When setting priorities for themselves and their team, leaders might find it challenging to differentiate between what is urgent and what is important. In Episode #44 of our Executive Leadership Podcast, we explore how leaders can uncover those “big rocks” by rising above the noise of the urgent.

To learn more about setting priorities as a leader, consider bringing a 5 Levels of Leadership Workshop to your organization this year.

Read the transcript below:

Welcome to the John Maxwell Executive Leadership podcast where our goal is to help you increase your reputation as a leader, your ability to influence others, and increase your ability to fully engage your team to deliver remarkable results. Hi, I’m Perry Holley, a John Maxwell facilitator and coach, and I’m Chris Goede, Vice President with the John Maxwell Company. Welcome and thank you for joining us. Today’s topic is titled, “Rising Above the Noise of the Urgent: Establishing Priorities”.

I know this is an important topic for myself and for a lot of leaders out there who are really going to strive to establish and communicate our priorities. It’s a challenge for me. I’m grateful that you drafted this content. We’re going to talk a little bit about it today. That was probably where I struggle personally. I struggle the most in that, how to lead yourself. It’s so easy to make the problem worse by not communicating to the team what your clear priorities are. I need to know my priorities but also communicate them to the team. And there’s a myth about how being busy equals being productive.

I think for leaders, prioritizing, constantly reflecting on those priorities, thinking ahead, tracking how everything feeds into the vision you have. It requires leaders that are willing to work hard and make these tough decisions. In the 5 Levels we talk about Level 3 being the production level, we talk a lot about this being where your credibility is built and ultimately it really falls down to how you handle your priorities. And I’d be remiss if we didn’t start by talking about the law of priorities. John talks about it in the 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. And there, he states that leaders understand that activity is not necessarily accomplishment. I don’t like that statement because I like to make a checklist on my yellow pad of paper, and I like to put lines through the tasks. I was like, oh, that hurts a little bit.

A couple of thoughts here though: leaders will never advance. And again, we define leadership as influence and so you don’t have to have a title to be a leader. And so if you think about this, all of us never really advanced to a point where we no longer need to prioritize. We will always have to prioritize no matter what role we’re serving in, no matter who we’re influencing and what that looks like. And then I think the other thing that’s really key about prioritizing is, as we begin thinking about that, it forces us to always be thinking ahead. Now we could probably do a whole lesson on the word thinking. I just thought about that, right? We probably don’t do enough thinking. But let’s dive in here.

So how can we help our listeners in this important area of leadership? Why can’t I let it go by? You said you got your checklist. Sometimes I look at the next thing on the list and go, yeah, that’s too hard, but let’s see what else we got on the list that I can get that one off. It’s really not a priority. It’s just busy work if something needs to be done.

I really ask three questions to make sure I, and especially my team, that we are focused on the right things. Number one is simple, but what exactly am I trying to accomplish? Number two, why exactly am I or why are we the team trying to accomplish it? And then three, how will we get from where we are to where we need to be? And I find that if I can clearly answer the three questions for me or for the team, I can begin to uncover these big rocks that I need to focus on.

You know, when you say the word big rocks the first thing I think about is the Stephen Covey situation. I also think then, obviously, about the illustration that a lot of people use, where you’ve seen them take the cylinder. And they go through and they say, now is there enough room? Is there still room in there? And they worked their way through. And so what I think we really need to be asking ourselves at this point is, we need to understand that we have got to prioritize the big rocks because the big rocks for us as leaders are the things that will define your leadership and are critical to the organizational health, and so we have to make sure that we’re very aware of that.

You talked about how you look at your list and you go down, and you’re like, yeah, that’s too hard. What we’ve got to do is we’ve got to make sure that our big rocks, the ones that we’re going to attack, or the cylinder, we knock out first in our day, right? In maybe the first 90 minutes, maybe the first job, whatever your day looks like, whenever it starts, that’s irrelevant. But I think you really have to make sure that you attack that and accomplish them first. I wrote down the statement, do not let pebbles and sand overshadow your big rocks. What you don’t want to do is those things that you check off really quickly, very easily overshadowing the big things that you need to be accomplishing for your leadership.

