[March 14, 2017] For junior leaders the answer to the question, “What is more important: people or mission?” is often a struggle. This question, often asked, is not unlike the proverbial inquiry about what came first, the chicken or the egg. Senior leaders will tell you that the question itself is nonsense because it creates a false choice or false dilemma.
Leadership is difficult and those professionals that work at being among the best in their fields will tell you that false choices are actually very common. To recognize them is the essence of intellect because allows leaders to avoid unnecessary distractions. Philosophers of ancient times debated this and their conclusions are interesting and should be read for additional clarity.
For example, philosophers tell us that when two options are presented, like the question posed here, it gives the impression that the options are mutually exclusive when in fact they may not be. As is the case here; it requires both people and mission to be of importance because one cannot be without the other.
Discussion of philosophical and scholarly points is, however, not my intent here despite interesting intellectual considerations. For the leader, especially for junior leaders, to learn from such a question is how they should view the question in the context of being asked.
During World War II this very question was front and center to the 1942 Allied Air Campaign against Nazi Germany. Americans flew in daylight for precision bombing while other allied air sorties flew at night. Daylight was for obvious reasons much more dangerous and bomber losses were high during the early part of the campaign. American pilots often asked what was more important, the pilots and crew or the mission?
I heard this very same question asked by our soldiers during combat in Iraq. In one form or another, I’ve heard it asked over my entire military career. Perhaps this is so because the military is so mission focused that soldiers sometimes get lost in that effort. What I can say without reservation is that I never accepted the fact that there was a mutually exclusive choice. In fact, my top two priorities as a senior leader have always been put this way: “mission first, people always.”1
Leaders must be prepared to answer the question. Ignoring it will only get that leader accused of being so mission oriented that they have no concern about their people. Junior leaders are often accused of this; fairly or not. A catchphrase like “mission first, people always” will not suffice. It must be explained and credibility of that leader must be built over time.
As we always note, trust and confidence is the backbone of leadership.
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- This statement has been around in the U.S. military for at least a hundred years: http://www.themilitaryleader.com/mission-first-people-always/