outright hostility. We should note also how sharply the proactive set differs from the more conservative homeostatic and mediative sets. In terms of the primacy of goals, the homeostatic function stresses maintaining the stability of the system as the fundamental goal, sometimes to the point where it becomes a substitute for activity in the environment. Proaction, on the other hand, disrupts internal relations in the service of changing the environment. [pp. 158-159]
Zaleznik is modest in expressing proactive functions as at the “frontier of knowledge” in psychology in 1964. Seeing executives with three distinct classes of functions opens up a range of approaches to leading.
To recapitulate, we have implicit in the delineation of three sets of executive functions, homeostatic, mediative, and proactive, a series of dimensions that relate to modes of interpersonal behavior, cognition, and problem-solving. These dimensions include the passive-active, conservative-innovative, inward-oriented-outward-oriented (in relation to the environment), a narrow-wide effective scope of thought and relationships, (Lazarsfeld & Thielens, 1958, pp. 262-265), a short-range-long-range span of thought.
Each manager is different, and thus has accumulated his or her own personality development, that is expressed in patterns of interpersonal behaviour. Zaleznik draws on Freud for the organization of ego, with prior authority figures and cultivated competencies where successes lead to building the self-esteem to “lead from strength”. Leading from weakness represents a developmental failure where unsolved problems in the current reality are repeated from the past. While most think of Freud in the context of child development, Zaleznik sees that Freud also intended unfinished business to continue into later stages of life.
The energy that the manager can expend is described in three sets (with Zaleznik rejecting a fourth).
The sets represent essentially the direction of emotional energy outward, or the individual’s energy cathexes. The objects toward which the cathexes are directed are of two main kinds: persons and ideas. In one internal set the individual may direct his emotional energy toward the tasks — technically, we speak of his cathecting the idea aspects of work. The personal and interpersonal aspects of work are not cathected to the same degree and may even, in fact, be defended against (Moment & Zaleznik, 1963). [p. 160]
A second internal set consists of a strong orientation toward persons — the cathexis is directed toward human relationships. Tasks may assume relatively little significance in the individual’s inner need and value structure, and in fact the cognitive-technical aspects of work may be defended against. To indicate how these two predispositional sets relate to stimuli in the environment, let us examine a data specimen from my current research. [….]
A third predispositional set represents a fusion of cathexes. In this case, the individual in his inner world weighs both persons and ideas as important to him and blends them in his concerns with situations in the real world.
A fourth set exists which is real enough, but which for purposes of this paper had best be excluded from consideration. This set can be characterized as conflicted or ambivalent, in the sense that the cathexes are shifting and subject to immediate internal resistances and conflicts.
The three main predispositional sets we have presented in our discussion of individual development (cathexis of persons, ideas, and a fusion of persons and ideas) represent the center of outward concern of the ego. These concerns are a product of the ego processes discussed earlier (identification, self-esteem, and energy uitilization) and emerge through the various precareer stages of the life cycle. We have some evidence suggesting how the ego processes are related to the formation of the predispositional sets and it would be useful to cite some of this evidence, although it must be viewed as highly tentative at this stage (Moment & Zaleznik, 1963).
The remainder of the article refers to Figure 1, posing questions that might be resolved with additional research with managers prioritizing performances in different orders, depending on predispositions.
The matrix in Figure 1 permits us to ask several questions:
(1) Would there be a tendency for an individual with a dominant set of one kind to select for specialization one of the three executive functions?
(2) What types of interpersonal modalities are represented by the specializations implicit in each cell?
(3) From the point of view of organizational effectiveness, does optimal managerial behavior imply the capacity for flexibility in interpersonal modalities, or is there a requirement that the functions be performed within a constellation of executive roles that exemplify mutuality and complementarity?
(4) From the point of view of individual development through the career years, should emphasis be placed on flexibility in both functions performed and consequent modifications of the underlying predispositional sets?
(5) Or does individual development proceed more fruitfully by specialized functions. This idea is expressed by the shadings within each cell.
While every individual can probably shift interpersonal modes to conform to the various functional requisites, each set would appear to be selectively oriented toward a particular function. The person-oriented individual would perform most easily in the range of interpersonal behaviors associated with the homeostatic functions. We would assume that such an individual would, relatively speaking, avoid proactive functions. Under conditions where proaction was thrust upon him and avoidance became difficult, the defensive apparatus of the individual would be under stress. [p. 163, editorial paragraphing added]
The idea-oriented individual, on the other hand, would perform most easily in the proactive functions, utilizing aggression and dominance as major components of his interpersonal style. Presumably, the homeostatic functions are not well understood by a proactive individual and may be strongly avoided. To continue our speculations, organizational effectiveness would seem to require as a prerequisite some mix in the performance of executive functions to assure both the securing of purpose and the maintenance of the internal capacities of the organization. [pp. 163-164]
The article concludes with some view on education and development of the manager, with (i) role specialization to improve interpersonal performance guided by the individual’s stage in life cycle; /or (ii) role flexibility in reforming the organization rather than the individual.
This 1964 article by Zaleznik is more open-ended than the 1977 publication of “Managers and Leaders, Are They Different?”. That writing, targeted at business executives, doesn’t use the phrases of nonexecutive and executive functions. However, the systems foundations and psychological references are much clearer in the earlier article.
This article provides an appreciation that all managers are not equally proactive, and their predispositions may or may not be changed through additional educational development.
 The Oxford English Dictionary provides two meaning for proactive, with the first definition dating back to 1933, and the second definition citing a book, Zaleznik (1966) Human Dilemmas of Leadership.
Etymology: < pro- prefix2 + active adj. In sense 1 after retroactive adj. (see sense 4 at that entry). In sense 2 after reactive adj., and probably influenced by pro- prefix1.
1. Psychology. That affects subsequent learning, or the remembering of what is subsequently learned.
2. Of a person, action, policy, etc.: creating or controlling a situation by taking the initiative and anticipating events or problems, rather than just reacting to them after they have occurred; (hence, more generally) innovative, tending to make things happen.
Zaleznik, Abraham. 1964. “Managerial Behavior and Interpersonal Competence.” Behavioral Science 9 (2): 156–166. https://doi.org/10.1002/bs.3830090208. Alternate search at https://scholar.google.com/scholar?cluster=5638923636825278132
Zaleznik,, Abraham. 1977. “Leaders and Managers: Are They Different.” Harvard Business Review 44: 67–78. Republished in 1992 Harvard Business Review v70 n2; and then 2004 Harvard Business Review at https://hbr.org/2004/01/managers-and-leaders-are-they-different.