Coda: Thriving in the Face of Urgency

Russ Volckmann

The World is in crisis. No, I didn’t say the world was going to come to an end on New Years Day. Or that there is some kind of huge spiritual event that will transform us…

Rather, as the readers of this journal are no doubt aware, it just seems like the number and levels of crises in the world are teetering on the edge of some kind of inevitable transforming event. Whether that transformation will make it possible for your children and grandchildren and their children find a path to celebrating life on this planet or will lead to huge tragedy for virtually every living been on Earth, remains to be seen. InIntegral Review I published an interview with Suzi Gablik, art critic and author, I was stunned by her (perhaps tentative) conclusion that it is just too late. We have brought life on this planet beyond the brink of destruction:


You know the litany, pollution, global warming, the administration in the US for the last 8 years and its domestic and international policies, but there is more. War. War in Iraq, Afghanistan, Georgia, Sudan (today’s government attack on a refugee camp) and elsewhere. Armed conflict in many, many other places. Frequent examples of crimes against humanity, including what I believe, for the first time I have been aware of it, such crimes committed by Americans, at least with the approval, support and urging of the political leadership of this country. Instable governments, even today in Pakistan, a country that has only recently moved from military dictatorship, as benevolent as it tended to be. The energy crisis in the face of growing demand. The financial crisis with a threatened world-class recession, if not worse. A food crisis of rising prices and local/regional scarcity. And a crisis in ethics, morality and leadership in the world of business that has contributed so mightily to many of these crises.

Do you ever make your own list of what you see happening in the world? Is it anything like mine? Would you add some positives, as well? Al Gore’s vision of ending dependency on foreign oil in the U.S. (and potentially in the rest of the world) beginning in ten years? The potential for a meaningful change in administration in the U.S.? The rise of new generations around the world with global access and connection? Growing hope for mastering crises of health and habitat with technology?

And it is important to consider what is to be done beyond this. One reason for the existence of the Integral Leadership Review is our belief that the quality of leadership required for moving us away from the brink needs to change.

John Kotter has long studied what it takes to make successful transformational change in organizations. Books he authored or co-authored on this subject have included The Heart of Change, Our Iceberg is Melting, and now A Sense of UrgencyA Sense of Urgency,Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2008). Perhaps his understanding will help us move forward on an even large scale. In response to the question “What is the single biggest error people make when they try to change?” He concludes, “I decided the answer was that they did not create a high enough sense of urgency among enough people to set the stage for making a challenging leap into some new direction.”

Well, if there has ever been a time for such a leap, this is one of them. But let’s look at some addition conclusions Kotter has drawn:

First, I became more than ever convinced that it all starts with urgency…if a sense of urgency is not high enough and complacency is not low enough, everything else becomes so much more difficult.”

Second, complacency is much more common than we might think and very often invisible to the people involved.”

Third, the opposite of urgency is not only complacency. It’s also a false or misguided sense of urgency that is as prevalent today as complacency itself and even more insidious.” Change is driven by anxiety, anger and frustration, rather than a determination to win.

Fourth, mistaking what you might call false urgency from real urgency is a huge problem today.” This leads to underperformance and creating harm.

Fifth, it most certainly is possible to recognize false urgency and complacency and transform each into a true sense of urgency.” This requires practical approaches.

Sixth, urgency is becoming increasingly important because change is shifting from episodic to continuous.” The ability to have a strong sense of urgency is becoming a necessity in the face of complexity and rapid change.

He goes on to offer four tactics for promoting a sense of urgency in creating successful transformative change:

  • Bring the outside in, including bringing people with different perspectives into the process.
  • Behave with urgency every day by taking a number of actions, including matching words and deeds; walk the talk!
  • Find opportunity in crises, by avoiding four mistakes: assuming your sense of urgency will automatically be matched by others, implementing strategies that go over the line create backlash because they feel manipulated, and
  • Deal with NoNos, the effective opposition to change. One of Kotter’s strategies for dealing with NoNos in organizations is to get rid of them. But that is difficult to do when we are talking about life on this planet, as opposed to the economic futures of some investors and employees. He also suggests mobilizing social pressure to encourage them to back off, if not join the forces for transforming situations filled with legitimate urgency.

There is so very much to do. There are so many reasons why we should feel that sense of legitimate urgency, over and over again. And so many reasons we need to attend to the opportunities to bring more and more of us together to address the crises that threaten our very existence. And some beginning ideas about how we might go about it from the pen of John Kotter. From here, consider an integral approach to urgency. Consider both individual and collective aspects of change and connecting to urgency. Consider the messages that will connect people who are centered in the various colors of the spectrum of development to engage them in effectively raising the sense of constructive urgency.

Yes, I have a sense of urgency and I seek to find the ways to express that to create a possible and positive future for my one-year-old grand daughter, Sophia. She is a child of the world. I do hope my generation and next can help make the sense of urgency strong enough to make it possible for her and the world to thrive.

August 25, 2008

Postscript August 26, 2008

Thanks to a friend of mine, I had the opportunity to watch and listen to Bill Moyers interview of Andrew J. Bacevich, author of The Limits of Power. I invite you to do the same:

I will not attempt to summarize the discussion, but simply point out that it is one of the most cogent discussions of political leadership in the United States, its consequences and blind spots, that I have ever heard. Now I want to read the book.

The impact on me has been to re-examine my own politics and understanding of what is happening (and has been happening for some time) in the United States and its role internationally. In a sense, this discussion has engaged me with “the spiral within” in some surprising ways. I would really like to hear from you about your responses, as well.

Also, I have recently discovered two books by David Loye that I must highly recommend to you. The first is Bankrolling Evolution and the second is Measuring Evolution. Both books are about the subject of leadership, political leadership. I will be writing more about these in the November issue of Integral Leadership Review. But if you can’t wait, then go to: