When Everything is a Priority

By | March 20, 2020

[March 20, 2020]  The idea that some things in our lives are more important than others has been around since the beginning of humankind.  In the 1400s and until recently, the word ‘priority’ meant something being the first one.  However, ‘priority’ got hijacked somewhere along the way, and now it means many things.  This change has led to the idea that there are times when everything is a priority.

I’m not a believer in this philosophy, of course.  In the past, I’ve been on the unpleasant receiving end of a commander who thought everything was a priority.  These commanders (my boss, in civilian terms) made my life hell when he couldn’t decide what task was more important than all the others.1  My Lieutenant days were running between the office, motor pool, and dining facility, and my commander was never satisfied.

The idea of a priority is the basis of Maslow’s five-tiered hierarchy of needs, where he postulated that people are motivated to achieve specific needs and that some take precedence over others.  In other words, a person had to satisfy one’s most basic physiological needs (like shelter, clothing, and food) before we could worry about our creative and artistic endeavors.  Maslow’s work seems so common-sensical today that we generally don’t question it.

But my commander believed it was more important to pass an IG inspection than to ensure his men got something to eat.  He told us to skip meals (for me that his unnaturally difficult) and sleep to spend more time at work.  Work became an end-all for him.  Nothing was too trivial to disregard, and thus we worked on small things the IG inspection team cared little about anyway.  That meant we often ignored the more critical items.

The danger of everything is a priority idea is that there will be more tasks to do than is humanly possible.  When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority, by definition.  Nothing is important anymore.  Nothing matters.  Nihilism creeps in to grab us by the arm and yanks us downward toward the abyss of failure.  I was very unhappy as a Lieutenant most of the time when working with this commander.  Only after I transferred to my next unit did I overcome dreading going into work.

As I watch the U.S. Coronavirus Task Force on television daily, their priorities are quick to be announced.  Today it was getting existing anti-viral drugs tested and ramping up the production process for N-95 Protective masks.  Tomorrow will be something else.  What I like about the daily briefing is seeing leadership in action.  The health industry is making great strides, people are cooperating on an unprecedented scale (similar to the aftermath of 911), and volunteers are stepping up to help those in need.

They all understand that priorities matter, and deciding which ones to make important, is key to accomplishing the mission.

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  1. https://www.theleadermaker.com/its-not-just-your-bosss-stated-priorities/
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.

22 thoughts on “When Everything is a Priority

  1. Shawn C. Stolarz

    Me too. I had plenty of people (too many, in fact) that couldn’t prioritize at all. Their lives were a problem and anytime they got around me, they were a pain in the a##. Anyway, I learned to stay far away.

  2. Joe Omerrod

    I don’t get a chance to work from home given my job in a large hospital. But, I can tell everyone here on Gen. Satterfield’s blog site that our health-care professionals are working extremely hard and under risky conditions to bring the best health care possible to everyone. Keep up following the fed govt’s guidelines by staying away from others as much as possible. This is the highest priority behavior we can do for now to help slow the spread of the virus. Thanks all. I’m not sure when I can post again. Things are a bit hectic.

    1. Randy Goodman

      Good luck and god speed to you and your coworkers. We will do our best to make it as easy as possible by doing what we can. I’m self-isolating now. My family has to stay at least 10 feet from me (I was exposed but haven’t been tested yet).

    2. Lynn Pitts

      You and your professionals are my heroes of the day. 😊

      1. The Kid 1945

        All first responders and those keeping food and supplies on the shelves deserve a big thank you.

    1. Otto Z. Zuckermann

      Thanks Bill for the link. Good site.

  3. Eric Coda

    I had a Team Leader (in one of my jobs as a young man working in a large legal firm) who said literally, “everything is a priority here.” I was miserable working as a new lawyer and left after six months to get a much better job, although the pay was less. I think I was much more productive too in my new job.

  4. Army Captain

    I would like to give an example of priorities. Yesterday one of the contributors to Gen. Satterfield’s blog (I think it was Terri) wrote a list of possible priorities. She was spot-on with that comment. One of them was to ‘protect the supply lines.’ That is the duty of the US federal govt and a great example of establishing and executing a high priority. But if you listen closely to the media when they talk about what is happening they focus often on the unimportant things and complain about them.

    1. Georgie B.

      Nothing ever said you had to be smart to be a reporter for the NYT, LA Times, CNN, etc. They are all fake news anyway. Ignoring them is the best advice I can give.

  5. Greg Heyman

    Regarding Pres Trump’s daily Coronavirus TF lead by VP Pence, I find them to be really good where I can get the latest and hear for myself what they are doing (thus their priorities). Often they don’t call what is happening a ‘priority’ and I understand why. They don’t want to load up the briefing with a bunch of bureaucratic mumbo jumbo.

    1. Nick Lighthouse

      Yes, and a number of states in the US are doing the same. This is a good thing and appreciated. That is how we can cut thru rumor and false info that gets out there in the public. The first casualty of a Black Swan event like this virus, is the truth. Hearing what our leaders are doing (and more importantly thinking) is crucial to keep people calm.

  6. Yusaf from Texas

    Thanks Gen Satterfield for another story from your younger days as a Lieutenant. I’m sure you learned a great deal that carried you thru today. What I think you can say is you learned what ‘not’ to do also.

  7. Eva Easterbrook

    Great article. I had plenty of terrible bosses who wanted everything done at the same time. They were often immature, had a terrible home life, were not physically or mentally fit, and love to watch tv. What they were not good at was being a good leader.

    1. Eva Easterbrook

      I forgot to add that I was a secretary in a large school district in New York City (Brooklyn). This was a great time for me but I got to see so much corruption that it made me sick. I eventually left. They spent money and just wasted it in order to show the politicians that they were “doing something” to fix a problem, any problem. I don’t like school district ‘managers’ since they are generally a waste of space.

      1. JT Patterson

        Thank you Eva for sharing your story. Good lessons here, let’s not lose them.

      2. Albert Ayer

        Good one, Eva. I didn’t know you noticed how much corruption can be had in any large org, esp schools where the dollars being spent are not that closely scrutinized.

    2. Linux Man

      Good story of your time in a school district. Thank you Eva for sharing this experience. We all should take heed and learn what happens to a runaway bureaucracy.

  8. Wilson Cox

    We hear the same from the politicians who oppose the US President. They say he should be doing all sorts of things at the same time … and why not? He understands priorities, they understand politics.

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