A Sense of Urgency

Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter is a world-class authority on change leadership. He has written 12 books, each making substantive contributions to the field. His exposure to 100s of organizations provides powerful stories to illustrate his findings. He is perhaps best known for his 8-step model for leading successful change.

Kotter’s new book, A Sense of Urgency, is excellent. It is stimulating, a thoughtful extension of his work, filled with actionable and practical tools for creating the kind of productive urgency that contributes to successful change.

I spoke with Kotter today. Here is some of our conversation:

S: This is the latest in a long stream of books. You appear to have a sense of urgency yourself.

J: There is no question that I’ve got a sense of urgency. I think in terms of 30 years, but I get up every morning to figure out what I can do today to push things along. I have big aspirations and I believe a) they’re possible, but b), let’s face it, you can drop dead tomorrow. So, I play it both ways. The only way you’re going to work on big aspirations is by taking a long view. But, if you’re going to be realistic about things, you might only have two days… so, use them!

S: This book is written for leaders in organizations. Yet, several times you point out that maintaining urgency is good for the individual and the world, too.

J: That is what I believe and what I have found. Some people feel they are being pressed to provide more leadership by their superiors. They are not convinced they can make much of a difference. My messages are a) you can make a difference in your organization – more than you think sometimes, and b) collective differences have a big impact on society. Sometimes even single individuals have this kind of impact. There is no question that the greatest positive impact from a person demonstrating leadership is on himself or herself.

S: When I read the book, it really changed my understanding of urgency. Now, I see it as a hyper-alert state that is aware of danger and looking for opportunity simultaneously. It is similar to what a martial artist experiences. It is about being deeply in touch with the environment and taking action that makes things happen.

J: If you dig into what most people call urgency, it is a frenetic, energy-draining, meeting-to-meeting, taskforce-to-taskforce, activity-and-not-productivity behavior. It is not helping them at all. But, it looks like a sense of urgency. It couldn’t be more different. It is as radically different as complacency is from real urgency. Getting that clear in my own head was an important distinction. When I began showing drafts of the book to people 6-9 months ago, they came back to me with the same insight. I think the way I describe urgency is useful. I hope people will pick up on it and use urgency more carefully, especially executives.

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Kotter’s new book describes the sense of urgency that is a pre-requisite for successful change, how to foster it, live it, and deal successfully with the obstacles to creating it. He also shows how urgency is an asset in an environment of rapid and continuous change. I recommend it whole-heartedly.

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