BLUF – Leaders have the ability to spot the difference between Urgent and Worthwhile tasks while still maintaining forward momentum for the team.
When prioritizing your time, leaders must differentiate between urgent and worthwhile tasks. Urgent are those items that are immediately your responsibility and expected of your position. For officers, this means making informed, not perfect, decisions based on available information. These can be considered as “go/must-dos” from leadership where there really isn’t any wiggle room to negotiate. You are given a task and a suspense date. Bring your team together to execute. The hallmark of a military organization falls on this model: delivering effects with time on target.
In contrast, worthwhile tasks are actions taken may not directly contribute to accomplishing short-term tasks, yet instead focus on long-term goals of forging teamwork and camaraderie (those are included in your goals of leadership, right?). These worthwhile tasks usually focus on enhancement through the personal side of your teams, not necessarily anything to do with work itself. For example, a month ago I planned an officers teambuilding exercise to try Alaska Escape Rooms. My daughter and I first tried Hawai’i Escape Challenge while on spring break and we had a blast, and I immediately had the idea to take the officers in our unit to share in the same experience. My vision was to have a lunch (adult beverages optional) where we could chat about work and different perspectives of current and future challenges for the unit. After lunch we would accomplish the escape room and see where the afternoon takes us. This was going to be a deliberate absence from work, and we informed leadership both up and down the chain so they could cover down accordingly.
30 minutes prior to the lunch starting, the flood of “urgent” tasks started to come in. Last minute taskers from the group. Exercise injects from the wing. I had to quickly make a decision: delay the team event until later in the day, or outright cancel it. I had a list of important topics I needed to discuss with the officers to obtain their inputs and sketch out a wayahead for the last year of my command and did not want to delay that discussion. I quickly scanned the inputs and answered the urgent tasks as well as I could. No forwarding the task to anyone else to offload the work, just answering the requests for information with just enough information to complete the task. I was willing to accept the consequences for not providing enough information, but only after I met the initial tasking. Sometimes asking a last minute question may result in a last minute answer! Bottom line, I closed up my office and headed out to the event with my officers as planned because I knew this was going to be worthwhile conversation and teambuilding. We had great food and drinks shared over conversation that delved in to the core of what we needed to focus on at work (rebalancing the goal of legacy and future cyber squadron responsibilities, while focusing on rewarding measured accomplishments), and even earned the high score for the week in accomplishing the escape room challenge! All of us wanted to offer the same experience to the unit and made some inroads with the management to arrange future events for our teammates. On the way home, I even stopped at a local bakery to buy some sweets for my family (since they were actually at work/school the whole day, hahaha!). All in all, the time I spent away from the office was worthwhile over the seemingly urgent fires that needed to be put out. When I returned to the office the next day, no follow-ups were requested to my inputs and everything continued to run smoothly, thanks to the leadership of our enlisted and civilian teammates.
Lesson learned: energy and time spent on worthwhile events can have much longer-lasting positive effects on your team if you prioritize them over tasks that have the label of urgency thinly veiled over them.