How Organizational Leaders Are Like ER Doctors

Leadership Lesson 3: Calibrating Your Work

The 200-year-old medical technique that could save your organization

According to the National Institutes of Health, it was Baron Dominique Jean Larrey, Surgeon-in-Chief to Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, who originated the notion of triaging in the late eighteenth century. This practice allowed the French army to use its resources efficiently and effectively by treating wounded soldiers based on needs.

The technique of triaging, still in use today, allows medical professionals and ER doctors to prioritize patients who have the most urgent needs, while waiting to treat patients whose injuries are minor or less urgent.

Triaging can serve as an excellent model for those of us outside the medical profession. Even if we are not in the business of saving lives, the technique of triaging might just save our business.

The higher you rise in an organization, the more inundated you become with tasks and requests. On any given day, you may receive dozens of emails, phone calls, and requests for meetings—all before lunch!

This wall of noise can be a distraction; if you try to fulfill every request that comes across your desk, you will almost certainly lose sight of the most important thing: your organization’s core goals.

This is where Baron Dominique comes in. For each item that comes across your desk or into your mailbox, you must triage it into one of three categories:

  1. Only I can do this work
  2. This work can be delegated
  3. This work is not worthy of my time, or of being delegated, and can be eliminated

Many executives reach their positions through rigid perfectionism; not completing each and every task or attending each and every meeting can feel strange or unnatural. But you must be ruthless in deciding what you will (and will not) take on.

Indeed, the time you spend on unimportant or redundant tasks is time you could have spent creating the visions and pursuing the core mission of your team or organization.

THE TAKEAWAY: Challenge yourself. For the rest of this week, triage each task or request that comes across your desk into one of the three categories above. After a few days, you might start to find that you finally have time and bandwidth to address and accomplish what is most important.