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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 @mcolgan2@nd.edu.

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