In 2006, SEAL Team 3’s Task Unit Bruiser entered Ramadi with one goal in mind: drive insurgents out of the city and build up the Iraqi forces to create stability in one of the most violent areas in the world. On the first major operation, Jocko Willink commanded his SEAL forces alongside U.S. Army and Marine men and women and inexperienced Iraqi soldiers.
Almost immediately, trouble struck the operation. Iraqi soldiers had been shot at by what appeared to be enemy forces upon entering a building and had called in for backup. One Iraqi soldier was killed in the battle and air fire was being set up to rain down on the enemy’s position. After hearing the news, Jocko came over to the building’s vicinity. With men and women on the ground ready to engage, Jocko realized his team of snipers were in this area and had recently moved buildings for a better vantage point.
With that in mind, he and some of his men entered the building to find his sniper unit holed up. This was a SEAL commander’s worst nightmare. Fratricide. Blue-on-Blue. A man killed at the hands of his own teammate. In the throes of battle, the group of Iraqi soldiers had gotten confused and entered a building they were supposed to never be near. This resulted in the sniper unit mistaking them for the enemy and engaging in back and forth shooting. A man was dead and one was injured. An airstrike was almost called on his own men. Jocko was soon contacted by upper level military and an investigation would be conducted as soon as possible.
With so many variables leading to this tragic result, Jocko had to come up with an explanation for what happened. The Iraqi soldiers should have never been there. His men should have positively identified them as the enemy before engaging. Movement of the sniper unit should have been better communicated across the board.
When the time came to talk to the investigators, Jocko had come to a decision on who to blame: himself. As the leader of the operation and these individuals, it could be no one’s fault but his own. Even with his back against the wall, Jocko stuck to a crucial leadership principle: extreme ownership. No matter what situation arises, you must take responsibility for your actions and of those you are tasked to lead. Luckily, Jocko stayed on as leader of Task Unit Bruiser and the mission was a raging success. The city was brought to relative peace and stability thought to be nearly impossible.
This excerpt was taken from the first chapter of Jocko Willink and Leif Babin’s New York Times Bestseller, “Extreme Ownership”, a book detailing the leadership principles they applied in Ramadi when facing a nearly insurmountable enemy on their home turf and how each principle applies to everyday life.
When reading this story, what stood out to me most was the decision to take complete ownership for a situation which seemed to be out of his hands. There were so many factors that led to the shooting making it easy to blame the situation on the men under him. However, as the head of his unit, Jocko stood tall and let the blame fall on himself.
He then explained to his bosses what went wrong, why it went wrong, and how he would ensure it would never happen again. This principle is incredibly difficult to apply to your life. It is so easy to blame failures on situations around you. I do it all the time.
When a test question is not clear to me, I think about how the teacher did not teach it well enough. Or even when I play a video game with my friends, a bad performance immediately falls on the random player I was given. The biggest problem with this mindset is that you cannot grow if you live by it.
If the teacher is at fault for a complex problem, then it’s not my responsibility to address the problem and get it right next time. If the random player caused my poor performance, then I should not change my strategy to do better next time. While I don’t think video game performance actually matters, the principle stands true.
As students, we may not be leading Navy SEALs into war, but I think there’s immense value in applying extreme ownership to our lesser leadership roles and our individual decisions. If you want to grow and become better in all your pursuits, the first step is taking responsibility for your actions and their results, good or bad, and determining how to improve upon your next go around. As Notre Dame students, we all saw a great example of this in Marcus Freeman after losing to Marshall.
In his press conference, he answered reporters saying, “It starts with me, it starts with me as a head coach.” Through individuals like Jocko Willink and Marcus Freeman, it is clear that leadership starts with the willingness to own one’s decisions and the results which follow. With that said, I believe that applying extreme ownership is a crucial step in growing as a leader and individual and is a principle that we should all strive to live up to, no matter how difficult it may be.
Mikey Colgan is a sophomore from Boston, MA majoring in Finance and ACMS. He can be reached at email@example.com
The views expressed in this column are those of the author, not necessarily those of The Observer.