Creating a Sense of Urgency (but not too much)


When I first began my journey as an administrator, I was given a copy of Leading Change by John Kotter. Although primarily a book for business leaders, there are a few points which I’ve thought on and which have an effect on my leadership. 

In particular, he notes the main errors a leader makes when organizations are forced to change. And from his perspective, the number one error is allowing too much complacency.  If you haven’t established  a high enough sense of urgency in your team, transformations will fail to achieve their objectives.  They won’t give the necessary effort; instead, they’ll cling to the status quo and resist initiatives. Things will continue on as they have, in some cases moving the organization closer and closer to the abyss.

I don’t think anyone would disagree, there are major changes taking place in education all over the world. Countries are examining their approaches, refining their policies, and reconsidering some of the sacred cows which have defined their approach. As we move away from an industrial model of schooling, toward one which is learner centered, our system is undergoing a major transformation which is shaking the status quo to the core.

This was rattling around in my head just yesterday as I was out for my morning run along Johnstone Road. I’m a morning runner, and here in Nelson a 5 a.m. run involves a headlamp, reflective clothing, and gentle steps along an often icy surface. Usually I’m alone with my thoughts, a beam of light in the darkness, no houses or traffic along the quiet mountainside road.

But as it happens, a truck pulled up beside me as I was near the parking lot for Pulpit Rock. He rolled down his window, calling out “I think you should know, about 100 feet behind you a big cougar just ran across the road right in front of me. It’s probably gone up the hill, but it does live around here and you might want to be cautious”.  Image

There’s nothing quite like being watched by a large predatory carnivore to make you alert, to develop a sense of urgency. My first thought was, I should just jump in the truck with this guy and put a few km between me and the big cat. But I didn’t, I just thanked him and continued on my way. 

What happened next was very instructive. Did I bear down, increase my pace, focus on speed and just getting out of there? No. I knew there was no way I could outrun it if it really wanted to get me. Instead, my pace actually slowed as I was rubbernecking, shining my headlamp behind me, looking for the glowing eyes, then running on a bit more, then again looking back. Finally, as I neared civilization and the lights of homes near the highway, I regained my focus and ran without distraction.

So what did I learn from this experience? Well, instead of motivating me to excel, the thought of a cougar stalking me from behind actually put me in a defensive posture, and I slowed. I became more worried about looking back than forward.  Too much urgency was actually a hindrance to my progress, it had the reverse effect. A leader needs to find just the right amount, so as to not create anxiety and fear.

I’m not sure I’ll run Johnstone Road in the morning any more, at least until spring when it’s a bit brighter in the mornings. But I certainly won’t forget that day, and the effect it had on me.

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About Ron Sherman

I am the principal of Salmo Elementary/Secondary School, a small rural K-12 school in the Kootenay Lake School District. Happy to be part of the Grand Conversation, moving learning forward and joining with great people every day. Runner, triathlete, skier, blogger, loving husband and father of 2 great boys
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