The 3 Priorities of a Leader

By: Josh

Two podcasts I regularly listen to each end with a consistent question. One asks, “What advice would you give to young, emerging leaders?” The other inquires, “What have you changed your mind about recently?

Curious, hungry, and committed leaders seek advice. They are always in search of successful and experienced insight. So, when young leaders ask you for advice, what insight do you offer? How do you frame it? Do you have go-to foundational advice?

While I’m not really big on giving out advice (it’s not my preferred developmental style), I do find myself in scenarios where young leaders seek some spontaneous perspective. In these cases, I often default to two simple points:

  1. Don’t underestimate your ability to inspire others simply through your daily habits of optimism and energy as a leader.
  2. I believe leaders should lead through a set of short, simple, enduring priorities.

We explore point #1 quite regularly on this platform, so I want to dive into point #2; it is an important framework that leaders can use to think, act, and decide. So, let’s explore the 3 priorities, why they matter, and a surprising benefit I’ve learned when leading in accordance with them.

The 3 Priorities

The 3 priorities are surprisingly simple. But simple does not mean easy. They are, in order:

  1. Do what is right.
  2. Do what your boss prioritizes.
  3. Do what you believe is important for your team.

Let’s briefly investigate each one.

First, do what’s right. Leadership starts with character. It is the first of 3 essential ingredients of trust (Character + Competence + Care = Trust). But, as Todd Henry explains in his book, Herding Tigers, you typically don’t lose trust in only one area. If you prove yourself to be untrustworthy in one situation, people tend to generalize that lack of trustworthiness to other areas as well. Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and Built to Last, has gone on to assert that there is no effectiveness without discipline, and there is no discipline without character. He claims that great leadership begins with character – that leadership is primarily a function of who you are, as it is the foundation for everything you do. How do you build leaders? You first build character.

Leaders’ first priority must be to do what is right – morally, within our societal and social norms, and in accordance with our organizational values. If our loyalty to our values conflicts with loyalty to anything else, say an individual person or a subordinate team’s actions, leaders make the “harder right” decision to hold people accountable to the “higher loyalties.”

Leaders do what is right. First and foremost. We do the right thing, for the right reasons, and in the right way. We don’t tolerate deviations from what we expect and espouse. Nothing comes before this or is above this.

Second, do what your boss prioritizes. This may be a hard priority to appreciate and accept. It certainly was when I was  at the start of my career. I remember questioning why the organization would put me in charge of a team if I couldn’t make the decisions myself and be able to set all the priorities for them.

But we all have bosses. And our bosses have bosses. Each of these echelons has a broader understanding of the environment, requirements, and thus a clearer sense of what needs to be done. At our level, we may not see how our particular puzzle piece fits within the larger puzzle. Our boss does, though.

Regardless of how we feel about our boss and how they approach their job, we ought to recognize, understand, and support their priorities. It is a moral obligation, but it is also an organizational one. If we don’t align to and support our boss’s priorities, we create a chaotic and disorganized work environment instead of an effective, efficient one with everyone committed to and acting within a set of commonly known priorities.

First, we do what is right. Then we commit time, effort, and resources to achieving our boss’s priorities.

Third, you do what you believe is important for your team. It consumes time, attention, and capacity of leaders and the organization to attend to the first two priorities. But with what remains, leaders get to determine and act on their own priorities to continue to improve the team and achieve sustained, exceptional results. Leaders at every echelon have the responsibility to establish priorities for their team. But it is a matter of being opportunity-minded, not viewing yourself as a victim. We should aim to seek opportunities – and view them as such – when we get to action our own priorities. We are not victims of our circumstances, of our boss, or how little chance we perceive to have to act on our own priorities. We take advantage of the opportunities when conditions allow.

Set your priorities, find time and ways to action them, and do so with all the leader optimism and energy possible.

Why These Priorities Matter

There are a few important reasons why we should be compelled to lead according to these priorities. Through them we:

  • Build a values-based organization. This approach focuses on building a values- and character-based culture where we champion our organizational, societal, and moral values. This creates a more ethical and more enjoyable place to work.
  • Share clear, aligned priorities. As leaders, we exist to achieve results for our boss(es), organization, and stakeholders. Our boss sees the broader environment and needs and it’s our job to enable them. It will be a more efficient, enjoyable, and successful team to work on when we all share a common understanding centered around our priorities.
  • Become actively engaged. We consistently scan our team and environment for opportunities to execute our third priority. We take the initiative, we are opportunity-minded, and we are not victims who don’t have the ability to do what we want.

An Interesting Benefit

I have practiced this approach in several different jobs with several different bosses. In each scenario, I’ve been surprised to find an unexpected but consistent benefit of living this out, which is gaining trust and latitude from my boss. And it is with this trust and latitude that I can pour even more time into my own priorities. Through disciplined adherence to these priorities, I actually gain more freedom of action.

When I consistently do what is right and achieve my boss’s priorities, I establish credibility. That credibility leads to trust and ultimately increased freedom in how I spend my time. My boss knows that I will get the results needed and do things to improve the organization when I can. This grants me more time and space to act on my priorities as opportunity allows. As a result, my people are better, the team is better, and the organization at large is better. We have capitalized on afforded opportunities to do things like pour into leader development or team building efforts more.

Ideas for Implementation & Words of Caution

A few thoughts on implementation of the priorities and words of caution as you look to apply them.

  • I’ve found the #1 reason many young leaders find themselves in hot water with their boss or the organization is because they invert the list, or at least place #3 It’s often well intentioned with a leader taking initiative, but it can come off as aloof or unsupportive of your boss’s priorities. Living out the priorities properly can reflect well on you and your team from others outside and above your team.
  • Use the priorities as a model to guide how you allocate your time and effort. When in doubt, default to tasks that fall higher on the priority list first.
  • Also use this as a decision tool for when you experience “priority conflict.” When you feel like you are juggling too many priorities, pause, and categorize them by the list. This is a simple way to help make subjective thoughts into more objective judgements.
  • Priority #2 ≠ being a “yes man/woman.” Supporting your boss’s priorities does not mean blindly following your boss’s guidance. Nor is it about making you look good for personal benefit. It is about doing what is right for the organization. Leaders have an obligation to communicate context and perspective to their people on why they are doing things or why they are doing them a certain way. Submit to your boss’s priorities, but also help your people see why.

What is one thing you can do this week to act according to priority #1, do what is right?

Take 5 minutes to list out your boss’s priorities for this week and month. If you feel like you are struggling to capture them, maybe we need to do some work to better understand them.

What is one thing you can do this week to take advantage of priority #3, even if it is just for a short 30- or even 15-minute window with your people?  

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