[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.