The Law of Priorities

Leaders understand that activity is not necessarily accomplishment.  — John C. Maxwell
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Reflections on John C. Maxwell’s “21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership”

The definition of priority used to be “the very first thing.” Therefore, to have several things at the top of your list is not realistic. You can only put enough focus into one task at a time, or else the two competing priorities at the top of that list will suffer. It’s like stretching yourself in two. You are unable to give your whole self to each objective. Your brain switches from task to task and leaves both priorities in ruins.

Instead, it would be best to embrace the fact that your brain is not a computer chip. Yet, even computers have priorities. They choose which program gets the most energy. They are just faster at it than you.

Realistically, there cannot be multiple “first things.” If you want to get things accomplished as a leader, you need to prioritize effectively.


The Law of priority is on display in the film, “Greyhound.” Tom Hanks plays a captain of a supply ship being attacked by Nazi u-boats during WWII in what was known as the battle of the Atlantic. During the long fight between Greyhound and these four submarines, the ship’s chef is trying to feed the Captain. He prepares him several meals that Hanks offers up to his crew and chugs down the coffee instead. This simple act of repeatedly pushing away his meal tells you something about his leadership characteristic. His priority was not on himself; it was on his men.

Every time the film slows down, food enters on screen. Each time the Captain sees the meal, a higher priority task reveals itself. Hanks is either called into battle, named to honor his fallen men, or called to communicate with his other ships. At his first crossing of the “Black Pit,” he sank four ships without a bite of food. Instead of feeding his body, he fed his soul through prayer, which he knew was the more important task to focus his energy on to keep his men alive.

Maxwell’s Process of Analyzing Priorities

  1. Requirement — When presented with a task, ask what is required of you to complete it. How much energy would you need to exhaust? How much time will it take? What is the ultimate sacrifice on your part to achieve the goal? What is required to give up for this task to succeed? Can this task be delegated?
  2. Return — Ask yourself, what gives the highest return for completing this task? Does this task support the bigger purpose? Leaders make priorities out of objectives because they are comfortable. Assignments with the best return force you to get out of the comfort zone and stay in strength zone.
  3. Reward — What brings the greatest reward? Find out what the payoff is for completing the task. If the only payoff you receive is to check something off your to-do list, it is probably not a priority.
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