Embrace Urgency to Win – Book Review

A Sense of Urgency By John P. Kotter.
Harvard Business Press, Boston, Mass., Sept. 2008, 208 pages, $22

John Kotter is among the best known writers on leading change and transformation in business. He has authored over a dozen books on the subject, and this latest one will help any leader better understand how to move an organization in new directions.

A time-honored aphorism in business is, “be sure you understand what is important and what is urgent -“ work on what’s important and only do what you must on the urgent”. Any leader can fail at this task. In a refreshing way, Kotter calls for us to make a change in our definitions as well as activities.

John P. Kotter
Photo by Caroline Kotter

That which is important to our business success must become what is urgent to each leader, and that sense of urgency must be carried through the entire organization. We then must look at the things that distract us (what was the irritating urgent) and work to quickly stop, change or delegate each one.

Our instincts tell us that before we can make significant change, we need an event that overcomes the complacent attitudes that develop in any organization -“ especially successful ones. No competing group will wait for any us to correct our mistakes. If they sense weakness, they will exploit it. Kotter confirms this point, but with a caution. He says we must be careful not to create a false sense of urgency which is seen in frenetic activity that only frustrates and aggravates the participants.

To overcome complacency and move past any false sense of urgency, Kotter lays out four tactical actions for the effective leader.

Bring the Outside In
Purposefully shake up comfortable insider attitudes with compelling data and people that communicate the real opportunities and threats facing the business.

Behave with Urgency Every Day
Never let your guard down. Every letter, e-mail, and conversation must carry the message with no hint of anger, anxiety or contentment.

Find Opportunity in Crisis
Don’t be naïve about real threats to the business, but look for opportunity and exert all your energy on moving forward.

Deal with No-Nos
Some people will always struggle to preserve the status quo by thwarting efforts in direct or indirect ways. Successful leaders must remove all roadblocks while preserving healthy questioning.

These are effective actions, but not easy to implement. The key for a good leader is being relentless in pursuit of activity that moves the organization in the direction of winning the contest before it.

While some of the ideas are reminiscent of Kotter’s earlier work on leading change, this book provides a fresh look at the need for creating real urgency to lead a winning group. It is well worth reading -“ and heeding.

Bob Clark is the president of RWC Consulting LLC and has more than 30 years experience in labor-management relations. He provides consulting help in labor relations and is an adjunct professor at Concordia University in Ann Arbor.

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Richard Blanchard
Rick is the Managing Editor of Corp! magazine. He has worked in reporting and editing roles at the Port Huron Times Herald, Lansing State Journal and The Detroit News, where he was most recently assistant business editor. A native of Michigan, Richard also worked in Washington state as a reporter, photographer and editor at the Anacortes American. He received a bachelor of arts from the University of Michigan and a master’s in accountancy from the University of Phoenix.