Leading Blog


An Interview with John Kotter on Urgency


John P. Kotter, Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, Emeritus at Harvard Business School, is widely regarded as the world's foremost authority on leadership and change. His is the premier voice on how the best organizations actually "do" change. In his newest work, A Sense of Urgency, Kotter shows what a true sense of urgency in an organization really is, why it is becoming an exceptionally important asset, and how it can be created and sustained within organizations.

LeadingBlog: Behind urgency seems to be this tension between where you often begin—fear—and then moving on from there to something more positive. It seems like the quickest way to engage people’s emotions is through fear and anger. But as you state in your book “fear and anger can kill hope and stop the growth of a true sense of urgency.” Is it realistic to think that fear and/or anger will completely disappear? Or that we would even want it to?

John Kotter: First of all, there are ways to grab people without fear and anger. You can move a complacent group out of complacency without the fear and anger; without hitting them on the top of the head or without jumping out of a closet with a gorilla suit on. But having said that, in some situations that can be effective.

The issue is precisely the issue that you raised—some people think that once you’ve got that, you’ve got it. You drive them off their burning platform or whatever with a flaming whip. The reality is it doesn’t work well. Because if you’re trying to get action going—especially if it’s new action and if it’s dealing with an increasingly fast-moving world—fear ultimately drives people to be self-protective, they hide underneath their desks so to speak. Fear turns to anger easily because they’re mad that somebody is scaring them to death. Mad people go and look for grenades and guns. None of that helps. And so when you find people who are trying to, for example, drive a group out of complacency into a state of real urgency to where they can start making something happen if indeed step one is shaking them up in that negative sense, they use that only as kind of a wake-up. It’s a jarring alarm clock that sets a foot out of bed—almost trembling because you wonder if the bomb is going to hit or something. But as quickly as possible they start using methods, if you will to turn those emotions into a kind of positive determination to deal with the very real problems or sometimes opportunities that they had not been dealing with. It’s possible. If you don’t do it, you just get the fear and anger going and you don’t get anywhere. And worse case, it snaps back at you. You know, the people are so angry they burn down your own castle.

LB: Obviously you can't create an environment where every day is a fire drill. And there is the notion than if everything is urgent then nothing is really urgent. How do you counteract that perception?

JK: Your “every day is a fire drill” comes close to what I call false urgency; which isn’t urgency. False urgency again is very much driven more by fear and anger than anything else. It’s activity not productivity. It’s racing out of the firehouse whether there’s a fire or not. Every day it’s meeting, meeting, meeting—PowerPoint, PowerPoint, PowerPoint—until we’re all so stressed out and exhausted that who can be urgent about anything. If you’re kind of crawling home with your tongue down and stress level at 10—that’s clearly not what organizations need these days.

Real urgency is at the intellectual level it's a grasp that there are huge opportunities in the hazards out there, not just your department or outside your office but outside the organization. And more importantly its that kind of emotional, gut-level determination that you’re going to grab stuff and win and do it now. It’s kind of “I’m going to get up every single day and on these very real, big issues that are out there, (not some trivial little junk that surrounds my political arena) I’m going to accomplish something today and make us collectively win.” And that leads just naturally to a hyper-alert behavior. It leads to just faster movement. It leads people because they care so much about winning and doing it now, that if they start becoming overloaded they don’t just stress out and pass out—they care too much. They know that that isn’t going to accomplish anything so they start looking at their agendas and getting rid of the junk that clogs almost all of our appointment calendars or delegating it (if they are in senior positions) so they’ve got the time to deal with it without being exhausted. If you are really determined to make an organization win there is no way you going to win by playing parochial politics—it might help your career a little bit (and some people, of course, do that) but essentially … urgency is a win.

For example, my Celtics who happened to win, as we all know, the NBA championship this year. The announcers were relentless in the last game saying that the critical key was that the coach was able to get these guys not to think in terms of “Well, the probability is very high with home-court advantage that we’re going to pull this off”—forget all that stuff—the idea is for us—big underline us—that there’s no way in the world that we’ll win that championship which people emotionally want, unless we get up every day prepared to win the first quarter and the second quarter and then the third quarter, then the fourth quarter. That’s the mindset. And indeed it worked for the Celtics and it works for companies too. The problem is that most companies don’t have nearly enough of that. And it gets more troublesome as the world changes faster around them.

