You walk into a room and you see four concerning things: 1) A four-year-old trying to start a Bic lighter; 2) A toddler crying loudly; 3) A broken gallon of milk leaking all over the floor; 4) A three-year-old lying very still on the floor, eyes closed.

What should you do first?

Competence is about knowledge properly prioritized. When I was studying to take the licensure exam for Nursing (NCLEX) we not only had to know facts about medicine and nursing care, we had to be able to answer difficult clinical scenario questions that demonstrated that we had adequate clinical judgment–that we could prioritize. Triage. My theological education, similarly, was a long process of learning and sorting first order, second order, and third order doctrines.

As leaders (in whatever context) we have to continually grow in our ability to sort the most important things, from the important things, from the less important things, from all the other things. We also have to patiently and repetitively teach these tiers of importance (primary, secondary, tertiary, etc.) to the folks in our care–along with the rationale for the prioritization.

A healthy organization will provide training and demand compliance around the core, and will offer more freedom on the more peripheral matters. Treating the core with nonchalance and/or treating the periphery as crucial will eventually fragment the group, cause confusion and competition that will undermine the mission, and drastically limit the potential to achieve the vision.

First things first. Check the three-year-old to make sure he’s breathing.

“…the leader must teach followers what is most important, most urgent, and most essential. If not, followers will go off in different directions, working out of very different understandings of what matters most. The great aim of leadership is to lead followers continually into a deeper and more comprehensive love for what is most real, most true, most right, and most important. The thrill of leadership is seeing this happen, and long-term success depends on it.”

Albert Mohler, The Conviction to Lead, 48.