Urgency vs. Ownership

What motivates you to action? What prompts you to get involved, to put forth the effort, to spend the sweat to get a task accomplished?

I recently came across a video that was seeking to move people by developing a sense of urgency for the task at hand. The narrator quotes Harvard Professor John P. Kotter, author of What Leaders Really Do, saying “infecting others with a sense of urgency is the difference between effective and ineffective leadership.” (Kotter also wrote an entire book entitled A Sense of Urgency.)

This statement made me pause. Can you see some of the very strong assumptions underlying this assertion?

There is an assumption that leadership is primarily about motivating people to act. There is an assumption that effective leadership is somewhat aggressive in nature (“infecting”).

And there is an assumption that excellence in followership will be achieved through a feeling of urgency.

I recall a conversation with a friend of mine some years ago–sitting over plates of meatballs in an IKEA cafeteria–where he proposed to me that the central issue for the success of a group isn’t leadership, but rather ownership.

While I believe that leadership is an essential part of group and organizational effectiveness, the concept of ownership opens the gateway for other people, not just the leader, to feel the burden for the task at hand.

Chapter 7 of my book Embracing Followership is entitled “Ownership: Passion in Action.” While only one person may bear the leadership title or the formal authority, there is no limit to the number of people that can feel (and express) passion for an endeavor. And such internal drive is far more of an effective motivator to excellence than any external infection.

True, some people are “pressure-prompted,” discovering new stores of energy and creativity when the deadline nears and the time is short. But even then, that excellence comes from within, from one’s own wiring, one’s internal desire to surmount the challenge and to achieve the goal.

Having someone foist urgency upon you will never be as effective. A leader may well point out to you a previously unknown area of timely need, but it is your own degree of ownership which will best feed your intense involvement and excellent engagement.

When you find yourself harried with many things to do, when you feel overwhelmed by the load that you’re carrying, take a moment to ask yourself: how’s my level of ownership in each of these tasks? Is my sense of urgency something that’s been imposed upon me, or am I able to operate from a deep-seated place of personal enthusiasm and concern for the success of my team and the excellence of my personal contribution? If not, perhaps it’s time to make a change in what you’re saying yes or no to in order to engage in the activities that you can truly embrace with your whole being.


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