Balancing Conflicting Priorities

It was November of 1979, and I was a freshmen quarterback on a pretty solid team.  From what I recall, I don’t think we lost but once or twice from 6th grade through 9th grade.  Now I wasn’t the best player by any means on that team.  We had some outstanding athletes on both offense and defense.  I just got the ball to them and enjoyed the success!

There was one special afternoon at the end of our season that I still remember today.  The 8th grade team had an additional game at the end of the season added to their schedule, and our Jr. High coach asked if I was interested in coaching them for that game.  He and the other coaches would still be there, but I would be in charge and call all the plays on offense.  Another player would handle the defensive calls.  Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity.  I think everyone knew I wanted to be a coach at that time, and this opportunity was a great one.  I would also find out it was one huge challenge of battling conflicting priorities.

Needless to say, coaching guys one year younger could be a challenge.  That issue was fairly manageable as I evidently had some credibility with that team.  The real issue was balancing my desire to play everyone in the game and still try to win.  We had some guys on that team that worked hard in practice all year long, but rarely got to play. These guys just lacked the talent to compete against the best players for the other teams.

So there was the dilemma as the game went on.  Things happen so much faster when you are actually on the side lines making decisions, calling plays, and subbing players.  I had a huge desire to win and to show others that I was capable of coaching at even a higher level of competition.  I also wanted to get these guys in the game.  The “real” head coach had even commented to me that this additional game should be a chance to get everyone some playing time. 

As leaders, we will all face conflicting priorities at times, and the consequences will likely be much more important than an 8th grader getting to see the field during a game!  The issues could be extreme and could be very impactful to the people you lead or those that supervise you!  I don’t have the “silver bullet” that will guide you through every one of these situations, but I will share some thoughts that I hope will be helpful in these type situations.

  1. Know your purpose and convictions.  Let those factors that are defined beforehand be your guide here.  Don’t let emotion take over.  You lead from conviction and not emotion.
  2. Take some time to understand the source(s) of what may appear to be conflicting priorities.  Can you address one or both of the issues to create some common ground to eliminate the conflict or at least lessen the significance of the conflict?
  3. Always make short term decisions with long term interests in mind.  You have to survive the short term crisis, but never forget you are in it for the long term. 
  4. You may have a strong preference with one of the apparent conflicting priorities, but you may be caught in the middle of various schools of thought with those superior to you in your organization.  Those are tough situations.  My advice here is to make small moves, communicate concerns, stay close to the situation, and let time be your ally.  Generally time and continued communication helps ease the tension of conflicting priorities.
  5. Always look for common ground.  Build on common ground where you can and stay focused on what’s important.  Don’t let the conflict distract you from leading well. 

By the way, we lost the game that day.  We did get everyone some playing time, and I gained some perspective.  8th grade football games are important to 8th grades in the moment; however, no one remembers, other than me, who won that game.  I do hope it made a difference to some young men that day getting on the field!  

One lessen it has taken me a long time to learn is that long term focus should always direct our short term decisions.   I have to keep asking myself if I am doing the right thing today to ensure the right results long term!  A similar question applies to all of us leading others – Are we doing the right things today to ensure the best outcome for the organization and our people long term?

For a copy of the book “Leadership Basics for Success” see: and search for the title.  I wrote this short book several years ago to be used in supervisor development.

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