Column: Your preference and your priority

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Commentary by Dan Miller

You prefer to do one thing. Your priority, however, can make you do something else.

It’s a tough spot to be in; you feel as if you can’t truly win no matter which way you go. Nevertheless, such moments can come to you as a leader and it might help you to know a little more about how another leader coped with this situation.

In January 1861 William Sherman savored success. For the past two years he’d served as first superintendent of a new military school in Alexandria, Louisiana. In 2016, we’d call him the leader of an educational start-up. He loved designing curriculum, establishing school policies, collaborating with teachers or professors, and being with students. He relished the experience of evening parties, dinners, and special events.

The looming Civil War in early 1861 smashed into Sherman’s world. He cherished the idea of an American nation. He saw a real chance that the 34-state union might come apart permanently. Sherman would fight to preserve and protect the United States. He predicted a Union victory because of northern factories, production, and population.

That was his dilemma—the clash between his preference to stay at the Alexandria school and his priority of maintaining the cohesion of the American union.

After agonizing over his decision, Sherman left the school and joined the US Army to fight against southern rebels. Within three years his name would be forever linked to the phrase “war is hell” and the harsh theory that the fastest way to end war is to wage it without mercy.

Sherman’s experience in early 1861 can help you as a leader. He split his outlook into two parts: his work’s emotional fulfillment and his identification of the duty at the core of his work’s purpose. He also believed that a threat had emerged, a potentially destructive force capable of fundamentally changing the environment where he now worked. He suspended personal happiness. Sherman coupled that suspension with confidence in a a clear-eyed outcome.

As great events form, a pressure can divide preferences and priorities. You the leader may need to choose one over the other and to know which is which.


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