It’s critical to the organizational health and success. You know, one of the organizations I did some work for asked me to do a video recording of the big rocks first. And so I did. They called back. They said, dude, do you take questions? I said, Oh, is there a question? I’ll go ahead and take the question. And the number one question was, how do you determine the big rocks? We love your message, we love the lesson, but how do you determine the big rocks?

I kind of thought that was obvious. It’s your most important priorities. But I thought it was a real eye opener for me as a leader myself to say, I’m maybe just kidding myself to think that the people around me know what the big rocks are. That’s why we have those three questions and then it led me to the next thing that really jumped out at me, the idea of urgent versus important. It’s another thing that Stephen Covey taught, and I wonder if you could dive into how you see the urgent versus the important matrix.

This is so true. You’ve seen the Eisenhower method, right? And you got the four quadrants and you break it down into the four quadrants. And it’s so true, even in my life and what I do as a leader and what I see some other leaders doing is that we sometimes make decisions. We sometimes attack things in the wrong boxes at the wrong time.

And we could talk about the law of timing, but today when we talk about it from in the Eisenhower method, what you need to understand is what is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important. I’m going to say it again. This is a quote by Dwight Eisenhower, and I think it’s really important because I have a natural tendency as a leader to get this mixed up. What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.

And so what we’ve got to do is, we’ve got to make sure that we are not making, we are not focusing on the urgent and telling ourselves that they’re important, because as a leader inside the organization, the things that are important, the things that are long-term, the strategy, vision casting are definitely things that deserve our attention. Those are the big rocks and what we need to focus on.

That’s exactly how I came about naming this podcast. The urgent things have a funny way of sounding important. And if I am not really clear on my priorities and where I’m going, I could be a really pulled in and there are some urgent things that are urgent, and I need to handle those. There are always going to be quadrant one things, but I think we push a lot of things into quadrant one that sounding loud. I want to really focus on important things.

I learned another great question to ask that I heard this from a friend of John’s, Kevin Cruz. He said, the first question I ask is, what is the highest value of my time right now? And someone said, I don’t know the answer to that. He said, well, then there you have it, the problem is if you can’t answer the question, what’s the highest value of my time right now, you probably aren’t really clear on your priorities.

Yeah. And if you’re not clear on them, then you’re going to allow a lot of things to get in the way. So, let’s talk a little bit about some of the things that get in the way of our priorities.  Today, obviously, number one I think about is just social media, right? I mean, if we’re being honest, is it a Twitter, is it an Instagram? Maybe for some it’s Facebook, whatever it might be. I think that if you don’t have your priorities right and you’re not focused on them, there are little things that that will obviously get in the way. I think you have to have clearly defined objectives, what you’re trying to attack, even down to the fact that maybe you have that Eisenhower box and every day you just fill it out.

And what is it you need to decide to do later? What do you need to delegate and then what do you not need to do? What do you need to delete? I have a tendency to use Twitter. It’s my social media outlet and where I can communicate and just watch what’s going on, more than anything else. Here at the John Maxwell Company, we were actually going through and doing some personal growth and intentional leadership plans here, internally, and we had a little challenge. And we said, hey, let’s talk about, as you’re shifting your mindset back to John’s latest book, Leadership, what are some things that you need to change the way that you’re structuring your day or what do you need to be held accountable for? Part of my plan was just turning my brain off of social media at night.

How do I begin to do that? It’s hard. Like I said, it’s perfect, but it’s been hard.  So, what we need to make sure is that the things that distract from our priorities are not others’ priorities. I feel like I need to, at times, help. I want to be a problem solver for the organization and for my team and for other leaders. But what I need to make sure of is that I am not allowing others’ priorities to become my priorities. Because then I become almost a response unit versus me being more of the proactive, strategic leader, asking, hey, what are my big rocks? And all of a sudden at the end of the day, maybe the sand and the pebbles are getting thrown in before the big rocks because I’m helping other people solve their priorities.

