The good news is that the antidote for leaders who haven’t been using urgency wisely is fairly simple.  It just requires awareness and intentionality.  For leaders to manage urgency properly and ensure the right amount of hot sauce is leaving their “leadership kitchen” requires the following:

Be aware of what you are feeling.

Leaders and leadership teams would be wise to end strategy conversations by honestly evaluating how they are feeling, where those feelings are coming from and how those emotions s are impacting the decisions that they are making.  Below are a few simple questions that, if every leadership team meeting ended with these, would have tremendous positive impact on the level of anxiety in the organization:

  • On a scale of 1-10 (1 = low 10 = high), how anxious are we feeling about short and long-term future of the organization?
  • Where is our anxiety coming from (e.g., analysts, shareholders, competitors, customers, regulations, etc.)?  How influential do we want those sources of anxiety to be in our decision-making?   
  • Is our anxiety impacting our decisions about the organization?  If so, how can we ensure that it doesn’t overwhelm the organization and prevent forward progress? 
  • How are you arriving to this meeting?  A colleague of mine shared this simple prompt with me a few months ago and I love it.  Before the start of a meeting, he asks all attendees to go around and share “how they are arriving.”  Amazingly, one hears the stress (professional and personal), anxiety, pressures and distractions on the group’s mind.  It allows the meeting to be managed knowing the “operating systems” that are occurring behind the scenes.

By asking these questions, leadership teams cannot only gain clarity and self-awareness on how they are feeling, but also whether or not they want that feeling to spread throughout the organization.  These questions also hint at another important component in this equation – who or whom is behind the anxiety leadership is feeling?  For example, leadership may decide that while they want to listen to analysts, shareholders, and other outside but related groups, the urgency that they are applying on leadership may not be aligned with the long-term future and health of the organization.  Or, perhaps leadership realizes that the anxiety is coming from competition.  This may encourage leadership to ask themselves “how can we keep an eye on the competition without allowing their actions to dictate ours?” 

Leadership is about processing all of the noise (emotional and otherwise) surrounding any organization and filtering what matters so that strategic decisions can be made. 

Prioritize initiatives.

Lay out all of the initiatives that you would like to see  accomplished over the next year.  Now, prioritize AND order all of items on your list.  Assign dates and deadlines to each initiative, if you can.  A word of caution: try to refrain from saying, “well, these can be done at the same time” if the same group or groups are being impacted.  If you want people’s best efforts, give them the space to focus on one initiative at a time.  If leadership does this simple (yet difficult) task, imagine the everyday manager going to his or her Director and asking what to focus his or her team’s efforts on over the year.  Rather than responding with “everything,” the Director can now respond by saying, “In addition to keeping up with all of your team’s typical workflow and demands, the big push from leadership is to focus our efforts on X initiative over Y period of time.  Let’s meet regularly to talk about our progress on that initiative and how I can support you and your team in getting this done. 

Several years ago, my family and I moved into a house that was somewhat of a fixer-upper.  While excited about what the future could hold, I was impatient in the “now.”  I wanted everything done all at once.  And when I say everything, I mean “everything.”  Renovate the entire inside of the house, replace the front porch, demo and rebuild the deck in the back yard.  Landscape all of the backyard and front yard.  Then the time came to make decisions based on what we could afford.  Quickly, we had no choice but to prioritize based on the resources at our disposal.  Nearly three years later, the inside renovation is nearly complete, and the backyard has grass.  However, the porch is ailing, the deck is sadly in need of work and other nagging eyesores still bother me on a daily basis. 

Prioritization requires a focused use of resources and patience. 
That’s what makes it so hard. 

Focus your use of hot sauce.

If leaders are both aware of their own anxiety and are prioritizing initiatives for the organization, they are ready to bring out the hot sauce and apply urgency on what needs to get accomplished.  To do this in the best way, consider the methods of another organization that deals with uncertainty, countless threats and a clear sense of urgency – The United States Army.  Most organizations have the luxury of knowing that if things don’t go well, no one will die.  That is not the case with The United States Army.  In organizations like this, there is an even greater call for focused urgency to ensure forward and aligned momentum.  But the Army wasn’t always masters of this skill.  As a retired military leader shared with me, after the War in Iraq, the Army realized that their traditional top-down method for communicating wasn’t going to work in the growing complexity of the world today.  They shifted how they gave commands to something called “Commander’s Intent.”  Simply put, when there is a new mission or objective, the commanding officer calls a meeting with their direct reports and their direct reports’ direct reports (two levels down).  During that meeting, they issue “Commander’s Intent” which is the “why” of the mission, the “what” of the mission and the “when” of the mission.  Note that they stay away from the “how” of the mission.  There are too many variables and unpredictable elements on the battlefield today to define the “how,” but if everyone leaves the meeting aligned on the “why,” “what” and “when,” they will move forward together.  And, after all, in the military they have a principle called “bias for action.” 

By clearly articulating your Commander’s Intent (with particular emphasis on the “why”), you too can keep your troops moving forward with urgency, alignment and precision. 

This is an excerpt from The Hot Sauce Principle: How to Live and Lead in a World Where Everything Is Urgent All of the Time by Brandon Smith, available now on Amazon.