Jesse Owens

How High Performers Reach the Finish Line

  1. August 1st, 2016  | 

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Published in Accountability, Leadership

Running the Race with a Sense of Urgency

In 1936, political storm clouds were swirling.

But as the Summer Olympics opened at Berlin’s Olympiastadion before a crowd of 100,000, the skies were clear, the weather was dry and temperatures hovered around a very pleasant 72° F (22° C).

Hitler had come to power and was using the Olympics as his international stage to display Germany’s resurgence; he expected German athletes to demonstrate the concept of Aryan superiority. His expectations soon would be dashed.

Jesse Owens, a U.S. Olympian running the 100 meter sprint against five other athletes on August 3, won with a time of 10.3 seconds. He defeated his relay race teammate Ralph Metcalfe by one tenth of a second and defeated Tinus Osendarp of the Netherlands by two tenths of a second.

It was the first of four gold medals won by Owens.

One of the many reasons we’re passionate about sports is because when an event concludes, we know who won and who lost. There may be disappointment, but there is no ambiguity.

In business as in sports, margins of victory can be razor thin.

Yet one of the most persistent problems I see in my work with leaders is the lack of clarity about what constitutes success.

What’s more, work teams may also lack clarity about:

  • who’s responsible for what task;
  • when the task is due;
  • why the task is important to the overall success of the team, the department, the business unit, or the enterprise; and,
  • the consequences of success and failure.

And then leaders wonder why their employees don’t share their sense of urgency.

Zeroing in on Urgency

Jesse Owens competed with racism and Nazis before he faced a formidable field of athletes and wrote his name in the record books 80 summers ago. So while you battle significant issues outside and inside your organization, the first battle you fight is the one between your ears.

Mental toughness drives urgency.

Urgency is one of the Seven Pillars of Accountability. More important, urgency provides a broader term for evaluating whether an organization makes decisions and acts on them with a sense of purpose, commitment, and immediacy.

You don’t have to be as fast as Jesse Owens to win your races. Urgency does not equal fast; it equals focus.

How focused on success are you and your team?

Data I’ve gathered from more than 5,000 leaders worldwide indicates leaders of large companies and small businesses alike recognize the impact produced by a sense of urgency in the workplace. These executives invest in leadership development, and they instill a sense of urgency in their organizations by:

  • Sustaining a laser-like focus on improving processes to drive productivity and accountability
  • Minimizing red tape to create a bias for action
  • Recognizing mistakes and moving quickly to address problems

Organizations that fail to perform consistently do so because their teams:

  • Do not fully understand what it takes to win, or
  • Cannot or will not practice winning performance on a consistent basis

Inconsistency and ambiguity slow decision-making, make timely, disciplined execution difficult, and make accountability next to impossible.

Achieving a sense of urgency is a challenge in this type of culture. There are likely several factors that are hindering organizational and individual performance. (Learn more with Bustin & Co.’s Top 10 Performance Hurdles list) When you review this list, you’ll see that nine of the 10 hurdles are right in front of you.

Accountability Matters


Do You Have the Will to Win?

By whatever name you choose to call it—persistence or passion, stubbornness or stamina, drive or determination—Jesse Owens, like all great athletes and all great leaders, demonstrated an urgent will to win.

When assignments are fumbled by your employees, what’s happening?

Do they share your sense of urgency? Perhaps not.

Or perhaps there’s a lack of clarity about what constitutes a win and what it will take to achieve it.

For high-performing companies, urgency translates into the disciplined focus on a handful of compelling priorities that are executed with purpose, commitment, and immediacy.

So if you and your organization are falling behind—on deadlines, on your corporate objectives, on the race you’re running against your competition—ask what this lack of urgency is costing you.

Then ask these key questions:

  • How speedy is our decision making? How quickly do we convert decisions into action? Are we spend­ing too much time planning, researching, and debating, or can we accelerate our implementation?
  • Have we asked our people throughout our organization—not just at the top—to help us minimize waste, variations, and errors in order to increase speed, quality, and profits?
  • Which of our engines—our people, processes, or programs—is not delivering the results we expect? What tough decisions must we make now to improve our performance?
  • Do we have the mental toughness, financial wherewithal, and executional urgency to see our dream become reality?
  • When will I make time to do what I say is important?

“We all have dreams,” said Jesse Owens.  “But in order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort.”

Still, it’s important to remember that no decision is a decision to do nothing. It’s a matter of urgency.

About the Author: Greg Bustin advises some of the world’s most admired companies and leaders, and he’s dedicated a career to working with CEOs and the leadership teams of hundreds of companies in a range of industries. He’s facilitated more than 250 strategic planning sessions, he’s delivered more than 600 keynotes and workshops on every continent except Antarctica, and he coaches leaders who are inspired to take their career to the next level. His fourth leadership book— Accountability: The Key to Driving a High-Performance Culture (McGraw-Hill) —is a Soundview Executive Best Business Book.

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