As the saying goes, when everything is a priority, nothing is. In a system that heaps requirements and tasks on subordinate units, leaders routinely struggle to reach 100% compliance. Though some try, leaders cannot do it all themselves. They must prioritize tasks and delegate work to subordinates. But what tasks are appropriate to delegate? Which ball drops when there are conflicting priorities? It would be helpful to have a framework to sort it all out.
A former battalion commander, Colonel Patrick Harvey, explained this conundrum using glass and crystal balls. Leaders are constantly juggling balls – counseling, planning collective training, executing collective training, completing mandatory online training, submitting quad charts for training meetings, conducting professional development, attending command and staff meetings, and the list goes on. Each one of those balls is either crystal or glass. If a glass ball breaks, it’s doesn’t cost much to replace. Breaking a crystal ball is much more expensive – and could end a career.
Glass or crystal?
Determining the difference between glass and crystal balls can be quite difficult. Only frank conversation up and down the chain of command can reveal them. The immediate supervisor may think on-time counseling is more important than online training. Perhaps, Anti-Terrorism Level 1 training maybe be a good excuse for failing to counsel subordinates on time. Only open dialogue will reveal the task’s priority. It may change, however, and it is best to reconfirm.
Once you know what your glass balls are, it doesn’t mean they get to break all the time. You should let other people know that one may break. They may help you juggle them for a little bit. Or, they may help sweep up the pieces. It may be something as simple as extending a deadline because half your unit is on guard duty and can’t complete mandatory training.
Or, sending a Staff Sergeant to fill a division tasking for a day, means you are going to lose a range safety. They can either find another safety, alibi the tasking, or accept that not everybody from your unit will complete the range that day. Not every decision needs to be run by higher – only the ones where priorities are in direct conflict.
A crystal ball should never break. They are the sexual assault allegation, the negative urinalysis report, the vehicle accident, and so on. Crystal balls can vary by unit, too. The list probably mirrors the Serious Incident Report or Commanders Critical Information Report list. Investigating and responding to these incidents requires near perfect execution.
In a Basic Combat Training Battalion, trainee abuse allegations were crystal balls. Commanders had to investigate any allegation – this was to protect the drill sergeant as well as the trainee – but it meant people were immediately redirected to the task. Some glass balls broke because time and resources were exclusively devoted to this crystal ball.
Leaders delegate based on the level of trust they have with their subordinates. Those who have earned trust could get a crystal ball. For leaders, one way to build trust is to ask a subordinate to take a glass ball for a little while. When the subordinate brings back the glass ball unbroken, they’ve earned some trust. Maybe next time, they get a crystal ball.
[I am indebted to Colonel Patrick Harvey for sharing this framework. The professional development he provided was invaluable.]
Questions for Leaders
- What are your crystal balls? What are your glass balls? Have you confirmed them with anybody else?
- Who do you trust with your crystal balls? Have you clearly identified crystal ball priorities to your subordinates?
- Are you allowing your subordinates to break a few glass balls? Are you helping them sweep them up?