Tag Archives: Laws of Combat

We Must Teach Initiative

From http://dictionary.com:

  1. the ability to assess and initiate things independently.
    “use your initiative, imagination, and common sense”
    synonyms: resourcefulnessinventiveness

  2. the power or opportunity to act or take charge before others do.
    “we have lost the initiative and allowed our opponents to dictate the subject”

Here is an example of why we must teach initiative, taken from the powerful and thought-provoking film Most Likely to Succeed:

This scene reduced one of my favorite educators to tears when she saw it. It is a powerful example of what students are not learning in our classrooms.

We have one more Law of Combat from Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win to explore as we continue creating a foundation for Teachership. Before we explore that Law of Combat — Decentralize Command — we must state why it is important. Decentralize Command means granting trained subordinates the latitude to take and manage risks, fulfilling the leader’s intent without seeking permission. Educators are not used to cultivating initiative in the classroom, and parents and administrators may have objections to implementing Decentralize Command if the teacher fails to communicate what is happening and why.

Decentralize Command is different from the other Laws of Combat. Teachers have been trying with varying success to implement Cover and Move for a long time. It should surprise no one that we will teach students to collaborate in their learning or that we will collaborate with our colleagues and administrators. Everyone wants us to keep things Simple and to Prioritize and Execute. Decentralize Command will cause more concern because we will create opportunities for students to use initiative and to lead each other.

We must exercise our initiative to communicate with parents and administrators and address concerns that we should anticipate.

Why Decentralize Command?

It’s easy to justify Decentralize Command as a rule for combat or business, as the authors of Extreme Ownership do. Risk-taking and risk management are adult activities, and adults should know how to take responsibility for and mitigate risk. When do we teach this to our students? How can we help them develop initiative?

Soldiers fighting for their lives and their comrades’ lives must take risks and seize opportunities when that action fits the objective. There is no time to ask permission along the chain of command in the chaos of combat. Someone has to make a decision and go. Taking unplanned action to achieve objectives, save soldiers’ lives, and protect civilians is fundamental to the duty of any U.S. service member, and our best leaders train subordinates to do these things independently.

Business presents situations where managers or sales professionals must make decisions on the spot. If individuals don’t have the training and freedom to act in the company’s interests, then the organization is limited, if not paralyzed. Taking unplanned action to achieve objectives, limit liability, promote stewardship of resources, and meet legal obligations are fundamental to every role in a business, and our best leaders train their subordinates to do these things independently.

Do the best leaders in education do this? Do we give our students chances to make choices so that they can learn to optimize performance on their own initiative? How well will they do that in the future if we don’t teach them to do it now? They will do it — but shouldn’t they practice now when we can help them manage the risks?

Our students are not adults, and they are not in a chaotic environment like combat, nor are they in a dynamic environment like our economy. Educators control the classroom through curriculum, professional practice, and planning. This creates a chasm between the classroom and adult life that we must bridge.

Well-led participants in extracurricular activities have opportunities to take risks and see the consequences. Students who have jobs have chances to do this. Students who help their parents manage their households also have to practice initiative. Compared to these endeavors, classroom education is an inadequate learning experience most of the time.

Every student we teach will spend a lifetime needing to lead. Students need discipline and learning skills to succeed in school. They need to earn a high school diploma and prepare for the next mission, whether that is trade school, enlistment, college, apprenticeship, employment, or entrepreneurship. They must lead themselves.

Once they leave secondary school, they will have to learn and discipline themselves even more, and they will also need the character and confidence to act on initiative and manage risk. No one will plan and structure students’ adult lives the way we plan and structure their learning.

If a student doesn’t learn to do all of these things, then the student doesn’t learn leadership. If a teacher doesn’t do these things well, then that teacher’s students will miss a valuable model. Teachership has to include risk-taking and risk management opportunities for students and the modeling of initiative by the teacher. To learn to apply initiative in adult life, students must begin doing it while training for adult life.

We use Decentralize Command in the classroom to help students develop initiative, which is a quality we all hope to see in adults.

Own the Lines of Communication — or Fail

It is very important in implementing Teachership that we win people over to our way of thinking before we start the process of teaching students how to take and mitigate risk. Implementing Decentralize Command without communicating our plans to parents and administrators will derail the Teachership project before it has any time to work.

Imagine a parent who does not understand why some students might report to a student leader in class and not always directly to the teacher. Is the teacher even teaching those students? Imagine this parent pondering why a student is choosing among various learning activities. Is one choice better than the others? What happens if the first choice doesn’t work out? Will the consequences or delays be unacceptable? Parents will oppose what they do not understand.

Imagine a superintendent who does not understand what we are doing when parents are upset and express concerns at a personal appointment or at a school board meeting. The parent will discuss the matter with other parents who also do not understand. Imagine a principal who does not understand what we are doing when a cacophony of angry e-mails, phone calls, and surprise visits from parents begins. Administrators cannot support what they do not understand.

If we are going to implement every part of Teachership so that we can help our students become lifelong learners and leaders, then we must communicate those plans to parents and administrators before we begin. The first principle of Teachership is Ownership: if parents and administrators do not understand our plan, then we have not explained it yet. Our failure to communicate is not their fault.

The other adults in the chain of command want us to succeed in giving our students an excellent education. We are all on the same side, even when we disagree. We must explain why and how we plan to implement Decentralize Command to parents and administrators, and we have to build and maintain good relationships with them so that those lines of communication remain open and positive.

Two Excellent Questions to Answer Next

Now we can predict the two questions parents, principals, and superintendents will ask when we explain our plans to implement Teachership and Decentralize Command:

  1. How do we implement Decentralize Command in a classroom?
  2. How does implementing Decentralize Command help students to learn academic content?

We’ll address both questions in the next post.

Prioritize and Execute

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.