Proper Perspective on Priorities

Sometimes it seems that the responsibilities that we have for coworkers, company, career and family are in tragic conflict. How can we balance the requirements and the responsibilities between personal and professional lives? There are a limited number of hours in a day, so how do we measure them and where do we draw the line?

A good friend of mine was contemplating a very difficult decision. For several months he had been planning to take a vacation with his wife and two children. During the week leading up to his vacation his management asked repeatedly for him to cancel the trip or to send his family on it without him. The management even went so far as to offer a bonus if this trip would be cancelled. He explained this dilemma to me as we were leaving his office and walking through a dark parking lot after he had just completed another fourteen hour work day.

My good friend shared with me that his last vacation was seven years ago. He had spent the last three weeks managing two shifts of operations Monday through Friday. For the last five years he also worked Saturday, Sunday or both days on the weekend. The people in the organization looked up to his unselfish dedication and continuous effort. He never asked anyone to do something that he was not willing to do himself. The consistent display of individual responsibility was an inspiration to everyone in the company. It was a tough decision for him to take personal time when so many other people looked up to him for guidance.

We paused for a moment beside his car and I shared a personal story in memory of Harold Burwell.

Harold Burwell was one of my managers at a very early time in my career. Harold also worked nights and weekends. He was always available for his employees with advice or a sympathetic ear. At the company Christmas party, Harold would dress up as Santa Claus and pass out small gifts to every member of his staff. In the summer, Harold would surprise his employees by catering a picnic in the parking lot. Quick with a smile and a joke, he also demonstrated a consistent personal commitment and dedication for each and every one of his employees.

One weekend Harold arrived early and was working alone in the office. As he concentrated on the financials and reached for his keyboard, his arm accidentally spilled his fresh cup of coffee across the desk and into his lap. Steam rose from his trousers as his eyes widened and a flurry of angry words escaped through clenched teeth. Harold dashed to the restroom, took off his pants and rinsed them in the sink. Then he draped the trousers over the stall and went back to his office wearing a white button down shirt, boxers, socks and cowboy boots.

As Harold was busy using paper towels from the restroom to wipe up the rest of the coffee from his desk, chair and ledgers, he heard a familiar voice. He quickly sat behind his desk just before his administrative assistant put her head in the doorway and issued her morning greeting. From behind his desk Harold straightened his white button down shirt in a very businesslike manner, smiled and waved with a pleasant greeting in return.

By the time that I arrived at the office that day, several more people were already walking around and catching up on month end activities. For several hours Harold remained seated behind his desk, reviewing the financial statements and making notes. If anyone came by his office, Harold would wave and smile with a polite explanation that he was very busy and needed some privacy to concentrate on the numbers for a big report that was coming up. Then he would roll up his sleeves, rearrange his paperwork and stare intently at the documents on his desk.

As the sun was going down and evening was upon us, I put my head in Harold’s office and waved that I was leaving. Harold asked politely if there was anyone else left in the building other than the two of us. When I responded that we were the only two remaining in the office, Harold jumped up from behind his desk and bolted toward the restroom. A few minutes later he reappeared, wearing his dry trousers and a grin that spread from ear to ear. This was only one of many laughs that we shared.

A few years later, Harold was on a business trip to visit some important clients when we received a phone call that he died in his sleep in the hotel room. Several days later a caravan of cars proceeded in solemn procession from work to his funeral. Many of us stood in the rain and comforted one another as they lowered his casket into the earth. As flowers and tears were left behind in reverent memory of a kind and unselfish man, we noticed that his own family did not attend. After several more days passed, we packed up his belongings from the office and shipped them to his wife and children. We carefully wrapped each picture, each ceramic figurine that had been crafted by small hands several years ago and each precious memory that had slowly gathered dust on the bookshelf in his office. On top of the of the personal belongings we placed a note of sympathy that was signed by everyone in the office, each with a personal comment or memory of the man who had touched so many of our lives. I do not think that the card was ever read or even discovered.

As I shared this story with my good friend in the empty parking lot, we quietly reflected on the other responsibilities in life. The people who mourn you when you pass are the people who love you the most while you are alive. These are the people who need you the most in their own lives. Where do you need to be? Who will miss you when you are gone? How much have you made these people a part of your own life? Creating a proper perspective on priorities comes from recognizing all of your responsibilities and giving the proper portion of your life to those people who cherish it the most.

Thankfully, my friend went on vacation with his family and knocked the dust off of some precious memories.

Words of Wisdom

“If I had to live my life again, I’d make the same mistakes, only sooner.”
– Tallulah Bankhead

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
– Soren Kierkegaard

“Creating a proper perspective on priorities comes from recognizing all of your responsibilities and giving the proper portion of your life to those people who cherish it the most.”
– John Mehrmann

In respectful memory of Harold Burwell

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