Urgently Needed: Leaders With A Sense Of Urgency

John Kotter, über leadership and management guru of Harvard Business School and author of Leading Change and A Sense of Urgency, talks about how a sense of urgency is vital in leaders for today’s economic environment in an article I read from Inc.: John Kotter’s Urgent Message for Entrepreneurs

My 4 key takeaways:

1) Urgency is necessary to effect change/movement

According to Kotter, 70% of change fails because leaders don’t create a sense of urgency.

True urgency is the most important precursor of real change. Seventy percent of change efforts fail or never launch at all, and one reason is that company leaders don’t create a sense of urgency around what they’re doing. They go straight to solving the problem. So, with true urgency, you would expect to see change. Something new should be happening.

2) Creating a sense of urgency is the responsibility of the leader

The leader is ultimately responsible for setting the tone of the organisation – whether it is to be complacent or with a healthy sense of urgency.

You model it. You talk about the big dangers and the big opportunities. You talk in specifics: “We’re a company that helps set up trade fairs. Alibaba, which does Internet trade fairs, grew 90 percent last year.” You’re not trying to get people to panic. You’re trying to get them to think. And you always say what you are going to do first. Not just what you are going to do someday: what you are going to do tomorrow. And then you ask everyone else what they are going to do tomorrow. And if it doesn’t advance the ball, they shouldn’t be doing it.

One of my executive students gave me a two-page letter that his CEO had sent out in November. Part One said, “We’re in a mess. Denial doesn’t help. Here are some statistics to show it.” Part Two said, “It is useful to look at history. Thirty years ago, this company was in a worse mess. Look at us now. We’re 10 times bigger. The U.S. economy had deeper recessions every 20 years in the 19th century. And here we are — the most powerful nation on earth.” Part Three said, “We’ve got to link arms and address this thing, and it’s going to start with me. I’m going to try my damnedest to figure out 1. how this doesn’t hurt us and 2. how we can find opportunities in this. Because there are opportunities.” The last part was, “Here’s what I’m going to do, and here’s what I need your help with.” The final note was hopeful but not naive. That’s great urgent leadership.

Some ideas on how to create a sense of urgency:

  • Addressing the organisation with an “urgency message”
  • Challenge the organisation’s worldview or complacency
  • Lead the charge to measure/benchmark against higher/upward standards (instead of just industry/peers)

3) There is a difference between good and bad urgency

Bad/False urgency:

Frenetic activity. Everyone is exhausted, working 14-hour days. One red flag is how difficult it is to schedule a meeting. If you’re overbooked, you can’t manage pressing problems or even recognize they’re pressing until too late. People think that in urgent situations, they’re expected to take on more and more. They’re worried about keeping their jobs, so they try to demonstrate their value by being incredibly busy.

Good/True urgency:

People leave lots of white space on their calendars – because they recognize that the important stuff — the stuff they need to deal with immediately — is going to happen.
The leader should be telling, “I want everyone to look at your calendars. What’s on there that doesn’t clearly move us forward? Get rid of it!”

4) True Urgent Leadership Empowers and Energizes People

True urgent leadership doesn’t drain people. It does the opposite. It energizes them. It makes them feel excited. And the idea isn’t so much that the leader is always showing emotion as that he’s trying to produce the right emotions in the people he leads. But again, he has to model it. You can get people to respond rationally to a problem, but if you haven’t stirred their hearts and minds, once the immediate crisis has passed, you lose them. The sense of urgency dissipates.


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