Prioritize and execute

In my last article, I covered the overarching topic of Jocko Willink and Leif Babin’s Extreme Ownership, and I wanted to follow up with another important leadership principle covered in the book. During an operation in Ramadi, Platoon Commander Leif Babin and his men commandeered a building right in the enemy’s backyard. Their goal was to disrupt the insurgents’ safe haven and weaken their force. Upon entering the building, the platoon faced immediate fire from the enemy. Fortunately, these men had the advantage of high ground, which allowed them to fight back against large numbers and assert their position. While this building had clear advantages, it also presented one glaring issue: the stairs to exit the building from the top floor were located outside the building. This meant they could not move up or down when facing fire from the enemy. It also reminded them of a frightening recent event in the area. Another marine sniper team faced similar building conditions. As they were inside the building, the enemy placed an IED on the stairs, and it detonated as they exited. Now the team had to be sure the stairway was clear before returning to base at night. After hours of fighting, darkness swept over the area and the team prepared to leave.

However, their fears had come true. The EOD operators located an IED on the stairs. This meant they needed to find a new way out. The solution was brute force. Men with sledgehammers taking on a wall. Soon the wall fell and the departure would begin. The EOD operators set a timed detonator so the IED would go off safely where no soldier or civilian could be wounded. After setting the timer, they immediately started moving across buildings to be clear of the blast. However, on top of one of the buildings, a platoon member fell through the ceiling due to a missing piece of concrete hidden by a tarp.

Now Leif had to make a decision. Amidst all the chaos, he calmed down and stuck to the principle: prioritize and execute. If they all went running helter-skelter after the fallen man, they could be left susceptible to enemy fire. He wanted to locate and save the man below immediately, but an irrational rescue attempt would make the entire crew’s survival chances much lower, including his wounded team member. So Leif laid out his top three priorities: Set security, find a way off the roof to the wounded man and get a head count before continuing the departure. Quickly, the team ran through the list one by one and made their way back to base safely. By enacting the principle, prioritize and execute, Leif was able to stare down an extremely high-pressure situation and make it more manageable for his team.

While this situation may not be likely for most of us in our lives, prioritizing and executing can be a solution to many stressful occasions. With midterms coming up for most of the school, this can be especially helpful. If you have three tests and homework assignments in the same week, determine everything you must get done each day, then determine the importance of each task and then execute. Having this step-by-step mindset allows you to take a large problem and make it seem much smaller through clear, effective prioritization.

Jocko, the co-author with Leif, even related this principle to the business world to make it more applicable for the average reader. When working as a leadership consultant, he helped a CEO determine how to turn around his company’s performance. During the discussion, the CEO rattled off countless initiatives with solid rationale. However, there was one problem: there were too many initiatives. The frontline workers would not understand what to focus on to better contribute to the company’s success. Jocko suggested the CEO start with priority one, execute, then move to the next one. So the CEO placed all of his focus on his salespeople. If their performance continued to lag, the company would be out of business. Their success was a necessity. Soon, the focus on one initiative propelled the company forward and put them in a better position to prosper.

As is evident from these stories, the principle of prioritize and execute settles down an overwhelmed mind. In addition, adhering to it during the small-scale weekly issues we all tend to face will make you better prepared for the larger problems life will inevitably present you. Whether we like it or not, bad days will come, and having a grounded approach will make it much easier to handle them. When problems are getting thrown at you left and right, the best solution is to take a step back, think and determine the best course of action step by step. Being able to handle problems, small or large, with a calm demeanor and clear, intended actions is vital to all aspects of life, and I believe that this principle can set the foundation for handling the challenges life throws at you. So the next time you feel overwhelmed by your many responsibilities, I urge you to practice the principle of prioritize and execute.

Mikey Colgan is a sophomore from Boston majoring in finance and ACMS. He can be reached

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.


Apply extreme ownership

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

The views expressed in this column are those of the author, not necessarily those of The Observer.