There are four Laws of Combat presented in the book Extreme Ownership by Leif Babin and Jocko Willink: Prioritize and Execute, Cover and Move, Simple, and Decentralize Command. As we delve deeper into leadership and how we can transform our teaching into teachership, we’ll refer to these.
The Laws of Combat are clear. There’s little chance that a teacher will not recognize their clarity and correctness. Let’s discuss the first one and then commit to applying it in our practice.
In Extreme Ownership, Babin relates a story from a mission in Iraq in which he and another American warrior left their unit mid-mission to chase down a “squirter” — an occupant of a building who responded to the pressure of American and Iraqi fighting men entering that building aggressively by fleeing after the forced entry but before the Americans and Iraqis could secure all exits. After catching the fugitive, Babin and his companion surprised several armed Iraqi enemies by their presence. Babin recounts that he needed to search the captive, determine his own position, determine his unit’s position, rejoin his unit and resume command and control on the mission, and deal with the enemies who had just turned a corner and were in the process of realizing that two Americans were lurking in the shadows.
Later in the book, Willink discusses a company that was struggling to return to profitability and had planned a host of actions to accomplish that. The term “decisively engaged” entered my vocabulary at that time, but as I heard and later read the definition, I recognized it from experience. To be “decisively engaged” means that the immediate actions in which a unit engages must succeed or face disastrous failure.
I thought of Custer at Little Big Horn as well as several occasions early in my teaching career: none of those turned out well. We do not want to put ourselves in situations where we have to overcome all of multiple challenges simultaneously just to survive: we need to prioritize and overcome single challenges, starting with the most crucial.
Babin made the armed combatants confronting him his first priority. He lived to participate in the writing of an excellent book on leadership. The unprofitable company directed every department’s discretionary effort to supporting the sales force. One would hope that the authors are not hiding a failure behind what appears to be a strong decision.
But what about teachers?
We do face multiple simultaneous challenges regularly. Some of the prioritizing that must be done can be done in advance. Students’ safety is always first, followed closely by the safety of all adults in the building. Building and maintaining strong relationships within the school community, first with students and then with colleagues, is next. Once these things are in order, it’s time to start looking at the implicit and explicit curricula students encounter.
At any given time, a teacher may also have to address a hodgepodge of competing priorities. For example, a student may have difficulty engaging in class activities after being a solid performer earlier in the year, students may await feedback on tests taken Thursday (and it’s Sunday night), a class may have a field trip planned for Wednesday and several bureaucratic tasks might remain to be done, and lesson plans for the week are not yet complete. This is to say nothing of our duties to ourselves and our families.
We must prioritize and execute just like any soldier in combat or business facing stiff competition. We must not be decisively engaged in multiple tasks. The stakes are too high for us to put ourselves in that position.
There is another reason we must prioritize and execute: our students are watching us. They know we have tough jobs. They are trying to manage parts of their own lives and failing (and learning) all the time. They know that their struggles with life and learning are important to us and that we have a hundred or more students to lead. Our approach to our own sets of simultaneous problems will be a crucial part of their learning, and this is one of those “soft skills” we’ve been discussing in recent years. It’s more important than content: if students can prioritize and execute, then they can improve as learners, and that is a win for everyone.
In a future post, I will explore how we can teach Prioritize and Execute to our students and get them to add Prioritize and Execute to their own problem-solving arsenals. That teaching, however, will fail unless our students see us trying and succeeding in applying it to our own situations. Successful actions inspire imitation and get students to learn independently. That is the best way to learn, if we can foster it.
When you face multiple simultaneous challenges and feel you are approaching “decisive engagement,” take a breath and asses the situation, select the most important and urgent task that you face, and do it. Review the remaining tasks, identify the most important and urgent task that remains and do that. Repeat. You will overcome obstacles and drive your work to success with this approach.
Do not deceive yourself into “multi-tasking.” What we call “multi-tasking” is “fast switching” between two tasks and is a sure pathway to decisive engagement. Dividing your attention among multiple tasks is a recipe for disaster. Focus and get after it.
Prioritize and execute.