Why Prioritization Sets the Foundation for Our Success

There's power in taking time to focus on one important task at a time.

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Prioritization is vital for mission success. In addition to the challenges brought about by the information technology revolution related to knowing and communicating with your people with meaningful depth, I think there is a second important effect that makes leadership especially challenging in the information age. Specifically, I’m referring to the volume and speed at which information flows onto your plate.

Between e-mail, phone, text, instant messaging, video conferencing, social media, the internet, and an ever-expanding list of other applications, information saturation has become the norm. Most of the time your plate is overflowing, and it can feel like everything is a priority. But as the old saying goes, “When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.”  

This lesson was especially reinforced for me in 2009 when I was transitioning from the Pentagon to my final assignment as the Marine aircraft group commander in South Carolina. It’s customary for commanding officers in the military to develop and distribute a “philosophy of command.” This is typically a one-page leadership philosophy or “leader’s intent” for the organization so that everyone knows the commander’s vision and expectations for the unit.

As I began my due diligence and mission analysis to draft my leader’s intent, a familiar pattern began to emerge. Like many organizations, it seemed like the unit was focused on being good at so many priorities that it was at risk of being average at best at what mattered most.

To drill deeper, I researched all of the requirements that the unit was accountable for in the form of directives and orders from higher headquarters. The list added up to approximately 50 mandatory requirements throughout the year with various time commitments for each. When I added up the total time requirement and divided it by the total number of people in the aircraft group, the result was an average of 23 hours per person per day. That didn’t include eating or sleeping. Clearly, something had to give. 

So I began whittling down all 50 requirements into five core priorities which I believed were critical for us to excel at what mattered most. I’ve found that it’s important for an organization’s priorities to flow from its purpose. Our purpose was our mission, and our mission was to be prepared to win in combat. Around this purpose revolved our five core priorities: aircrew training, aircraft readiness, maintenance training, risk management, and family readiness. 

My philosophy was that winning in combat required well-trained, tactically proficient aircrew. Aircrew training depended upon our ability to generate training flights with ready aircraft, which in turn required quality maintenance. Sustained success in these areas required an underlying foundation of sound judgment and prudent risk management in order to maximize combat preparedness while simultaneously protecting our people and preserving our resources. And finally, all of these priorities directly depended on the morale and welfare of our most valuable assets — each and every Marine, Sailor, government civilian, and family member in the aircraft group. 

In order to remain focused on these five core areas, however, I had to accept risk in the remaining 45 “priorities.” But I am so glad I did because six months later all nine squadrons in the aircraft group were called upon to deploy nearly simultaneously to the four corners of the globe from Iraq, to Afghanistan, to Japan, and to aircraft carriers everywhere between.

Looking back, I am convinced that had I not prioritized, some of those units would not have not been successful in their mission. And a few of them would not have brought everyone home safely. But due to extraordinary leadership and focus by the commanding officers of those squadrons, they performed remarkably in their missions and brought everyone home safely.

Perhaps what is most surprising to me is that my boss never asked me about the other 45 priorities. This reinforced for me how important it is in today’s world of information saturation to diligently protect and shield our teams by helping them prioritize so that they can stay focused on what’s most important and “keep the main thing the main thing.”

Excerpted with permission from THE SUBSTANCE OF LEADERSHIP: A Practical Framework for Effectively Leading a High-Performing Team (Per Capita Publishing, September 21, 2021). 
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