The Key To Leadership: Priorities


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Do you have plenty of time to do all that you want and need to do in a day? I’m guessing the answer is no. I have yet to meet any busy leaders who feel they have more than enough time to do all they want.

In lesson one I mentioned that at age forty, I realized I alone couldn’t work any harder or any longer, so I started investing in people. But I also realized that I needed to improve the way I managed myself and my time.

People used to talk a lot about time management, but the reality is that you can’t manage time. Managing something means controlling it, changing it.

When it comes to time, there is nothing to manage. Everybody gets twenty-four hours in a day. We can’t add another hour or subtract one. We can’t slow it down or speed it up. Time is what it is.

Coach and speaker Jamie Cornell wrote, “Time cannot and will not be managed, and you will never get more of it. The problem is rooted in the choices you are making with others and your own choices.

You choose how to use it every moment of every day, whether you believe you do or not.” For anyone who leads, the question is not, “Will my calendar be full?” but  “Who and what will fill my calendar?”

When I feel that I don’t have enough time, I need to examine myself my choices, my calendar, my priorities. These are the things we can control, not time. We need to determine how we will spend the twenty-four hours we have every day.

That requires us to prioritize our time so we get more production out of those hours. That’s especially true for leaders because our actions impact so many other people.

That’s why I want to help you identify what you ought to want as a leader not according to my priorities but according to yours.

And I want to help you follow through on those priorities effectively to enhance your life and improve your leadership. 



Someone once said, “An infant is born with a clenched fist; an adult dies with an open hand. Life has a way of prying free the things we think are so important.” If you want to develop the leader within you, don’t wait for tragedy to realign your priorities. Become proactive about the process starting today. Begin by acknowledging the following principles:



1. Working Smarter Has A Higher Return Than Working Harder


Novelist Franz Kafka said, “Productivity is being able to do things that you were never able to do before.” How do you make that happen? Doing the exact same things with greater intensity rarely works. As Albert Einstein allegedly pointed out, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. 

Disciplined Use Of The Time Everybody Else Wastes Can Give You The Edge. (Dan Kennedy) So how do you get better results? You have to rethink how you do something. You have to work smarter. 

That means finding better ways to work and making the most of the moments you have. Marketing expert Dan Kennedy says, “Disciplined use of the time everybody else wastes can give you the edge.” What leader doesn’t want that?



2. You Can’t Have It All 

When my son, Joel, was a young child, every time we entered a store, I would have to tell him, “You can’t have it all.” Like many people, he had a hard time narrowing his want list.   

But I believe that 95 percent of achieving anything is knowing what you want. That’s especially important for someone who is leading others.  

Years ago, I read a story about a group of people who were preparing for an ascent to the top of Mont Blanc in the French Alps. 

The evening before the climb, their French guide explained the main prerequisite for success.   

He said, “To reach the top, you must carry only what’s necessary for climbing. You must leave behind all else. It’s a very difficult climb.” 

A young Englishman disregarded the expert’s advice, and the next morning he showed up with a bunch of items in addition to his equipment: a brightly colored blanket, large pieces of cheese, a bottle of wine, a couple of cameras with several lenses, and some bars of chocolate.  

“You’ll never make it with all that,” said the guide. “You can only take the bare necessities to make the climb.” But the Englishman was young and strong-willed. 

He set off on his own in front of the group to prove that he could do it. On the way up to the summit of Mont Blanc, the rest of the group, carrying only the necessities under the guide’s direction, began to notice items along their path: first, there was a brightly colored blanket. 

Then a bottle of wine and some pieces of cheese. Camera equipment. And finally, chocolate bars. When they reached the top, there was the Englishman. Wisely, he had jettisoned everything unnecessary along the way and had made the summit.


Many years ago, I read a poem by William H. Hinson that communicates a great lesson about priorities:


He who seeks one thing, and but one,

May hope to achieve it before life is done.

