Triggering Urgency

Here are seven things you can do to help trigger and sustain urgency in the people you lead.

By Brent Filson - 3/2009

Does your leadership have people accomplish tasks with a deep sense of urgency?

Instilling urgency in people is an abiding challenge of all leaders. Yet few leaders I have encountered know how to do it consistently and systematically. Here are seven things you can do to help trigger and sustain urgency in the people you lead.

1. Recognize the Leader’s Fallacy. The Leader’s Fallacy bedevils most leaders. It is manifested when a leader mistakenly believes that the people will automatically reciprocate the motivation of the leader. The leader believes the people will be urgently motivated simply because h/she is a leader and is telling them to be motivated. The truth is, automatic reciprocity doesn’t exist. Reciprocity must be earned.

2. Recognize the People’s Fallacy. Which is that the people mistakenly believe that urgency is negotiable. Urgency is not negotiable. If you want to get great results with the people, urgency is always an absolute necessity. Look, leadership isn’t getting people to do what they want. Leadership is getting people to do what they might not want to do and be totally committed to doing it. If the people have the idea that they can take or leave urgency, they are wrong. If the leader thinks it’s negotiable, then the leader too is wrong; and h/she, and the people, will not get the results they’re capable of.

3. Recognize that the people’s lack of urgency is the leader’s faultThe existence of the People’s Fallacy does not absolve the leader from being responsible for establishing urgency. Leaders do nothing more important than get results. A leader is not the measure of results, results are the measure of the leader. To get great results, leaders must without question have the people take urgent action. No excuses accepted.  

4. Recognize that urgency is their choice, not the leader’s. But to say that the leader should "instill urgency" in the people misses the point. English syntax bungles the psychological truth of urgency. Urgency is not something the leader can instill and compel in others. Only the people can instill urgency in themselves. Urgency is their choice, not the leader’s. The leader can only speak and act in such a way that the people make the choice to bring urgency into their world.

You ask, "Can’t urgency be forced to happen through physical or psychological violence?" Of course, it can — up to a point. However, there are two types of urgency felt by the people: one kind is that which is forced upon them through coercion; the other kind is that which they choose freely to adopt.

In terms of getting great results, the latter is far more desirable. People who are coerced, who flinch from threats, are not as effective in getting results as people who make free choices.

One need only look at the history of the 20th century to see the truth in this when totalitarian regimes the world over fell to democracies and their "citizen soldiers."

5. Recognize that urgency comes from solutions. A key way for the leader to speak and act to trigger urgency is by bringing solutions to the problems of the people. All people everywhere have problems. Those problems are crying out for solutions. Leaders are most effective when offering solutions. People will not make the free choice to urgently be committed to the leader’s cause unless and until they know that in doing so they are solving their own (not the leader’s) problems.

6. Recognize that urgency is best effected when the people take leadership to solve their problems. Leaders themselves shouldn’t solve the people’s problems. The people should solve their own problems. It’s the teaching-people-how-to-fish-rather-than-giving-them-fish idea. But it takes that idea to a new, more important level. Instead of "teaching them to fish", it "teaches them to take leadership of fishing." The leader’s role is to support them in their leadership. After all, the best way the people can solve their problems is not by "doing" those solutions but by taking leadership of the solutions.

7. Agree on the stakes. One of the most serious impediments to urgency is when you and the people disagree on the stakes involved with the issue you face. The stakes are what is in danger of being lost if a certain course of action is not taken. Simply ask, "What will happen if we don’t take this course of action." Their reply can define the stakes from their viewpoint. You can’t get cause leaders unless they agree with you on the stakes.

Instilling urgency in the people you lead (i.e., having people make the choice to embrace urgency) presents one of the thorniest challenges any leader faces. In fact, to a great extent, the difference between leaders is the difference in the urgency they can get the people to commit to. Live by these seven determinants, and you’ll go a long way in making that difference your defining difference as a leader.

Note From Brent Filson: Leadership is not position, it’s performance. Whenever you are trying to persuade someone — a colleague, your boss, a friend, a foe — to take the course of action you want them to take, you are, in point of fact, a leader. For a quarter of a century, I’ve worked with leadership of all ranks and functions, helping them get more results. Please call, and let’s talk about how I can help you and the people you work with.

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