By Tim Rahschulte, Ph.D, CEO, Professional Development Academy

One key lesson to learn about goal setting is that it’s an exercise in trade-offs and priorities. Each of our decisions is a trade-off of one thing over another or the timing of all things being considered. You’ve probably heard something like this before: you can have anything, just not everything—or at least not everything all at once. You can have ice cream…but only after you eat your broccoli. This is a huge trade-off for a young person. The trades don’t get any easier as you get older. There are financial trade-offs, career trade-offs, and many other life trade-offs. Whether you can explain opportunity cost in economic terms or not, we all can recognize that there are trade-offs involved in every decision we make. That’s life. It’s also a major function of cybersecurity leadership.

Choose What Not to Do

Life is a number of alternative decisions sacrificed. Every benefit is at the expense of a competing benefit. Understanding your priorities and trade-offs means understanding what you’re not going to do. Michael Porter, a Harvard Business School professor and prolific author on strategy, said, “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” Many organizations and people within organizations struggle with choosing, period, let alone being specifically intentional about what to do and, importantly, what not to do. It’s easy to get bogged down by the decision or to take on too many things all at once and avoid the decision to choose at all. When you don’t choose what not to do, you can find yourself adrift when it comes to your personal vision and confused when it comes to effectively establishing a position on anything. If you’re not consciously choosing what to do and what not to do, you’re likely open to try anything; worse yet, you might try to take on everything. That’s not good. So make a decision—that’s an important part of this rule and lesson. No vision is ever achieved when it’s focused on everything.

The best leaders know their capacity to perform. Some know they can manage three priorities really well. For others, that number may be eight, and for still others only two. What they also know is that when they take on one more than they can truly manage, it’s not only the last one that suffers; rather, all the priorities they’re trying to manage will suffer. John Marcante, the chief information officer at Vanguard, can shed a lot of light on effective leadership and achieving personal success and management of priorities. One of his guiding mantras is “I’d rather move three balls a mile than 30 balls an inch.” Similarly, Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and Great by Choice, said, “If you have more than three priorities, then you don’t have any.” This stands as a reminder of the importance of making trade-offs and managing priorities. If you’re going to succeed, you’ve got to prioritize. If you’re not consciously choosing what to do and what not to do, the three balls you should be focused on moving a mile likely will never get much farther than an inch.

Have a 'Most-Important List'

What three balls must move a mile for your vision to be realized? Prioritize the three things you’ve got to absolutely get right. As you do, be sure to differentiate between the entire to-do list and the most important list. Follow the advice from Brian Engle, the executive director at the Retail Cyber Intelligence Sharing Center, who said, “Focus on the things that are most important, not just those things that you may be most equipped for. Lean into the challenges, especially those outside your comfort zone.” This is a great reminder that sometimes we have to stop doing the things we are most comfortable doing so that we can start doing the things that matter the most.

We all know that our daily routine involves a number of tasks and activities that don’t share the same level of priority. As you go about moving the three most important balls a mile, you may also want to heed the advice from Joshua Beeman, the executive director and information security officer at the University of Pennsylvania: “The main thing is keeping the main thing the main thing. Don’t get distracted. Stay on point. Those who succeed are those who make incremental progress every day on the main thing.” Devote your time, attention, energy, and strengths to your highest priorities and trade off all other efforts. In other words, focus on what matters the most, and ignore everything else.

Find out more about the ICMA Cybersecurity Leadership Academy. This 12-week online course delivers the leadership tools you need to help keep your local government secure.


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