#172 – Three “Priority” Problems (and Some Solutions)

ESSENCE:  Understanding the challenge of leading faithfully through business a better way and the existential threat of AI both require understanding “priorities”. Implementing business a better way in an organization requires recognizing the nature of priorities as well as common “priority problems”, assessing the real “priorities” in an organizational culture, identifying and implementing priorities that align with business in accordance with the Kingdom of God, and ordering those priorities to align with Biblical priorities.  Ordering the “real” priorities of an organization to align with Biblical priorities while operating in a broken world is not easy, and there are no easy or perfect solutions.  But there are ways for a faithful leader to identify, order and balance priorities in a way that honors Biblical beliefs, principles and priorities.  It requires humility, trust, patience and prayer.

Priorities! Priorities! Priorities!  We use them to order our lives.  We have talked quite a bit in our posts about some of the “priority” challenges encountered by faithful leaders and thought it would be useful to tie some of those ideas together.

This topic was prompted by the PERSONAL NOTE in post #171 about the existential threat of Artificial Intelligence, which seems to come down to a “priority problem”.

The Nature and Importance of Priorities

Priorities come down to choices, and we believe the first choice for every faithful leader seeking to lead faithfully is whether they will choose business in accordance with the “way” of the world–business a usual–or business in accordance Biblical beliefs, principles and priorities–what we call business a better way.  That was the subject of post #157 (The Choice).

Unfortunately, it is not as simple as “choosing” business a better way, because implementing business a better way in an organization requires understanding the nature of priorities as well as common “priority problems”, assessing the real “priorities” in an organizational culture, identifying and implementing priorities that align with business in accordance with the Kingdom of God, and ordering those priorities to align with Biblical priorities.

The word “priority” has an interesting history.  In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown observes:

The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years.

Similarly, the Bible suggests that there can be only one “priority”.  In Matthew 6:24, we are told “no one can serve two masters.”

Notwithstanding the historical root of the word and the Biblical warning, today we often talk about having numerous priorities–plural priorities.  “Plural priorities” is a reality of how we use the word “priority” today, how we think about our lives, and how we think about leading an organization.  We believe “priority problems” arise from how we think about, rank and order our plural priorities.

Priority Problems

Priority problems underlie business as usual and the brokenness caused by business a usual.  (They are also at the root of many of the trials, fears, mistakes and missed opportunities we face in our personal lives).

We will explore three types of priority problems:

• The Equal Priorities Problem

• The Real Priorities Problem

• The Disordered Priorities Problem

The Equal Priorities Problem.

The Equal Priorities Problem occurs when a faithful leader forgets (or doesn’t know) the limitation identified in Matthew 6:24. While an organization (or a person) can have “plural” priorities, it can’t have equal priorities.  The nature of something having priority is that it is prior to every other “priority” other than any priority that ranks even higher.

What about a business that says “We have several purposes, and profit is just one“?  For example, some organizations say that they serve “social” ends as well as profit. The B-Corp model (“benefit corporation”) even requires a company to articulate a social purpose it will pursue along with profit and then subjects its pursuit of the social purpose to government accountability and even shareholder lawsuits.  It tries to create a “two-masters” model, which God’s word tells us doesn’t work.

At the end of the day, there can only be one primary priority for the organization that will win out–other “priorities” usually get reduced to being “means” or “strategies”, which means they will be sacrificed if they no longer serve the higher priority or if they jeopardize the higher priority.

A recent Wall Street Journal headline says it all “At Salesforce, It Is One Big Family Until Trouble Hits Home“.  Co-founder and CEO Marc Benioff was apparently known for using “the Hawaiian word ‘ohana,’ or familial bonds, to describe the company’s close relationship with employees and customers.”  In announcing the layoff of thousands of employees, Benioff summed up “priority” with one phrase “Ultimately, the success of the business has to be paramount.”  When push comes to shove, the real priority surfaces.

Ultimately, this appears to be one of the greatest threats of Artificial Intelligence.  You may recall that ChatGPT told us the limitations of AI back in post #151 (Use Tech WHYsely).

If an AI system is given a mission–told to solve a problem or pursue a goal–as a logical machine it must be told the priorities to pursue and the relative ordering of those priorities (unless we want to roll the dice and let the algorithm figure them out).  The “existential threat” seems to be that we do not know what the AI system might do to achieve higher priorities at the expense of lesser priority goals (or even worse, at the expense of things the programmers never thought or bothered to identify as priorities)–like preserving human life or our world.

Those designing AI who believe they can build in other parameters to temper the zeal with which the technology pursues its goal should reflect on Matthew 6:24–“No one can serve two masters.”  Some priority will win out “at the end of the day”.

We believe “priority” is about heart.  A faithful leader seeking to lead faithfully through business a better way must understand the nature of priorities–they can’t be equal “at the end of the day”.  To believe they can is to be blind to the “real” priority.

