The Leadership Quadrant

Stephen Covey’s time management quadrants (from his best-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) have been referenced and utilized for decades, and they continue to be a valuable guide to improving your effectiveness in business and in life. The concept is pretty simple – all activities fall into one of these quadrants:

  1. Important and urgent
  2. Important and not urgent
  3. Not important and urgent
  4. Not important and not urgent

Here’s an image of the Covey quadrants:

Interestingly, I’ve found that we waste most of our time in Quadrant 3 doing what has a sense of urgency, but it’s really not important. I’ve also recently noticed that the true focus of Covey’s quadrants is time management, not leadership, and I’ve been pondering where leadership comes into play in these quadrants. The answer is simple – the leadership quadrant is number 2 (important and not urgent).

Anyone can do fairly well in Quadrant 1 (handling crises, meeting deadlines and putting out fires), and your leadership is certainly enhanced when you can minimize or avoid wasting time in Quadrants 3 and 4. However, Quadrant 2 is the realm of the leader and the quadrant where true leadership traits are required.

If you look at the topics listed in Quadrant 2, you’ll see that they are all important, typically longer term and rarely urgent (at least in relation to external drivers such as deadlines). The list above includes preparation and prevention, values clarification and planning, relationship building and empowerment. Putting it into more simple terms, Quadrant 2 is where you envision your business, empower and grow your people (including feedback), clarify your mission, vision, culture and values, and build and nurture relationships (internal and external). I’m confident you can see that these are all clearly important, and yet they’re the kinds of activities that we most often ignore because we’re “too busy.” If a leader is too busy for the big and important stuff, then what kind of leader is he or she?

As I’ve been pondering the role of the Covey Quadrants in leadership, it has struck me that it’s not about knowing what the Quadrant 2 activities are, and it’s not about making time for them (though this is part of the challenge). The essence of your leadership within Quadrant 2 is giving the many important activities a sense of urgency, because ultimately we will all default to doing what has a sense of urgency (even if it’s not a deadline or something similar).

For example, if you truly understand all of the positive impact and importance of providing consistent, high quality feedback to your team members (both positive and constructive), then you will have a sense of urgency and it will happen. And when you model this sense of urgency with and among your team members, other leaders on your team will embrace this same sense of urgency.

It’s so clear to me that one of your fundamental roles as a leader (whether personally or professionally) is to provide clarity about what is important (and what’s not) as evidenced by your actions and to create a sense of urgency around the important things that will never have an external driver like a deadline. In short, leaders don’t rush, but they are urgent and they create a culture of urgency around the important things.

If you want to have more influence and impact as a leader, be urgent, act urgent and lead urgent – and build a culture of urgency with everyone around you.

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