Yeah, that’s a great point about are you being pulled away from the things you should focus on because of someone else’s urgencies. Like you said, there are times you want to be responsive. You want to be a helper, you want to help others move forward. You need to clear on your priorities, and we have an entire podcast on boundaries to say, while I know it’s important to help in my neighbor’s yard from time to time, I better make sure of what’s in my yard or my wife’s going to have something to say about it. But there’s a time for that.

I think one that I came up with that, it might sound funny, but it’s perfectionism and I just noticed it in me sometimes. If it’s not perfect, I don’t start. If the conditions aren’t right, the environment’s not right, whatever, I wait. I think John teaches a little bit about if it’s 80% there, go. Perfectionism can really get in the way. It promotes procrastination, I believe.

What do they say? And the only reason I know this off the top of my head is cause I’m the same way. Paralysis by analysis. And John talks about the fact that leaders create momentum. And here’s how you get momentum by starting to move, right? It doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have to be right. You just have got to create movement. Once you begin to create movement, you’ll get momentum to happen. And so, you and I are just speaking from our personal struggles with priorities, right? And when it comes to it, hey, sometimes we don’t want to do it. We don’t want to attack it because it is not perfect. And that all that does is kind of create a stagnant area we don’t attack the big rocks.

The other thing I think you need to be asking yourself, and there are a couple of questions in this area, Who can you delegate it to? Who on your team can help you with x if it’s not a big rock? So instead of you naturally going into it, what is it or, or who is it that can help you? Who can partner with it? If I go back to that, and we’ve said this before in one of our podcasts, John says, if someone else on your team can do it as 80% as good as you can, give it to them. Let them do that because there’s lots of good things that are going to come from that. Not only are you going to be able to focus on bigger rocks, bigger priorities, but also you’re going to begin to empower some of your team. You’re going to begin a natural coaching relationship because they know that, and then what’s going to happen is probably whatever you are doing that they could do 80% good as you can, they’re going to probably do it better than you and the organization’s going to get a benefit.

And again, and I’ll just add to that, that is a great to delegate. One of the questions I was doing a lot of reading on this was, are you the kind of leader that delegates quadrant three? Let’s remind us, that’s urgent but not important. Let’s say you throw a quadrant three challenge at your team. I’ve been at my desk many a day where I’m being productive, I’m focused on a key priority, and the phone rings or the email flies in as the boss throws something at me that seems hot but is really not important. But then I thought, do I do that? Am I throwing people into quadrant three, not meaning to? I probably do that.

So as we wrap up here, I wrote things down as we were going through this and there are some things I just want to summarize and share with you some of my thoughts here.  Most leaders spend a lot of their time managing situations or crisis, right? Like this one I was just talking about, don’t let others’ priorities become your priorities. Make sure that you are really guarded to reacting to others’ priorities.

Now, to your point, you’re going to get a phone call, an email from your leader, maybe you call him a boss, right? And it’s going to be urgent. You’re going to attack it. But really have this mindset of can I really focus on making sure that I’m not managing other situations or crisis, and becoming reactive to that. Make sure that  if we do this right from a priority standpoint, you’ll have more time to think about long-term strategic planning and productivity for your team. What does that look like if you’re doing it right?

And then I wrote down this statement, our choices separate the most productive people from everyone else. So while you and I were kind of giggling about the fact that we like to kind of check off that list, there are other people out there, there are other leaders out there that are attacking those big rocks first.

And I think that’s a big separation when it comes to productivity. Just take some of these thoughts. Think back through your day. How are you prioritizing? And just remember, don’t let your legacy be full of pebbles and sand versus bigger rocks. If you’d like to learn more about the 5 Levels of Leadership or perhaps even have a 5 Levels workshop at your organization, please go to JohnMaxwellCompany.com/podcast and leave a comment for us. There are questions we’d love to hear from you. We’re always grateful for you joining us. That’s it for today from the John Maxwell Executive Leadership podcast.