Counsel most wise

  • Published
  • By Col. James Forrest
  • 17th Medical Group Commander
Many years ago I read a commentary in a base newspaper penned by Col. Mark Blum, at that time, the commander of the 212th Field Artillery Brigade, Fort Sill, Okla. It resonated strongly within me, and when I referenced the article years later at a United States Air Force Squadron Commanders course, there were other officers in the room that also remembered it and nodded knowingly.

I've kept the original commentary all these years; a quick internet search shows that it's still being referenced today. If you've had an opportunity to read it, I'm sure you'll agree that it was thought-provoking, but if not, I'd like to encapsulate what Colonel Blum said. It is counsel most wise.

His article was entitled, 'Important' vs. 'Urgent.' In it, he reflected back on his Army career and the choices he'd made. More importantly, he wrote of what he would have done differently if he'd known then what he knows now. Here are some of his observations:

He remembered as a young major, working all day and into the night on Thanksgiving Day. He went home just long enough to wolf down some food before going back to work. To this day, he doesn't remember what was so important, but he's certain it wasn't enough to make him miss Thanksgiving with his family.

He said he'd leave work every day at 6 p.m. if at all possible; earlier if he could. He was often at work before his children even awoke and sometimes would get home after they went to bed. And he would never know the opportunities he'd missed.

He'd pay more attention to the teachers his children had and less attention to the grades they'd made. He'd be more helpful with school projects brought to him for help at the last minute. That happened at work all the time, for a lot of reasons. Sometimes that happens to kids, too.

He'd leave his problems at work. And when he got home, he'd be absorbed in the lives of his family. He'd go to every PTA meeting and every sporting event. He'd missed some of those for poor reasons and that opportunity would never come around again.

He would never again lose any annual leave. One year, he lost 24 days. In his words, 'what a waste.'

What really struck a chord with me was when Colonel Blum wrote of a previous boss who had three criteria to help determine what was merely "urgent" vs. what was truly, no-kidding, absolutely IMPORTANT. He had not learned the lesson until late in his career and didn't want others to make the same mistakes he had. The rules he used were:

- Is it important to someone who is important to you?

- Does your personal presence make a difference?

- Will the opportunity come around again?

The answers to those questions will tell you what you truly need to focus on. He related the story of a brigade commander being pressured by his division commander to participate in a major exercise. Unfortunately, the exercise was happening at the same time the brigade commander had planned to take his daughter to college and get her settled in for her freshman year. Despite the pressure, the brigade commander insisted on being with his daughter, knowing full well he might be harpooning his career. Upon later reflection, the division commander gained great respect for the brigade commander and looked at his own choices. It became clear that sometimes he may not have chosen wisely.

If you look in the mirror and see a young Maj. Blum looking back, I'd encourage a step back to gain perspective. I've been guilty (still to this day) of spending too much time at work. Sometimes our personal lives do (and must) suffer for the mission; that's just the way it is. But one day, we will all take off our uniforms and go home for good. And it will be a shame if your home has grown cold. It's far better to keep the hearth stoked than try to rekindle what's been extinguished.