It’s Not Just Your Boss’s Stated Priorities

By | June 27, 2019

[June 27, 2019] Regular readers of my blog know that my first Company Commander in the U.S. Army was not a strong leader. Among other things, he gave me his command priorities but rarely judged my performance by them. I came to the realization that it’s not just your boss’s stated priorities but also those that go unstated.

My first combat tour of duty, in contrast, was with a great commander. His priorities were short, simple, and easily remembered. They were: 1) take care of your soldiers, 2) finish your projects on time, and 3) be a good leader. It was not easy when there is an enemy trying to kill you and the environment is hot, windy, and dry. We succeeded in accomplishing all his priorities. But there was more.

One unstated priority of my commander was to keep his boss happy. Another priority was to please the local Iraqi population. Neither of these seemed possible. After the initial invasion of Iraq, there was a lot to be done by military engineers; more work was required that could be accomplished by 50 times our number. My challenge was to figure out how to accomplish both unstated priorities.

While never put into writing or spoken to me directly, it became apparent that these two priorities were more important than my commander’s three stated priorities; or so it seemed. This is the problem that is faced by many leaders. There are implied tasks, obscure messages, unspecified priorities, and assumptions that can quickly escalate any situation.

A few days ago, the acting head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) resigned amid “an uproar over the discovery of migrant children being held in filthy conditions at one of the agency’s stations in Texas.”1 It is no secret that the U.S. border with Mexico has become a crisis and there has been a political effort to ease the burden on families illegally crossing into the county.

For those who are part of the CBP, this caught them by surprise. The stated priority of the U.S. Government, established by both law and precedent, was to prevent persons from illegally entering the U.S. Obviously, they are not to be killed doing so. But also, they should be sheltered in inhumane locations. Sadly, the CBP failed in this case.

The message here for leaders is that your boss’s priorities are not all stated, clear, or simple. These must be ferreted out. A leader’s job is to ensure that those same priorities are addressed and also made clear to everyone. In my case, I achieved both the unstated priorities by hiring local Iraqi contractors to complete more engineer tasks.


Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

20 thoughts on “It’s Not Just Your Boss’s Stated Priorities

  1. Yusaf from Texas

    For those of us who live in the real world, this article makes a lot of common sense. Some bosses simply don’t have the ability to put their vision into writing (and that’s just for those who know what vision is all about). I think that a great boss communicates their vision, priorities, and miscellaneous guidance in many ways. One way that I like most is to tell it directly to the people. Hey, the 4th of July is coming up soon. Please participate in the celebrations (even if you’re British).

  2. Lynn Pitts

    Keep ’em coming this way. Another wonderfully written article about my favorite subject, leadership.

    1. Albert Ayer

      I’ve learned a tremendous amount from this blog. I wish there were more sites like it.
      Lynn, you are a valuable person commenting here. I also learn from what you write and your likes of this same website.

    2. Otto Z. Zuckermann

      I too wish I could read more. Since I’ve only been a regular reader for a few months, I started going back to the earlier articles for more background. Reading some of the older blog posts gives me a much better view of where Gen. Satterfield is headed whenever he posts one of his articles. Everyone, if you’ve not read the older parts of this blog, please go back and do so.

  3. Harry B. Donner

    There are three interdependent variables that are essential for executing any mission — objectives, resources, and timing.

    1. Darryl Sitterly

      The key is, of course, to balance these three variables.

    2. Scotty Bush

      But resources reign supreme. If you can’t get what you need to get the mission done, then there is a great problem that must be solved. That is where leaders come into their own.

  4. Greg Heyman

    Thanks Gen Satterfield for another great article. This is why it is so crucial that leaders take the time to lay out clearly what their priorities and guidance are. Otherwise, they risk confusing their subordinates. I try to be as careful as possible. However, I’ve seen myself fail by overlooking some of the most obvious priorities. Fortunately, I’ve also had some great employees come to me and help fix the problem I made.

  5. Wilson Cox

    I always enjoy your articles when your experiences are interwoven into the message. Thanks for an entertaining and learning article.

    1. Wilson Cox

      Oh, forgot to mention that I also like your stories that include your childhood friend “Wilson” in them. For obvious reasons!

    2. Janna Faulkner

      Hi Wilson. I was thinking the same thing. That is, I guess, the point of having stories told to us as children also. We remember the lessons and are also more interested in them. Humans have learned this way throughout our existence. Just look at the Bible as one example.

  6. Army Captain

    So very true. You need to see beyond the obvious and into what really needs to be accomplished.

    1. Jonnie the Bart

      And, of course, this is not easy. That is where ‘relevant experience’ is so important. Many people like young, vibrant leaders. The problem with the young is that they lack the very quality that helps them be good leaders – experience.

      1. JT Patterson

        Excellent point and one often overlooked. There are people, the average guy, who has zero clue what it means when we say leadership. Many think it is simply popularity.

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