LB: Well then the intensity varies naturally. As you said, it’s not a fire drill; it’s not reactive so automatically it varies the intensity based on what you can do that day based on the realities of the situation.

JK: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And there’s nothing wrong with this mindset to get up and discover that. You’re realistic and the only thing you can do that day that kind of pushes the agenda in some significant way—not trivial way—is what you say at the end of a meeting. It’s basically a five-minute little thing in a ten-hour day. But you’ve found your five minutes, right? You didn’t just say, “Well there’s nothing I could do today.” And the five minutes is focusing on something that really is important and is helping you collectively win. There are going to be days like that. There are going to be other days where because of the nature of the agenda, who’s around etcetera, etcetera, almost all the day is just pounding away at some critical possibilities for dealing with these big issues. But again, if the emotional set is right—it’s this kind of grinding determination that you just going to make it win. Even in the long day, you obviously come out tired but it is with a fulfilling feeling.

LB: When people perceive that everything around them is changing, is it possible to create a sense of stability and at the same time a sense of urgency?

JK: I think to some degree, you’ve got to have some stability or very few people can handle it. Very few people can live in a tornado. And as it turns out, if you think about it, it’s not hard to do. It’s almost a perceptual thing. Because you could sit down with somebody, for example, who is saying, “This is nuts. We can’t have this much change going on.” So you say, “Alright, let’s think that one through. Let’s be very literal. What time did you get up this morning?” What does that have to do with anything?” “Just bear with me.” “OK, seven o’clock.” “What time did you get up yesterday?” “Well, around seven.” “What time did you get up the day before?” “OK nothing changed. Did you have coffee this morning?” “Yeah, so what?” “Did you have coffee yesterday morning?” “Yeah, so what?” “Nothing changed.” You can play this game—and I don’t mean a game. A game sounds negative. What you’ll describe, is for most of us, the vast majority of things we do, we did yesterday, the day before and the day before that. In other words, there’s a great stability in all of our lives. But when things start to change on a certain dimension it feels as if we’re in a tornado. And if you can help people to realize that no we’re not floating in air getting ready to be slammed into a wall. As a matter of fact this building hasn’t changed, we still walk from room to room, we’re in a very stable situation. In many, many ways it just that on a few dimensions we’re changing a lot more than we did in the past. The world it feels like “Whoa!” Stability is important, but to some degree it is a perceptual thing.

And by the way, the vast majority of things we do aren’t different. I think a lot of it is the rate of change issue. We’re used to the rate of change being x then all of a sudden it’s 4x. The body kind of likes equilibrium and so it kind of goes “Whoa!” And if you can calm it down by pointing out what’s happening. Relax. It’s mostly fable. We can handle this. We can handle this little bit of change. It just feels wild.

A Sense of Urgency

You can’t just give the two-minute speech I gave you and think that everything is going to be fine. But there is a way to help people to appreciate that reality that I’ve described very tersely.

LB: You keep expressing it.

JK: Yes, a lot of these things, it’s saying it again and again. You say it in a different way, and you say it again at another time, and after a while, it starts to sink in.

* * *

Like us on Instagram and Facebook for additional leadership and personal development ideas.

* * *


Explore More

Urgent Patience Develop and Maintain a Sense of Urgency

Posted by Michael McKinney at 09:10 AM
| Comments (0) | This post is about Change , Interviews



Books to Read

Best Books of 2022


Leadership Books
How to Do Your Start-Up Right

Explore More

Leadership Books
Grow Your Leadership Skills

Leadership Minute
Leadership Minute

Leadership Classics
Classic Leadership Books

Get the LEAD:OLOGY Newsletter delivered to your inbox.    
Follow us on: Twitter Facebook LinkedIn Instagram

© 2023 LeadershipNow™

All materials contained in https://www.LeadershipNow.com are protected by copyright and trademark laws and may not be used for any purpose whatsoever other than private, non-commercial viewing purposes. Derivative works and other unauthorized copying or use of stills, video footage, text or graphics is expressly prohibited. The Amazon links on this page are affiliate links. If you click through and purchase, we will receive a small commission on the sale. This link is provided for your convenience and importantly, help to support our work here. We appreciate your use of these links.