We have seen the headlines in every country from time to time. If something is not done about “A” then the country will suffer the bad consequences “B”. We see and hear a strident call from government to get behind a display of leadership to take a little pain so to get a lot of gain in a few years.
We have all also probably experienced it at some time in organisations we work for; the call to arms that tells us of an impending doom if we do not change our ways. And yet, nine times out of ten, it seems to me, the call is heard for a short time and then falls quiet against the soundproofing walls of organisational and individual inertia.
Why is it so? Why is it that when good men and women have analysed a situation, understood the cause and effect and with no little passion and clarity of argument determined that urgent and important solutions need to be implemented to a current or looming problem, that the passion dies, and alongside it, the clarity of argument?
What is it that prevents good people from not only maintaining a sense of urgency about what must be done, but also leads them in a merry dance chasing sub-goals rather than the main goal? What is it that makes them forget the initial purpose of the call to arms and fall into a pit of mediocrity rather than driving implementation swiftly to completion?
I do not pretend for one moment to have even a small majority of the answers to those questions. I do, however, have a few observations borne of experience of why something spoken of as having urgency and importance falls apart on the road to implementation.
My first observation is that the leader does not believe in the call to arms. This is the most potent of all limiting factors. When the leader mouths the words because they believe it is expected of them and it makes nice sound bite, then not only is urgency lost but so is importance.
A corollary to that observation is when the leader does not understand for what it is that they have asked. They may understand the outcome, but if they do not understand the detail of the effort and resources required then they are equally doomed to deliver little of a once passionate plea or promise.
It is not necessary that a leader understands every detail of an implementation pathway, but they had better understand the resource requirements. John F. Kennedy did not understand the detail of what was required to go to the moon, but he did know it would take the best minds, a creative environment and a lot of money. He provided them all.
Another observation is that urgency disappears when clear targets with time frames are not set as milestones towards the ultimate goal. When the goal is hung out like a flag in the breeze on a mountain top with no idea when we should reach base camp and where that is, people lose their way. The ultimate goal is too far away to carry all but the most visionary forward.
When milestones are not set with consequences for not meeting them, people will meander their way to reaching the milestone. If they do not get sidetracked on their way, they will go down many blind alleys slowly, collecting excuses for not achieving the milestone as they go.
Personal ambition gets in the way of urgent and important implementation. Not just the naked ambition related to power, but more generally reflective of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
When people feel threatened by the enormity of the challenge their fear of failure drives them to feeling the need to belong. They risk joining the herd for protection rather than thinking the issue through. They shift blame to protect their ego.
A further observation is chasing too many goals; trying to be all things to all men (and women). They spread their resources too thinly, achieving very little over a very long time.
None of these observations needs to arise if leaders would lead. If they would hold themselves accountable for what they ask others to do, they would succeed. If they would understand what they ask in some detail and not shift blame, they would succeed. If they gave their people the resources required to achieve set milestones, they would succeed. If they copied the strategies of Sun-Tzu and marshalled their forces at the enemy’s weakest point thereby giving up some of their goals to achieve the most important and urgent one, they would succeed.
It is the leader’s accountability when the important and urgent becomes the important and never done. Leaders who do not accept the accountability do not deserve to be in the position of leadership.