[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.