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Aligning (the Boss' s) Priorities

PATRICK AFB, Fla. -- I've twice had the honor to hear retired Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik, formerly a top commander in Iraq, explain how he aligned priorities from the 4-star down to the E-1, and how each level plays a vital role. This is an amateurish attempt to emulate his words, sans PowerPoint, so grab a scrap of paper and pencil and follow along.

Draw an org chart with five circles connected in a vertical line. The top circle is the wing commander (the boss), then the group, squadron, flight, and worker bee.

Draw a dozen more lines and circles radiating from the top. These depict the boss's 4-star boss, 3-star boss, a few more formal bosses, and couple more who think they're his boss.

All affect the boss's priorities -- his "commander's intent" in Army speak. Leadership and strategic direction are complicated at the top. Fortunately, we at the base level generally have only one boss, and fewer worries.

Now draw a set of cat whiskers out of each of the original five circles. The cat whiskers represent military, civilian, and non-government peers, from any Service, agency, or corporation -- people you work with to accomplish the mission. Cat whiskers are not in your chain of command, so relationships are important to get the job done.

Every level in your chain has a corresponding whisker. For example, the boss's whisker connects to a senior executive. The group and squadron whiskers connect to mid-level managers in that same company.

The junior officer and enlisted whiskers connect to persons who turn wrenches, lean on shovels, or schedule aircraft.

If you've deduced that all the work gets done at the bottom, give yourself an A.

The boss works his priorities over dozens of whiskers. Each level of the chain should work their whisker the same as the boss, and when that happens the boss's priorities are aligned. Simple. Right? It is not.

Leadership must continually communicate priorities, and subordinate commanders must work up, down, and sideways to implement the commander's intent. To paraphrase a quote from Lt. Gen. Dubik: "how well you work the cat whiskers will determine mission success, and your career success."