We are taught early on in life to treat people as we want to be treated. We also have the good fortune of living in a country where we believe that all people are created equal and have certain inalienable rights.

Over time, I have learned it is far better to treat people as they want to be treated and not necessarily the way I want to be treated. Mirror imaging is unfair, as we all have different likes, dislikes, wants, and needs. On occasion, I have treated others as I would have wanted to be treated, only to have missed the mark. At the same time, I have grown increasingly aware that all people start out this life adventure on different footing and, though we all share inalienable rights, we are not all equally postured for success in our shared pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. There are many factors that make this a true statement and, as much as I believe in the rights we all share, we are all playing with varied hands as dealt by the dealer of life.

I have been giving much thought of late to the idea of equitable and fair treatment and have been overlaying the lens of priorities and values on top of it. When I use the word priorities, I am referring to the things that are most important to us, as not all of our wants and perceived needs are equally important even to us. And by values, I mean that which we stand for as individuals, groups, and human beings. I was reminded of the importance of making priority and not equity the mandate when listening to General Stanley McChrystal during a conference I recently attended. For many, he needs no introduction, but for others: He is a retired US Army Soldier best known for his leadership of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). (In fact, I highly recommend his book Team of Teams, which details how he and his teammates collectively led that incredible Command during a crucial time in our nation’s history.) He stated that the JSOC Team was able to generate outcomes like no other because each member of that team was:

  • Selectively Screened
  • Exquisitely Trained
  • Lavishly Resourced

They were better than their peers and were treated as such. They received more training than others so that they were uniquely prepared for the missions we would ask them to take on. And they were given the best equipment our Nation could provide with the intent of enhancing mission accomplishment. Their success was deemed more important when compared to countless others and, therefore, they were treated differently (not equally). The rest of the military understands and appreciates that fact. We don’t feel slighted. We know how important their missions are and that their success is our success.

Fast forward to last week when I attended a meeting that was focused on the distribution of operational responsibilities and associated resources across three teams. The meeting facilitator proudly announced at the outset that there was nothing to fear, as we would equitably distribute the personnel and funding across the teams and corresponding mission areas. It was par for the course, and my disappointment in hearing it was likely apparent to all in the room. The default approach of do no harm, everything is equally important, and we’re not prepared to make any hard decisions was staring us in the face yet again (akin to trophies for everyone). Unable to embrace the status quo, I chose to reframe things a bit. Acknowledging that by doing no harm we are ensuring we would do no good; by pretending everything is equally important we are stating that nothing is truly important; by deferring the hard decisions we would doom those who followed us to sub-optimal outcomes. It was not my meeting, so I simply asked the group the following questions:

  • What is most important that we get right?
  • Where are we willing to accept responsible risk?
  • What important decisions are we unwilling to make and, therefore, choosing to defer to our reliefs?

No one could answer the questions authoritatively, and I chalked the meeting up to another missed opportunity and simply excused myself to tend to higher priorities. Before I did, I reminded all that when we focus on distributing resources equitably, we do so in hopes of getting everything right. The reality is, we end up getting nothing right and letting everyone down.

Life is full of decisions and none of us can do everything we want to do. We must have priorities, we must decide what is most important, and we must make our commitment visible. Our JSOC team is so good because they have done just that. As you look at your life, I am certain that you will see countless examples where equitable-oriented decisions undermined the intent and greater good, a strengthened commitment to the highest of priorities assured the objective was met, and treating someone as you would want to have been treated had a surprising outcome. The fact is, we are not all equally postured for success, and our success is not equally important to others (yes, we must create our own success). Some of us are forced to work harder, while others enjoy a silver spoon. Luck plays a role. Priorities play a role. The support of others plays a role. We may all be born with the same rights, but we most certainly aren’t born on equal footing. At the same time, our mission in life may be most important to us, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a priority for anyone else. We must see the bigger picture and think beyond ourself.

  • Are you treating others as you/they would want to be treated?
  • Are you making priority and value-based decisions?
  • What is an example of an equity-based decision that resulted in a less than optimal outcome?