Setting Clear Priorities

  • Published
  • By Brig. Gen. Darryl W. Burke
  • 82nd Training Wing commander
On July 4, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz published the 2010 CSAF Vector, laying out the priorities he and Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley have set for the next few years. They are:

1. Continue to Strengthen the Air Force Nuclear Enterprise
2. Partner with the Joint and Coalition Team to Win Today's Fight
3. Develop and Care for Airmen and their Families
4. Modernize our Air and Space Inventories, Organizations and Training
5. Recapture Acquisition Excellence

If you haven't already, I encourage you to read the CSAF Vector at As members of the Air Force's largest technical training team, we have an important stake and role in achieving these priorities.

The chief's message is not just an explanation of where we're going as an Air Force--it's also an exercise in leadership. One of a leader's core responsibilities is to set clear priorities, and the chief provides an excellent example of how to do this.

General Schwartz didn't simply send out a list of priorities. Instead, he provided a picture of where we are right now and how we got here--including a summary of some of the key accomplishments we have made over the past few years. He then explained each priority, why it's important and what he expects us--military and civilian Airmen--to do.

There's a lot we can learn by looking at how the chief framed his priorities.

He started by summarizing the current situation. In the day-to-day grind, our field of vision tends to narrow down to the issues we're dealing with. Explaining where the organization is right now and how it got there helps us see the big picture.

After stating each priority, General Schwartz recognized the great things people had already done to achieve that goal. Recognizing past achievements as you set new priorities or refine old ones is vital; otherwise, people may become discouraged or feel their past efforts are unappreciated.

The chief then lists the five priorities one by one. Notice that they are simple, clear and easily understandable--five straightforward lines set the priorities for an organization as large and complex as the Air Force.

General Schwartz explains each priority, why it's important and what he needs us to do. Air Force people are an intelligent group; they are not easily fooled by platitudes or the clever turn of a phrase. But they are also determined and innovative--explain why something matters and what needs to get done and they will find a way to make it happen, no matter what the obstacles.

The CSAF's Vector provides an excellent example of how to set clear priorities. But it's also important to understand what not to do.

One common mistake leaders make is failing to use their own priorities as a leadership tool. There is no point in setting priorities if you don't use them to make decisions about how to use time, money and other resources.

Another tendency is to let priorities change as circumstances change. It's an easy trap to fall into--we live in a fast-paced, constantly changing environment, and we all have stakeholders with competing interests. But we can't allow the day-to-day challenges we face to compromise our long-term priorities.

The leader's job is to sift through the noise and focus on what's most important, or we will confuse and frustrate the people we lead. We've all had the experience of working in a "crisis of the day" environment--don't do that to your people.

It's also a mistake to make everything a priority. Leaders, by nature, tend to want to succeed at everything all the time, but the fact is that we simply can't do everything--or at least we can't do it by close of business tomorrow. If everything is a priority, then nothing is.

Probably the worst mistake leaders make is to fail to set any priorities at all. Without clear priorities, the organization will not move forward. Today's job will probably still get done because the military and civilian Airmen we lead will simply not accept failure. But tomorrow's opportunity will be lost because leadership failed to prepare for it.

Setting clear priorities is a fundamental leadership responsibility. Once I've completed my "immersion tour" and gotten a vector from my leaders at 2nd Air Force and Air Education and Training Command, I will lay out my priorities for the 82nd Training Wing.

In the meantime, I'm interested in your ideas. You can provide feedback using your chain of command, or by simply using the comment feature on the public web site. We're also launching a new channel this, a senior leader blog that allows readers to comment and engage in a two-way conversation on issues important to our success as a wing. Check it out and get involved.