Prioritizing through Tragedy, War, Conflict and Peace

By Unknown U.S. Army photographer, Wikimedia CC

How do leaders make sense of things, especially difficult, urgent, strategic things that may include shock, pain, tragedy, as well as stress and churn? There are many lessons learned about continuously verifying and updating our information, our data, and the need to clarify, test and refocus on our organization’s purpose. The 2021 update of this is seen in the passing of former Secretary of State and General Colin Powell and his lessons learned involving the data he trusted leading to decisions on the Iraq War.

Every moment offers a choice. As we experience national level stress, it’s helpful to consider that smart, adaptive planning, through complexity, is essential to leadership, in tough times. What helps is to focus on the important while managing the urgent? When I wrote this post originally, the United States was dealing with the aftermath of a mass homicide in Las Vegas, multiple hurricanes, floods and fire. The federal government was involved in various tweet-storms and social media concerning disaster relief, tax reform, immigration, police actions, election influence, racism, healthcare, the NFL, and once again, gun control. A 10 session series on Vietnam was airing on TV highlighting the experiences of many veterans and revealing information held back from military leaders and the public.

In light of these events, Antoine Fuqua, an American film director highlighted the gray zone complexity of fighting urban crime in his Oscar-winning film, Training Day. About Vietnam, he brings the past and the present together:

We talk about how hard it is now. But if we look back at the ’60s, we actually had a president that was assassinated. We had riots, we had Vietnam, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, the FBI, and the Black Panther war.

There was so much happening at the time where it felt like America was coming apart at the seams.

~ Antoine Fuqua, American film director and producer

Data, Purpose, Plan, Evaluate forms the acronym DPPE. This post features Planning, third element of DPPE sharing several tools and lessons learned from adaptive planning successes from my work with senior leaders in my projects, and in life.

A first planning element is prioritization transcending politics and time:

Focus on the important, manage the urgent

Joe Loong, Flickr-CC

Citizen Emergency Response Teams (CERT) and emergency professionals are trained to do triage on the scene during incidents involving mass violence or tragedy. It is all about helping or saving as many as you can, as fast as you can. Leaders, however, are interviewed, selected, or voted in for the long haul, for strategy, to effect change long term, over the life of the organization.

For longer term change and adaptation, legendary leader and extraordinary planner, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” It follows, then, that top leader have a primary role to inspire and empower belief around a single mission, a clear purpose, and the planning that follows it. Consultant Stephanie S. Mead says that “Strategic leaders must not get consumed by the operational and tactical side of their work. They have a duty to find time to shape the future.” This INCLUDES, but is not limited to functioning as a leader in crisis, guided by principles and values. Questions I’ve asked, or implied as I have worked with leaders in pressured situations as well as for the long haul are are, “What’s important now? Are you making progress with your goals? Are your goals still the right goals?”

Image: JP Kantor Consulting

President Eisenhower had a friend in former Northwestern University president J. Roscoe Miller who created a priority grid popularized by author Stephen Covey. The tool, which I’ve shared with many coaching clients, was used by Eisenhower to make decisions as a strategic leader. He kept #2 as his ongoing focus while managing the disruptive and the urgent, using new data as it became available to adjust his approach. Consultant Julie Kantor describes,

Moving from Super-Doer to leader requires reflection of the future, strategic planning, and changing what you consider important. And in Eisenhower Box terms, it means spending time in Quadrant 2. … it is necessary to let go and delegate many items in Quadrant 1.

As Kantor mentions and I’ve seen, it is RARE for important tasks (the strategic) to also be urgent. She adds that, “Focusing on an important task garners responsiveness. This keeps a person calm, collective, and inventive.” The distinction helps leaders avoid setting themselves up to continually be in CERT “firefighting” mode blending the urgent with the important, a losing proposition.

When conflicts, tragedies and wars are reviewed, in hindsight, sometimes lives are lost unnecessarily when as we lose sight of our purpose and what’s important. The Vietnam series raises this question again and again. Past ways of doing things do not necessarily apply, as military leaders have shared comparing WWII to the completely different wars in each of Vietnam, Iraq and in Afghanistan. Leaders who adjust to volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous situations (VUCA) create legacies in the people they help lead, as well as for themselves.

As mentioned in earlier posts on this blog, the term VUCA is today’s reality. It originated from the military and started to be applied to business leadership by respected futurist Bob Johansen in 2012. VUCA was coined at the US Army War College, the graduate school for generals-to-be in Pennsylvania. Johansen happened to be there the week before the 9/11 disaster on a business exchange with military leaders. Though the College is known for being the most conservative, slowest-moving, and hierarchical of the military graduate schools, after 9/11, they informally changed their name to VUCA University. In what way will we adjust to today’s realities?

Next post will continue the planning series, focusing on “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”

Find out more, contact Deb at

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Published by dnrevel

Change & transition, Leadership team & organization development. Executive Leadership team coach. My LinkedIn profile:

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