November 24, 2020

Urgency vs. Importance: Leading in a Covid-19 World

Right now, the temptation is to double down on the urgent, get the here and now sorted. But perhaps the brave call is to create the space to do this AND address the important.

Those of us of a certain age probably cut our management teeth reading books like Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” or “First Things First”.

One of my enduring take-aways from these writings was the concept of Urgent vs. Important. The idea that we have a natural tendency to focus on the urgent, the things right in front of us in the here and now and spend less time on the important – the stuff that will actually make a difference in the future.

We get an adrenaline rush from fire-fighting, urgency addiction prevails and strategy or medium/long term problems seem a lot further away or less interesting.

One of my biggest challenges (and frustrations if I am honest) as a manager, leader, consultant and coach has been trying to support others in moving their focus away from the Urgent to the Important.

Add in a global pandemic and this challenge has just gone off the scale.

The problem is the Urgent is genuinely – well – urgent! As a business leader I have to stay in business, pay salaries, stay safe – just doing that in a locked-down or seriously constrained trading environment is hard enough and needs to be my main focus surely?

I totally get it; all those things are urgent and do need your attention but so does the important. If you do survive today what will happen tomorrow and are you ready for it?

What does Important look like?

Currently in the “Important Bucket” when talking to other business leaders I am mainly discussing topics such as mental health, staff engagement, culture and the human capabilities required for a post Covid world.

Yes, we talk about other “strategic” challenges like target markets, product innovations etc. but actually, the single most important discussion right now is about our people, the human capability that will endure beyond the current crisis.

And that’s not just because our people are under enormous strain, it’s because they are also the key to a sustainable future.

The challenge is that as you read this I suspect most of you will agree with that statement in your heart. But does it direct what you actually do on a day by day basis?

I don’t mean to criticise because the difficulties we face are very real. We have limited bandwidth, we are stretched to breaking point and we have enough fires to fight already. It is hard enough just keeping the lights on let alone focussing on “HR” issues.

The problem though is a bit like changing the oil in your engine (assuming you still have one of those “old skool” transportation devices that runs on fossil fuels 😊). We know we need to change the oil and have the car serviced. But it is a pain to arrange so we put if off for a while. We get a puncture – we fix it, its urgent and stops movement. Changing the oil? Well, it’s important but…..

The problem arises when the important gets put off for too long. The oil degrades and stops efficiently performing its function of lubrication and cooling. A failure is imminent but when will it happen? More than likely it will happen when the engine is under the most strain, that long climb over a mountain pass miles from anywhere, or whilst travelling in the fast lane of the motorway. The results of failure under stress are always more significant if not catastrophic.

And so we go back to our people. The organisation is under tremendous stress as are the people. We put off paying attention to the needs of the human and not surprisingly, performance reduces. Failure is imminent and when will it happen? Probably when we most need our teams and people around us.

Physical or mental health issues might be an early warning sign but what else might we see? Our star performers or critical resources say “enough is enough” and leave for a competitor (or retirement!). Perhaps we start to see behaviours change, colleagues become more “difficult”, less patient or just don’t seem to live by the same behaviours we thought we valued.

The result is seen in missed deadlines, disappointed customers, failed projects or delayed delivery. The very urgent challenge of staying in business is now at risk.

“Important” Leadership

The role of leadership is to see the bigger picture, identify the change needed and be brave enough to make it. It was never meant to be easy.

Whether we are trying to survive the current situation or making plans for restructuring and thriving in a new world, the need to give serious time to considering how we secure and develop the human capability that will allow us to achieve these goals is the SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT TASK we need to focus on.

For some that will be ensuring our current team are given sufficient support to be who we need them to be. Creating the management space to focus on our people strategies, making the time to talk with our teams even in a remote working environment or implementing programmes that focus on health and wellbeing. Making sure that those teams know the plan for the journey ahead and their part in it.

For others it may be considering what different capabilities and behaviours we need to support our new organisation structure. How will we engage our teams after a restructure and actually, what behaviours do we need to change to make sure we survive and don’t have to restructure again?

Every organisation will have its own unique human capabilities that it needs to deliver on its purpose and goals. These capabilities are more than technical skills, they are the who, the why and the way we do things.

The leadership challenge in our current situation is to identify, secure and develop those human capabilities and do it before failure occurs or a restructure starts.

And that is the urgent vs. important paradox.

Urgency is driving us all to change whether we are individuals or organisations. But how do we support our people through that change, developing the capabilities and resilience that will allow us to not only survive this situation but thrive afterwards?

That is the IMPORTANT question.


Here at changemaker, we support organisations and individuals in delivering sustainable and lasting change.  When supporting teams in change we work with the human being, supporting individuals to be the best version of themselves that they can be.

If you want to learn more about us, take a look at our website ( or email us at

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