But he who seeks all things wherever he goes

Must reap around him in whatever he sows

A harvest of barren regret.                                           


If you want to be successful as a person and as a leader, you must make choices. You must prioritize. You cannot have it all. No one can. 


3. The Good Is Always The Enemy Of The Best

Most people can prioritize between the good and the bad or between right and wrong. The real challenge arises when they are faced with two good choices. Which should they choose? 

An excellent illustration of this can be found in a parable of a lighthouse keeper who worked on a rocky stretch of coastline before the days of electricity. Once a month he received a supply of oil to keep the light burning.

Not being far from town, he often had visitors. One night an old woman from the village begged for some oil to keep her family warm. He had pity on her and gave her oil. 

Another time a father asked for some oil for his lamp so that he could search for his missing son. Another person needed some oil to keep machinery going so that he and his employees could keep working. 

Each request was good, and each time, the lighthouse keeper gave them oil for their worthy cause. Toward the end of the month, he noticed the supply of oil was very low. 

By the last night of the month, it was gone, and the beacon went out. That night in a storm, a ship wrecked on the rocks and lives were lost. When the authorities investigated, the man was very repentant.  

But there was only one reply: “You were given oil for one purpose to keep that light burning!” As you become more successful and busier, you must learn to navigate the choice between two good things.  

You can’t always have both. How do you choose? Remember that the good must sometimes be sacrificed for the best.


4. Proactive Beats Reactive 

Every person is either an initiator or a reactor when it comes to planning. In my opinion, you can choose or you can lose. Proactive means choosing. Reactive means losing. The question isn’t “Will I have things to do?” but “Will I do things that make a difference?” To be an effective leader, you need to be proactive. 

You Can Choose Or You Can Lose. Proactive Means Choosing. Reactive Means Losing. If you have any doubt about how initiating versus reacting impacts your productivity, just think about the week before you go on vacation. It’s probably your most productive and efficient time at work. 

Why? Because you have clear priorities and a hard deadline. Before leaving the office for vacation, we need to make decisions, finish projects, clean off the desk, return calls, and close the loop with colleagues. 

 Why can’t we always run our lives that way? Actually, we can, but it requires a change in mind-set. Instead of focusing on efficiency, which is a survival mind-set, we need to think about effectiveness, which is a success mindset.

Instead of focusing on doing things right, we need to focus on doing only the right things. We need to become fervently and continuously proactive.


5. The Important Needs To Take Precedence Over The Urgent

The more responsibility you carry as a leader, the more you have on your plate.The ability to juggle multiple high-priority projects successfully is something every successful leader must learn how to do.

As the list of tasks grows, you can agonize or organize. I’d rather organize. Here is a simple but effective way to classify tasks that can help you quickly prioritize them in any given moment.

The goal is to determine how important the task is and how urgent it is. Ineffective leaders jump on the urgent tasks without thinking. Effective leaders weigh both factors for each task and act accordingly. Here’s how:

  • High Importance/High Urgency: Tackle these tasks first.
  • High Importance/Low Urgency: Set deadlines for completion and fit these tasks into your daily routine. 
  • Low Importance/High Urgency: Find quick, efficient ways to get these tasks done with minimal personal involvement and time. If possible, delegate them. 
  • Low Importance/Low Urgency: If these tasks can be eliminated, then get rid of them. If they can be delegated, then find someone to do them. If you must do them, then schedule a one-hour block every week to chip away at them, but never schedule them during your prime time.


It doesn’t take much time or effort to review your to-do list every morning and evaluate each task using the importance/urgency criteria. And it’s an effective way to help you prioritize, put things into order quickly, and plan your day.

Having a strategy for evaluating your daily to-do list by priority is invaluable. After all, a life in which anything goes will ultimately be a life in which nothing goes well.

But if you have no solutions for determining priorities other than that, you will still be too reactive instead of proactive as a leader. So I want to give you some tools that will help you with priorities in the bigger picture.



John C. Maxwell, 10 Lesson Developing The Leader Within You, pg. 40-47


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