“Chief, I think my plate is already full”, I respond after being asked to take on yet another project.
“Well…make your plate ‘bigger’”, the chief stated flatly, looking at me and gesturing widely with his hands, as if holding a big plate.
There are many synonymous terms used to describe ‘task saturation’ or ‘having a full plate’, a point at which you’ve been given too much to do. I can only think that ‘making my plate bigger’ meant using more of my time to get my assigned tasks done. At one point, I was working 12 hours, 5 days a week when I wasn’t scheduled to work those hours—many people in the military struggle with this. The problem was I would not allow myself to do a poor job or to flake on the responsibilities I had been assigned due to the chief’s lofty demands—and he wouldn’t allow me to refuse the tasks he sent my way. At the time, I was managing a duty section of about 160 people, finishing up my bachelor’s degree, running a fundraising effort for the squadron’s booster club, organizing and attending a unit fitness activity every Friday, acting as the point of contact for a career field training liaison for the maintenance group, and the chief had just assigned me to put together a team to begin the process of drafting a maintenance operating instruction. Talk about busy; I was extremely stressed and home seemed like a transit location where I slept and ate and would occasionally cross paths with my wife. I recognize that I was being ‘developed’ or ‘groomed’, but it certainly didn’t appear that way at the time. I felt like I was getting beat up. There is a line between ‘job enrichment’ and task saturation.
What I learned from that experience was to not do that to my own subordinates. Before placing additional demands on them, have a conversation with them. It can be difficult, as a military leader, to see what a person has going on behind the scenes, when they are not at work. Our duties often cause us to lose focus on that because of the demands our jobs place on us. My job does not emphasize people; it is more about management and the allocation of resources and tends to be very dynamic, so this is where I tend to falter. I lose that focus in the mix with my daily duties, as most leaders likely do.
Understanding the demands placed on your subordinates at work is also key. PME has taken on a new dynamic in the Air Force; it is now more high-stakes than it has ever been–that is a big stressor for many. Ancillary training, briefings, and other seemingly innocuous, ‘just knock it out’, low-impact things do eventually build up and create roadblocks for people. There are consequences threatened for not getting your training completed on time–chalk up another stressor. These are minor examples. If you are new to a duty section as a leader, observe how things are and what people do—low threat. Not only is that just a good thing to do in understanding what your subordinates do day-to-day, but it helps you understand the demands placed on them. How can you expect to get a task done effectively if the person you assign it to already has too much going on? It is also about knowing that developing people is more than just making them ‘visible’ to senior leaders and tasking them with diverse projects.
Learn what your subordinate’s priorities are. I once worked with a master sergeant that was a good leader and he worked hard. He is to this day a good person in my view. He was seeking the coveted chief master sergeant stripes and he seemed to be on well on his way. He said something to me and a handful of my peers and subordinates one day that began to make me think about the demands of my own career and the balance to be struck with my personal life. He said, “I told my wife that my career comes first”. I found his message outrageous, callous, and selfish. It has resonated with me for five years now and changed the way I viewed my own career. His career was his priority. He reached his goal. My personal view is that if things aren’t right in one’s personal life, how can you lead or operate in a successful career?
Not only does the preponderance of tasks and obligations apply to people as leaders and as subordinates, but as individuals. Don’t allow yourself to be stretched thin; you can think of this in the same concept of not being able to do anything well because you are trying to do everything. It is best to prioritize things in your life. You need to decompress to center yourself on occasion. I still struggle with these concepts at times. I prioritize things differently than other people; then again, I have different goals in life. Everyone does. This is a tough balance in that aspect alone. Lump in the concept of Service Before Self, and things start to get really complex. To some, this is the end-all be-all; it would be argued that no matter your personal obligations, your duty comes first. There must be a balance here. Think of it this way; in order to truly be ready to execute your duties, you need to have your head in the game. The only way you do this is to take care of you and yours. Selfless service doesn’t mean executing your duties to your detriment. Know what your limitations are, know when to tactfully decline, know when your job will place those demands on you and prepare, know when to accept additional duties, and know when to not fill the plate too high for your subordinates.