Mission First, People Always

By | July 31, 2018

[July 31, 2018]  “Mission first, people always,” is more than just a saying in the U.S. military; it’s a philosophy.  The fact that leadership is difficult even in the best of times means that we expect the mission to be accomplished and done efficiently and effectively by people.  In this idea, mission first, people always … one of these is no more important than the other.

Last year I discussed the idea that when people ask the question, “What is more important, the mission or the people?”   They are presenting us with a false choice (see link here).  Each is not mutually exclusive; one cannot exist without the other.

The problem for leaders is that there is a tension faced in balancing mission and people.  We often hear about leaders that are mission-focused and those that are people-focused.  But it is the leaders who are capable of balancing mission and people that are seen as the greatest leaders.  These are the ones who get the job done and their people are being cared for at the same time.

Mission first, people always is philosophical because it brings together an inseparable union of ideas and accomplishments.  Those leaders who are most successful can integrate their personal engagement (social skills) into their leadership style.  Having good social skills allows a leader to recognize quickly those things that impact on mission accomplishment and take the appropriate action.

For those in the military who are likely to see combat, the level of importance of this concept cannot be overstated.  Successful leaders find a way to offset their focus on results (mission) with a personality to which people can connect.

There’s an article by Matthew Lieberman that asks “Should leaders focus on results, or on people?”1  He comes to the same conclusion I have; leaders must balance each.  However, the balancing is very dynamic and is thus highly situational dependent.  Overcoming this dynamic is where great leaders shine and poor leaders fail.


  1. https://hbr.org/2013/12/should-leaders-focus-on-results-or-on-people
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.

23 thoughts on “Mission First, People Always

  1. Greg Heyman

    After reading your blog post today I wanted to speak with a few close friends to get their reaction. I did speak with two of them (they get up early in the morning) and both – after reading your blog – said that this one blog post was certainly spot-on. Well done!

  2. Danny Burkholder

    I too am a fan of you and your guest writers here at https://www.theleadermaker.com. It is truly refreshing to read about such topics as ‘mission first, people always,’ that you’ve written about today. I think that many are reading your works and a few are willing to comment. Reading the comments often gives me a new avenue of understanding what you have to say. So, thanks for what you are doing.

  3. Nick Lighthouse

    Another opportunity to learn more about leadership. Loving it!

  4. Andrew Dooley

    Good one, General Satterfield. This topic was a bit unexpected this morning. I’m now drinking my coffee and enjoying a book on the senior commanders in WW2. With this philosophy in mind, it makes more sense why Allied Commanders took such great precautions to keep casualties to a minimum while the Soviet Union did not. Makes you think that communism is a terrible ideology that only cares about the collective and little about the individual.

  5. Dennis Mathes

    What else is there that better explains the struggles among leaders than the tension between getting the job done (mission) and caring for folks (the people). Good job here, Gen. Satterfield and thanks for giving us great topics.

  6. Joe Omerrod

    Thanks for a wonderful article on such a crucial and undervalued topic. I worked in the medical field for a long time before moving into my own business. I did it because most medical folks don’t understand this philosophy (although the MDs and RNs do understand it). The medical admin folks are stupid on stuff like this and I’m much happier to be away from them now.

  7. Anita

    Great philosophy for a leader to live and work by. I love reading this leadership blog for gems just such as this. I recommended to at least a dozen people that they should also read it. I liked this topic in particular because it hits so close to home.

  8. Kenny Foster

    I had the unfortunate experience of working for people who did not have this philosophy of ‘mission first people always.’ They were mission only, people never. It was horrible to be so devalued in the workplace. I always wondered how a leader could ever get by on such a leadership style that was not compatible with the workers. I was there only 6 months. A buddy of mine left shortly after me. We are much happier now.

    1. Janna Faulkner

      Great story about your experiences. Thanks Kenny.

  9. Albert Ayer

    Hey, great job today to bring us a worthwhile article that brought back a number of great memories from my time in the military service. While I too never understood the philosophical concept of mission first, people always, it does make sense if you think about it and read this article. Thanks Gen. Satterfield.

  10. Bill Sanders, Jr.

    Very good article. Thanks. I would like to add that although I was not in combat nor in the military, that being on the police force in New York City (NYPD) made for some of the same struggles. My time on the force was some of the best times of my life. This is what leadership ultimately leads to; a fulfilled life.

    1. Nancy J

      Bill, thank you for your selfless service to the New York City police force!

  11. Army Captain

    Welcome to the real world of leadership. That is always what I used to say to my peers whenever they struggled at balancing mission versus people. It’s simply not easy. That is why we say leadership is hard. However, with enough energy, drive, ambition, and hard work, a leader will learn over time to get this balance correct. They will also learn that it is highly situationally dependent.

    1. Shawn C. Stolarz

      Thanks for two links to some really good articles that help put the fat on Gen. Satterfield’s blog post today.

  12. Joe the Aussie

    I was in the Australian army and heard these words spoken (or the same idea). Apparently, the tension between getting the mission accomplished (especially in combat) was difficult if the officer was not well liked among his men. Respect, credibility, and responsibility all played a major role in whether the leader was successful or not.

  13. Drew Dill

    While I was in the U.S. Navy, it was common to hear this phrase bantered about among the officers. I never quite understood what they meant except that it usually meant more work and stress for me and my shipmates. Thanks Gen. Satterfield for this reminder of the struggles good leadership must undergo.

  14. Dale Paul Fox

    Very good article on an important subject that all leaders find difficult.

    1. Georgie M.

      Wow, this article was posted early. Much earlier than normal so thanks Dale for being on-line first!

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