The Real Priorities Problem.  

The Real Priorities Problem is when an organization and its leaders say it has one priority, but it is actually pursuing a different priority–or when they think they are pursuing equal priorities.  Larry Crabb warned:

Biblical principles are reduced to basic principles of the world when they’re followed in order to gain the “better life'” we demand.

A faithful leader seeking to lead an organization in alignment with Biblical beliefs, principles and priorities needs to undertake an honest assessment of the “real” priority that drives behavior in the organization.  And that “real” priority is likely to be what employees perceive is the “real “priority of the leader.  Cultural commentator Seth Godin nailed this when he wrote:

People are watching you. They’re not listening to your words as much as they’re seeking to understand where the boundaries and the guard rails lie, because they’ve learned from experience that people who do what gets rewarded, get rewarded.

What is “really” being rewarded (as reflected in the organization’s policies and practices related to areas such as hiring, termination, discipline, compensation, ethical behavior, training, vacation, family leave, customer service, vendors, and community service)?

Perception may not be reality.  Lofty purpose statements and value lists can be created in order to appeal to the perceived demands of investors, employees, vendors or customers, rather than in an effort to lead faithfully through business a better way.  Even healthy cultures can be intentionally curated for the “wrong” reasons–often the real priority is profit.  We explored this in-depth in post #159 (Caring for People–Heart, Hype or Hustle?).

In post #125 (Choices: What’s Your “O”), we focused on the importance of faithful leaders being driven by obedience rather than outcome.  The world of business as usual measures success in terms of profit and growth.  Leaders are expected to be ruthlessly “outcome-driven” in their effort to achieve increased profits and growth. Faithful leaders can be pulled or pushed into being outcome-driven, even when they are instituting practices that look obedience-driven.

For example, they may be pursuing “faithful priorities” such as behaving better, evangelizing people, donating generously from profits or looking “Godly” that can be pursued in parallel with an organizational priority of Profit as Purpose–the outcome choice of business as usual.  None of these “faithful priorities” are bad, but they are not changing the WHY of the organization.  They do not displace profit as the highest priority.  People will sense the “real” priority and behave accordingly, which will drive the “real” culture.

A faithful leader also might not understand the Equal Priorities Problem and believe they can pursue “faithful” priorities equally alongside Profit as Purpose when Profit as Purpose actually is, or is perceived by employees to be, the highest priority “at the end of the day”.

The Disordered Priorities Problem.

The Disordered Priorities Problem is simply when an organization or its leaders have set the wrong priorities for pursuing business a better way.  This is the priority problem we have discussed more than any other in our Integriosity® posts.

A key element of the RENEW step of Integriosity is re-ordering disordered priorities for faithful leaders seeking to lead faithfully through business a better way.  The five key “mind-shifts” of RENEW are really about re-ordering disordered priorities–keeping first things first.    C.S. Lewis wrote:

Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things.

Here is how the “mind-shifts” reorder what are often disordered priorities in pursuing faith/work integration in the purpose, values and culture of an organization:

• The WHAT of Integration:  Faith 1st, Work 2nd

• The WHO of Leaders:  Faith 1st, Job 2nd

• The WHY of Business:  People 1st, Profit 2nd

• The HOW of Integration:  Heart 1st, Symbols 2nd

• The WHEN of Integration:  Faith 1st, Success 2nd

The most important and most difficult of these is the WHY priority.  Leading faithfully through business a better way requires putting profit in its proper place as a means rather than an end–a lower priority to the higher priority of people.

Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things. (C.S. Lewis)

Ordering and Balancing Priorities

Ordering the “real” priorities of an organization to align with Biblical priorities while operating in a broken world is not easy, and there are no easy or perfect solutions.  But we believe there are ways for a faithful leader to identify, order and balance priorities in a way that honors Biblical beliefs, principles and priorities.

Identifying Priorities.

Start with what the Bible shows us matters to God.  Genesis makes clear that God cares about the flourishing of His creation, God cares about relationships, and God cares about work as a good thing that is necessary for the flourishing of creation and for our humanity as creations in God’s image.  Nothing in Genesis supports profit as the highest priority for work or for work in community through organizations. Work and organizations exist as part of God’s design for the flourishing of humans and communities.

Look to what the Bible tells us are “first things”.  Four key Biblical principles form the foundation of Integriosity and are embedded in the word itself: Integrity (and its components Righteousness and Kingdom) and Generosity (and its components Love and Humility).  We believe they are priorities a faithful leader needs to “keep first” in leading faithfully. The two “Integrity Priorities” are God-focused and the two “Generosity Priorities” are people-focused.

• But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you.  (Matthew 6:33)

• Whoever pursues righteousness and love finds life, prosperity and honor. (Proverbs 21:21)

• The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life. (Proverbs 22:4)

In these Scriptural passages, we see the “first things” and also the “second things” to which they lead.  If the “first things” are Righteousness, Kingdom, Love and Humility, the “second things” are “all these things”, “life”, “prosperity”, “honor” and “riches”.  Colossians 3:2 tells us “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”  The “first things” are “above” and “second things” are “on earth”.

These Biblical priorities need to be translated into priorities that will guide the day-to-day decisions and activities of the organization and its people.

Ordering Priorities

After leaders identify priorities, it is critical that they are ordered, recognizing that priorities, by their nature, must have a hierarchy “at the end of the day”.

In ordering priorities, those at the top should encompass those below so that the lower priorities work as a means toward the higher priorities.  For a faithful leader leading faithfully, the highest priority–the only reason we were created–must be to glorify God (Isaiah 43:7).  As we have suggested in numerous posts, we believe maximization of human flourishing is the priority that itself prioritizes what God cares most about and is a means to glorify God.

One excellent example of an organization identifying faithful priorities and then recognizing the need to order them is Bandwidth.com.  Bandwith.com identified its core values as “Faith, Family, Work and Fitness . . . in that order.”

Balancing Priorities.

We do not mean to suggest that identifying, ordering and implementing faithful priorities in an organization is easy.  We live in a fallen world in which most organizations operate according to the priorities of business as usual.  A purely linear or hierarchical approach to implementing Biblical priorities misses the reality of our world and the leader’s mandate in Genesis 1:28 (the Creation Mandate) to steward the organization in that world in a sustainable manner.

A faithful leader of a business is also a “business-leader” building a business in the world.  They face pressure from analysts, markets, investors, employees, and customers. Sustainability comes with financial metrics to track and hurdles to achieve.  The world of business measures success in terms of profit and growth.   We explored this tension in post #118 (Whose “Will” Be Done).

We believe there are four keys to a faithful business-leader successfully ordering priorities:  Humility, Trust, Patience, and Prayer.

Humility.  Navigating the tension between the world’s priorities and God’s priorities requires Godly wisdom, and humility is a key to wisdom.  The link between humility and wisdom can be seen in Proverbs 11:2:

When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.

God is the source of all wisdom, and the Bible tells us that God will give wisdom to those who ask (James 1:5).    The faithful leader who operates without the humility to recognize the need for God’s wisdom and the need to pray for guidance is destined to run aground on the rocks of the “priorities” dilemma.  An honest assessment of the “real” priority in an organization’s culture absolutely requires humility and will yield wisdom.

Trust.  Of course, even the faithful leader who has the humility to recognize the need for God’s wisdom will only get the benefit of that wisdom by trusting God’s process, timing, and outcome:

• Process: God’s process is often counter-intuitive and counter-cultural.

• Timing: God’s timing often seems excruciatingly slow.

• Outcome: God’s best outcome for a business (the “all these things” promised in Matthew 6:33) may not be the world’s best outcome.

Prayer.  The importance of prayer in pursuing Biblical priorities seems so obvious. Unfortunately, many faithful leaders do not associate God with business decisions.  Oswald Chambers observed:

In spiritual issues it is customary for us to put God first, but we tend to think that it is inappropriate and unnecessary to put Him first in the practical, everyday issues of our lives.

God’s wisdom comes through prayer.  Of course, praying for a particular process, timing and outcome is NOT praying for God’s wisdom, and ignoring God’s wisdom to pursue your own process, timing or outcome is NOT wise–it is choosing disordered priorities.

Patience:  It is difficult to read the Bible and not walk away feeling woefully impatient.  God’s story is full of people who patiently waited and persevered (the first cousin of patience) a LONG time–a VERY LONG time.  Remember Abraham (waited 25 years for Isaac), Jacob (waited 14 years to marry Rachel), and the most patient of all, Moses (40 years in exile and then 40 years in the desert).

There are also stories of characters who got impatient and tried to short-circuit God’s timing (and God was not pleased).  Remember Sarah (Ishmael was NOT the fulfillment of God’s promise) and Saul (he got impatient and offered the burnt offering himself–NOT a blessing after all).

Choosing, ordering and balancing Biblical priorities in leading a business is “playing the long game”, and that takes Biblical patience (and perseverance).

PERSONAL NOTE (from PM):  I want to thank Andy Mills for inspiring this post by pointing out that the original meaning of “priority” was singular.  Although I have known Andy for quite a few years, more recently I have been seeing him weekly. I participate in a weekly Zoom meeting he hosts through Faith in Financial Services (FiFS).  It utilizes material created by PRS.work, which thoughtfully merges “Public Reading of Scripture” passages from PRSI.org with Bible commentaries by the Theology of Work Project.  The sessions are very professionally produced and the Theology of Work commentaries are extremely well done, regularly teasing insightful work-related revelation from Biblical passages.  Huge to the Grace & Mercy Foundation for their vision in starting PRSI.org and their support of these initiatives.

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